Fifteen days before Jahanara gave birth to her daughter in 2005, her mud house in Navadweepchandranagar, a village near the India-Bangladesh international border in West Tripura district, was shattered by the Border Security Force (BSF). The BSF told her that barbed wire fencing had to be erected there to check cross-border infiltration and smuggling.
“One morning labourers came in trucks escorted by olive green-clad gun-toting BSF personnel. We were surprised because we were not given any notice that our house would be demolished. They were not ready to listen to us. We were driven out of our house. I was carrying my baby,” said 30-year old Jahanara Begum.
“The house – a thatched roof on mud walls -- which gave me shelter since my marriage 12 years ago, was built by my husband himself. The house was demolished so fast that we did not even have time to shift our belongings. I had no shelter. I was standing before the ruins of my house with a swollen belly, which prompted them (security personnel) to laugh. My husband built a make-shift house quickly -- it’s no better than a cow shed -- where I gave birth to the baby 15 days later,” she told a group of visiting journalists.
Jahanara alleged that her husband Yasin Mia, a farm hand, did not get any compensation for the damage to their house.
Jahanara’s house, like that of scores of others, stood in the way of a barbed wire fence that the Indian government began building in 2003 in North Tripura district and in 2005 in West Tripura district. The fencing came up 150 metres away from the open international border.
While security is undoubtedly a concern so should be the lives of ordinary folk like 70-year-old Salimuddi Seikh, who now spends sleepless nights as his house was demolished in one day. “My four sons, all of them daily labourers, lived with me, but now two of them are living in other places and we are living in one temporary house. The house was built by our own hands. All these things were waiting for me to see before death,” said Salimuddi sadly.
The concrete base of the barbed wire fencing runs through the 300-year-old graveyard of the village, which is something the people find really painful.
The fencing had to be erected 150 yards from the international border, in accordance with the Indira-Mujib pact signed in 1971, which said no permanent construction can be made within a radius of 150 yards from the zero line. The ‘Border Guidelines’ signed in 1975 between the border guards of the two countries, the BSF and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), reiterated this.
The fencing was required, according to the Indian government, because the international border is too porous. It is a man-made border with no natural barrier like a range of hills or a river between the two countries. It was drawn by the Ratcliff Commission in 1947 without ever visiting the area and seeing the situation on the ground.
As a result, you get absurdities like the international border running right through the house of Abdul Matin at Joypur village, 1.5 km from the capital, Agartala. Matin’s drawing room and bedrooms are in India, while his kitchen is in Bangladesh. While Matin is a citizen of India, his sister who lives in a house 10 feet away, is a citizen of Bangladesh. Abdul’s 10-year-old daughter crosses the international border at least 20 times a day to see her aunt in Bangladesh.
There are thousands of similarly divided houses and farmlands in Tripura as its border with Bangladesh is 856 km long.
A farmer tilling his land in between Indo-Bangla border and barbed wire fencing. at Lankamura
BSF officials say this complicated situation made it difficult to guard the border and check smuggling and infiltration, hence the need for the properly guarded barbed wire fencing.
The fencing though has not only caused homes to be demolished, it has also created huge problems for people living in the 150-metre twilight zone between the fence and the international border.
The homestead and farm of Swapan Mia of Boxanagar in the state’s west district have fallen outside the fencing. As a result, he and his family are confined to this space from evening, when the gates in the fenced barrier are shut, to dawn when they are opened.
“The BSF personnel close the gates in the fencing in the evening and open it only in the morning. So we cannot go to the shops or markets or to consult a doctor at night,” Mia said.
Abdul Sattar, a local journalist, says that in many cases the fencing runs between the homestead and the agricultural land and farmers can enter into their own lands only after the gate opens and must return before dusk.
“There was an instance where a villager could not even go to hospital following a cardiac attack. They had to go to Comilla in Bangladesh for a doctor, where the patient died,” Sattar said.
BSF sources said that such stray incidents might have occurred but usually BSF personnel remain on duty near the gate and they open it in case of need.
Five temples, four mosques, two schools, 13 government institutions, 44 irrigation projects and many markets near the border are now outside the fencing.
According to official records, there are about 8,800 families throughout the state who live outside the fencing and so far they have not been helped with any rehabilitation measures.
