Locked Out: The 65,000 Indians on the wrong side of the fence

A 2,500-mile barrier along the border with Bangladesh is intended to keep out smugglers and illegal immigrants. But thousands of innocent villagers will also be caught in a trap. Justin Huggler reports
Click to follow

Rabindra Sarkar is abandoning the home he has lived in for 30 years. He is giving up his farm, and all he owns, to flee with his wife and three small children to a makeshift shack he has built on a patch of wasteland a short distance away. He and his brothers are giving up their only livelihood on the farm. They have no other means of income, and no idea how they are going to provide for their families.

The reason is India's answer to Israel's West Bank "security fence". It snakes its way across the hills and through patches of jungle, a series of barbed wire fences packed with nasty jumbles of razor wire that will eventually stretch 2,500 miles around the entire border with Bangladesh. It will also leave 65,000 Indians like Mr Sarkar trapped in a no-man's land between the fence and the Bangladeshi border. India says it is building the fence to keep out illegal migrants and stop smuggling. But the fence does not run along the border itself, but 150 yards inside. The result for Indians like Mr Sarkar is a disaster.

His village, Sharmalungma, will be cut in half by the fence. Trapped on the wrong side, he and his family will be cut off from schools, hospitals, even doctors. They will also be cut off from the protection of Indian security guards and at the mercy of Bangladeshis who have already begun threatening them and saying they will seize their farmland once the fence is built.

Israel has been criticised around the world for cutting off Palestinians like this with its West Bank "security fence". India is doing the same thing to 65,000 of its own citizens, and the world does not even know about it.

Mr Sarkar's village is a tiny place in the remote state of Tripura, buried in the north-eastern corner of India. The thousands who will be trapped by the fence live in villages like this strung all around the border, forgotten places where the politicians from Delhi never come.

The fence is all about Fortress India. With its economy booming, India wants to stop the flood of economic migrants from neighbours like Bangladesh. But the border treaty between the two countries says no fence can be put up within 150 yards of the border - so India has decided to sacrifice villagers like Mr Sarkar.

You could almost think you were in the West Bank but for the lush tropical scenery, watered by the monsoon. Already the villages here are littered with the ruins of houses demolished to make way for the fence.

Sukhla Sarkar's home has been cut in half by the fence. The house where she and her husband lived with their one-year-old child lies in ruins, knocked down because it blocked the path of the fence. Now all they have left is the makeshift hut of bamboo and corrugated aluminium that her husband's parents had moved to, to make way for the young couple. Intended to be nothing but a bedroom for the parents, the tiny hut now has to house the kitchen and provide shelter for the entire family.

"We don't know what to do," says Ms Sarkar. "We don't have the money to build another proper house." The villagers are getting no compensation from the government for the loss of land.

No one wants to stay on the Bangladeshi side. Rabindra Sarkar - they are not related, all the villagers have the same surname here - says he was threatened the last time he went to his paddy fields near the border. "Bangladeshi villagers told me not to come to my field any more. They said if I did they would shoot me," he says. "They've stolen my rice. Once the fence is finished, we'll be on the Bangladeshi side. Since we're getting threats from the Bangladeshis, we don't feel secure."

A series of gates in the fence will let the villagers cross to the Indian side - but nobody is sure where the gates will be, and they will be locked at night.

After Indian press reports about the plight of the villagers, the government ordered construction of the fence to be suspended last week in areas where houses will be cut off by it while a solution was found. But when The Independent visited, after that order was given, construction was still continuing.

Many of the labourers building the fence are the villagers who will be cut off by it - it's the only work they can get at the moment. In a stretch that was being built, someone with a sense of irony had written in the wet foundations: "I love India."

It's not just villagers from Bangladesh the people here are scared of. There is a history of trouble between the Indian and Bangladeshi border guards here, and only three weeks ago the local assistant commander of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) was killed. India alleges he was dragged across the border by border guards from the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), tortured and then executed.

"If the fence is completed, we will be stuck on the Bangladeshi side," said Sunil Das, another villager whose house lies on the wrong side of the fence. "But we're Indian citizens. If we are Indian citizens on the Bangladeshi side, we will be the next victims. If the tensions between the BSF and the Bangladeshi guards continues, we will be the next targets."

The tension around the border is palpable. When we visited, Bangladeshi border guards in plain clothes appeared on their side of the border, closely watching our every move. Local villagers warned us not to venture into uninhabited areas where we might wander too close to the border, and run into the BDR.

