For Tuhina Begum, the 4,096-km border that divides India and Bangladesh is a blurring line of insignificance. Her family sleeps in India, cooks food in Bangladesh and shares the same courtyard with their Indian relatives.
Infiltration along this border is a raging issue that dominates pre-poll rhetoric in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal. But politics is beyond Tuhina.
Her house at village Nagar is not the only one straddling the international boundary near border pillar 2062 and other posts. The hutments of Nasiruddin Ahmed, Harun Mia, Minarul Kayum and Billal Mia tell the same tale – courtyard in India, backyard in Bangladesh.
“The border has hardly made a difference to our lives from the pre-partition (1947) era. We are happy, as are our relatives and neighbours in (western Tripura’s) Boxanagar village,” the middle-aged mother of four children says.
Sati Akhtar, the elder of Tuhina’s two daughters, graduated from the Tripura government-run Ram Thakur College while younger daughter Bethi is a Class 10 student in the state-run Nagar High School. Her sons – Sagar and Mirajul – are in the same school.
“Why you are telling him (this journalist) about our family? Their writing will invite trouble for us,” Sati cautions her mother.
The mother-daughter duo needed a great deal of convincing to continue the conversation. But Tuhina’s voice betrayed the deep concern: “Our future would be very bleak if the government fences the border in our village.”
Neighbour Billal Mia and others were bathing in a pond on the other side of the border pillars. People of both Nagar (India) and adjoining Bangladeshi village Hyderabad use this pond owned by a Bangladeshi landlord.
“People of both countries share the water as well as the fish of this pond,” Billal Mia, a Tripura government-licensed contractor, says.
The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards Bangladesh patrol their sides of the border habitually. But the border is virtually nonexistent for some 300 families of Nagar and Hyderabad, and their cattle.
Two mosques, small shops, a saloon and other public facilities on the border cater to the people of the two villages in the two countries
“We have been sharing resources and helping each other in need for several generations. Marriages between the boys and girls on both sides of the border are very common here,” Billal Mia says.
Women of some Indian border villages collect drinking water from the other side regularly without any interference from border guards of the two neighbours.
“Quality of drinking water in our village is not good. For many years we collect water from Kasba village in Bangladesh,” Shamina Khatoon, carrying water from the other side in an aluminium pot, says.
“Governments have created this boundary, but it cannot separate us. They (people of Bangladesh) help us, we help them. What is the harm in it?” she adds.
The border with Bangladesh is India’s longest followed by that with China (3,488 km),Pakistan (3,323 km), Nepal (1,751 km), Myanmar (1,643 km), Bhutan (699 km) and Afghanistan (106 km). The British demarcated the border between India and erstwhile East Bengal (East Pakistan) based on the district maps.
However, some segments of the India-Bangladesh border in Tripura, totalling 6.5 km, remained un-demarcated since 1947 despite long-standing friendly relations.
India is erecting a barbed-wire fence and floodlighting system along the entire India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal (2,216 km), Tripura (856 km), Assam (263 km), Meghalaya (443 km) and Mizoram (318 km) to check trans-border movement of militants, prevent infiltration and check border crimes.
The riverine and unfenced stretches on mountainous terrain, through dense forests and other hindrances make the borders porous and vulnerable, enabling smugglers, illegal immigrants and intruders to sneak through.
An estimated 8,730 families in Tripura, whose homes and farmlands have fallen outside the barbed-wire fence, are leading a life of uncertainty because the government has been unable to rehabilitate them.
There are paddy fields, croplands, rubber gardens, ponds and other cultivable lands and assets that fall on the other side of the fencing erected 150 yards, as per international norms, from the zero line or boundary between India and Bangladesh.
Some 8,730 families comprising 51,000 people have so far been affected by the ongoing fencing project. The BSF, however, allows Indian villagers tend to their fields and gardens beyond the fence every day through specified gates and for notified periods.
“Due to the 150-yard stipulation, more than 19,359 acres of land in Tripura have fallen outside the fencing along 841 km of the state’s 856-km border with Bangladesh. The fencing has made our villagers’ assets vulnerable,” Tripura PWD and Finance Minister Badal Choudhury says.
Egged on by the Tripura government, New Delhi sought Dhaka’s approval in letting India erect the fencing on the zero line in certain stretches in order to save Indian properties and congested human habitations.
Choudhury said that the Tripura government proposed a Rs 93-crore project to the central government in 2004 to rehabilitate the 8,730 families that were affected. The latter is yet to work on it.
He said 13 government institutions, five temples, four mosques, 44 irrigation projects, two government schools and many markets at 200 sites along Tripura’s border with Bangladesh are within the 150-yard belt from the zero line of the border.
Bangladesh claimed India was erecting the fence within 150 yards of the border at these sites in violation of a bilateral agreement in 1975.
The India-Bangladesh border along the eastern Indian state of West Bengal and the northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram poses complex human, security and political problems. The floodlit border fencing became politically necessary to address public complaints of illegal infiltration by Bangladeshis into the northeastern states besides illegal trades, cattle-lifting, arms and drug smuggling. In the case of Tripura, migrants from across the border have reduced the ethic tribal peoples to a minority.
(Sujit Chakraborty is a senior journalist based in Agartala, Tripura and can be reached at email@example.com)