A house in Lankamura village in West Tripura district is sliced by barbed wire fencing
The state government says it cannot resettle these people because it doesn’t have the money. Finance Minister Badal Chowdhury told reporters recently that the state government had sent a proposal to the centre for Rs 9 crore in aid for the rehabilitation a long time ago, but has got no response.
Chief Minister Manik Sarkar recently informed the Tripura Assembly that the state government has spent Rs 10 crore in rehabilitation and compensation for 3,900 families. But while some people have got some monetary compensation, which they deem insufficient, they have not got any land.
At a recent public hearing held by the Tripura Human Rights Organisation (THRO), Bhopal Ghosh, a correspondent of Dainik Arohan, a vernacular daily, highlighted another aspect of what it is like to live on the border.
“People living in three border villages in Khowai subdivision – Chamu Basti, Asharambari and Banbazar – have hoisted the Bangladesh flag for the last two years because they live on the other side of the fence and are dependent on the neighbouring country for marketing and treatment at the Habiganj district hospital. These people are from the tea tribe community and the area they are living in is infested with insurgents who use the soil of Bangladesh to launch attacks against India. The BSF harasses the people of these villages, suspecting that they are insurgents or collaborators. So they do not cross the barbed wire fencing,” he told the hearing.
Nearly 700 km of Tripura’s 856 km border with Bangladesh has been fenced and work is now in progress in the remaining portion. Those who are on the right side of the fence naturally welcome it. Sudhir Das, a farmer in Singerbil, a border village in West Tripura district, no longer has to sleep during the daytime and stay awake at night to guard against dacoits and rustlers from Bangladesh. The barbed wire fence keeps these elements out.
“There were Village Defence Groups (VDG) in all the villages in this area, formed with the help of the police,” said Sunil Das, a youth of this village.
A senior BSF official said that border crimes such as smuggling, infiltration, dacoity and cattle-lifting, and movement of Indian insurgents and members of Bangladeshi fundamentalist outfits have reduced considerably since the fence went up.
Purushottam Roy Burman, secretary of the THRO, has raised some pertinent questions: Why should the people living near the international border suffer when the fencing was made in the national interest? Why are they not adequately compensated? Why is their movement restricted?
The Director General of BSF, Raman Srivastava, who visited the border in Tripura on November 23 and 24, 2009 told reporters that the BSF was considering issuing special identity cards for the people who have their homes or agricultural lands on the other side of the fencing.
Fenced off and forgotten
The barbed wire border may be necessary, but to have erected it without giving a thought to the people whose lives it has made difficult is appalling. On September 24, 2009, the Tripura Human Rights Organisation (THRO) held a mass hearing of affected people in the state capital, Agartala.
Here’s what some of them had to say about the manner in which the fence has divided their lives:
Sixty-year-old Sachitra Debbarma from South Sonarai village of Dhalai district: “My mother died on February 22 this year. We used to burn our family members in our own ancestral burning ghat on our own land which now falls on the other side of the fencing. The BSF did not allow us to perform the last rites of my mother on the plea that it would hamper the patrolling of the jawans.
“It has now become mandatory to show our identity cards and list all belongings including number of ploughs, cattle etc. The gate is supposed to open at 6 am but often it opens at 8 am. We are compelled to vacate our lands before the sun sets. When the time of harvesting comes we cannot work in a fixed time frame because animals like wild boars or birds or monkeys damage our crops and we are needed to guard the crops. A fear psychosis has gripped the women in the hilly hamlets as they cannot move easily in the presence of uniformed jawans.”
Manir Hussain of Mia Para (Kamalasagar area) of West Tripura district, a mason, said the fencing has come in the way of his earning a livelihood. “Even if the gate opens before I go to my place of work, I cannot return before it closes. So, now I do not get jobs.”
Mazibal Haque of the same village has been living with his family on khas land for 45 years, so he and his family members do not have the mandatory identity card because cards are only issued to those who own land. “I live near the border, but cannot enter homes and farmlands on the other side for work. My livelihood is at stake,” he said.
Mithun Debnath, a resident of Gopalnagar, a border village of Sadar sub-division: “If cattle from Bangladesh damage my crops or the crop is harvested by Bangladeshis, the BSF does not intervene on the ruse that they have no order from their higher-ups to enter the place.”