Not everyone is leaving, though. The fence has been finished in Mr Das's village, Sanmura, but though he and his neighbours are scared, they are staying, for the time being. "Where will we go?" he asks. "What will we do? We don't have any future. We don't have any money." These people do not have any savings. They live from day to day off their farmland. Without it, they will starve. Mr Das and his neighbours say they are waiting to see if the government offers them compensation, or some land somewhere else. But they do not believe they can stay here long-term.

Most of those who will lose their homes in Tripura are refugees from what is now Bangladesh in the first place. The 59-year-old Mr Das's story is typical. As a child he fled with his parents during the Partition of India in 1948. Bangladesh was then East Pakistan, and Hindus like Mr Das's family were being attacked by Muslims who wanted a pure Muslim state. They fled across the border into Tripura, which was then a princely state, and were given Indian citizenship. But it wasn't the end of their problems.

Today the majority of Tripura's population is made up of Bengali refugees - but that has created a new tension with the local Tripurese, known as "tribals" in India, who resent the takeover of their state by Bengalis. Militant groups have sprung up demanding independence, and today it is dangerous to leave the area around the state capital, Agartala, without a three-vehicle military escort.

In 1980, Mr Das and his family were set upon by Tripurese in their new home. "My brother, Radhacharan, was killed. He was captured and hacked to death," he says. The family fled to the only empty land - up against the border. Now many of the villagers feel that, with the fence, India is forcing them back into the country they fled in the first place.

But the local spokesman for the Indian BSF, Y S Bisht, remained unsympathetic. "These people may be living on Indian soil, but they don't have any nationality," he said. "They migrated here. Everyone in Tripura is Bangladeshi except the tribals. They are in league with the smugglers to prevent the fence being built."

The villagers are not illegal immigrants - they were granted Indian citizenship decades ago. Even so, it is hard to overstate the paranoia about Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India. When the state government of distant Maharashtra closed down Bombay's dance bars last month, one of the more bizarre reasons cited by the government was that the dancers were Bangladeshi migrants who were "spying" and reporting home.

It may seem surprising in the West that India is concerned about illegal migration, but now that its economy is far outstripping those of its neighbours, thousands are flooding in from Bangladesh and Nepal in search of work - and to escape the political tensions in their own countries. With its own population already in excess of a billion, India wants to keep them out.

On top of that, there is a lucrative smuggling trade across the border that India wants to put a stop to. India also alleges several separatist militant groups fighting against the Indian state operate out of camps inside Bangladesh and infiltrate across the border. Bangladesh, of course, denies this. The strange case of Assistant Commandant Jiwan Kumar of the BSF tells you a lot about the mixture of smuggling and political tension that hangs over the border here. According to the Bangladeshis, Mr Kumar wandered across the border by mistake and Bangladeshi guards shot him dead in error. But India claims something altogether more sinister happened.

It started with the alleged kidnapping of a local villager, Ramdhan Pal. Mr Pal claims he was captured by men in plain clothes, whom he suspects were Bangladeshi border guards in disguise. India says Mr Kumar, the second-in-command of the Indian BSF guards here, was told about the incident and went to investigate. He approached the border but was suddenly set upon by Bangladeshi guards who dragged him over to the Bangladeshi side.

An Indian guard who was with Mr Kumar but survived has alleged they were tortured. When Mr Kumar's body was found, he had cuts all over his body. He was killed by a gunshot. Local reporters say there is more to this. Mr Kumar was known for refusing to take bribes from the smugglers. The word in Agartala is that he was set up and killed by guards in the pay of the smugglers. The BSF has accused Mr Pal of being in on the set-up, and accepting a bribe from the smugglers to be "kidnapped".

In this murky world, the villagers do not stand a chance. On the night of Mr Kumar's killing, Indian and Bangladeshi border guards exchanged gunfire across the border for several hours and some villagers had to evacuate to nearby schools to get away from the crossfire. But those who will be trapped on the wrong side of the fence say they fear they will be unable to escape if a similar incident occurs once the fence is finished.

Jatindra Sarkar is 72. He has lived on his farmland all his life - he is one of the few villagers who was not a refugee from Partition. He says his family has been here "since the Britishers' time". But now he too is thinking of packing up and leaving, as his farm is on the wrong side.

"I'm worried about the fence, but money is my main problem," he says. His sons have no income except the farm. "How can I build a house on the other side? If I go over there what will I do? Life is uncertain. I haven't made up my mind what to do yet."

But for Mr Sarkar, and 65,000 others, time is running out.