M. Serajul Islam
By the end of this year, India will complete fencing the 4053km border with Bangladesh that it started 25 years ago. India started building the fence to stop Bangladeshis in large numbers from illegally migrating to India. At various times, India has stated that 10 to 20 million Bangladeshis were illegally living in India, a claim that Bangladesh has dismissed consistently as exaggerated and ill motivated. During the tenure of the BJP, there was also the talk of a “push-in” or sending these alleged Bangladeshis across the border forcibly!
The present government in New Delhi however has not raised the issue of so-called illegal Bangladeshis. Nevertheless, it continued to complete the fence. The present government of Bangladesh on its part has not considered it necessary to question the Indian government about the fence. In fact, it has gone out of the way to please India while ignoring the fact that the Indians have just not been completing the fence; in places they have been strengthening it as well. At the lowest point, the fence is “four metres and floodlit, with menacing spools of razor at its base and top “.
The Indians have also turned the Bangladesh-India border as one that does not even indicate that the two countries have reasonably friendly bilateral relations. In fact, the hints are all to the contrary. Unknown to the rest of the world and amidst strange efforts of the present governments in New Delhi and Dhaka to push it under the carpet, the fence is openly referred by people living in the border on the Bangladesh side as “Berlin Wall of Asia.”
It is just not the name that is reprehensible for Bangladeshis. It is the treatment that people living there are subjected to by the Border Security Forces of India that guards the barbed wire fence that is more reprehensible. Leading newspapers of the world like the New York Times, London’s Economist etc. have highlighted the unfortunate plights of the Bangladeshis, although such reports have so far not attracted serious attention of the international community that it deserves.
In a recent article in The Age, a leading Australian newspaper, its reporter has filed a report based on his visit to the Bangladesh-India border. He interviewed the BSF and researched about the unfortunate plight and predicament of Bangladesh and Bangladeshis living on Bangladesh-India border. The report was headlined “Indian border force cross the lines” that pointed an accusing finger at India on a number of counts.
The reporter Ben Doherty focused on the nature of the fence and the way it is guarded. He felt such a fence could have made sense on India-Pakistan and India-China borders but not Bangladesh-India border. He highlighted the deaths of mainly Bangladeshis at the hands of the BSF to underscore massive human rights violations. He interviewed human rights organisations in both India and Bangladesh to come to this conclusion. Indian human rights organisation Mausam’s General Secretary told him that BSF was killing Bangladeshis and Indians with impunity “because they are never charged with any punishment.”
The Indians have now introduced a new element to rationalise the fence. They feel that with the adverse impact of climate change in Bangladesh, alleged mass migration of Bangladeshis to India would increase in the future. In making their assertions on the fence, the Indians have never addressed the issue as a responsible power. Indian governments have simply quoted an unbelievable number off the cuff without ever being able to give Bangladesh even a partial list of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants it claims to be in India.
In claiming such an unbelievable number, the Indians have included all Bengali speaking people found outside Paschimbangla as Bangladeshis, forgetting that there are 130 million people of Paschimbangla who also speak Bangla. The way the issue was projected when it blew into a major conflict during the BJP tenure underpinned an anti-Bangladesh and anti-Muslim bias in the Indian claim. If indeed there were a number of illegal Bangladeshis closer to what the Indians claims, then it would have been reflected in reports of independent international bodies and organisations that study and report on migration.
International reporters like Doherty and others who have written have all been critical of India for first, building physical barriers between nations that have been condemned into the garbage of history, and second, for the untenable reasons that India has put forward to build the “Berlin Wall of Asia.” They have all also unequivocally condemned the BSF for its wanton violation of human rights and the Indian government for failing to restrain its trigger happy BSF.
It is an irony that India is caging Bangladesh when the AL led government is going out of its way to be friendly to India. In fact, the ruling party is now facing a serious political situation because of India’s failure to reciprocate after Bangladesh had unilaterally given India full cooperation on its security concerns and a trial run of land transit. The border fence and the atrocities of the BSF are going to be additional factors against the AL in the next general elections.
These factors apart, the fence adds to the negative image that Bangladesh has historically suffered ever since that insensitive statement of Henry Kissinger that an independent Bangladesh would become an “international basket case”. Bangladesh has come a long way since that remark. Today it shows all the positive signs of becoming a middle income country. Seven million Bangladeshis live abroad legally and collectively remit US$ 12 billion a year with a similar figure lost because of the Hundi operators or illegal money operators with network in India.
The opportunity of such a large number of Bangladeshis to serve abroad legally and the significant strides that Bangladesh has made in economic and social development raises serious doubt on the Indian claim of illegal mass migration. Indian Noble Laureate Amartya Sen said that on key social and economic indicators of growth, Bangladesh is ahead even of India in South Asia.
For Bangladesh, the fence when completed and publicised around the world would become a major hurdle in projecting the image it needs to attract foreign investment. Ironically it is India that has held out the promise to the present government in Bangladesh that if it gave it land transit, it would help make Bangladesh the regional hub of connectivity. A country that offers such promise for Bangladesh is building and strengthening the “Berlin Wall of Asia” because it believes that Bangladeshis would migrate in masses to India because of economic depravity and adverse impact of climate change! There is a serious contradiction in what India promises for Bangladesh with the connectivity hub and what it is doing with the fence.
It is a tragedy that those in charge of our relations with India do not see through this contradiction and muster the courage to question India on the fence when it has the potential to give Bangladesh an image that would be disastrous for the country’s future. As for more contradiction, the country that accepted 10 million refugees from Bangladesh in 1971 is now fencing the same country so that they would not be able to flee to avoid death and depravation due to the adverse effects of climate change!
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.