Violence along the Indo-Bangladesh Border

Ranabir Samaddar

It has been rightly said that the twentieth century will be remembered as a century of partitions. Partitioned borders that is to say borders produced out of partitions of countries (like Korea, erstwhile divided Germany, India) are violent borders. Military presence marks the borderlands. Partition leads to forced migration - refugee flows and flows of other types like immigrants from stranded minority communities in homelands. Partition also makes the question of return crucial. Do partition refugees have right to return? If they have the right to return, then what is the period within which they will enjoy the right of return to the countries they came from? Also, will there be certain conditions, in as much as we know that there may be forced return. This is the prism in which we can learn the histories of violence, bloodshed, and massive displacement in the erstwhile united Ottoman Empire, Germany, Palestine, Korea, Ireland, and India. These are some of the major events to shape the story of forced migration in the last century.<--break- />

The present state system in South Asia, in particular the state system of the sub-continent, is a result largely of the partitions in the eastern and western parts of the erstwhile united India, giving birth to three states - India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The borders dividing these countries are markers of past bitter history, current separate, distinct, and independent existence, and the sign of the territorial integrity of these states. The bitterness of the past, the lack of mutual confidence at present, the security concerns of all these states, at the same time the existence of thousand and one linkages of the pre-partitioned time make the South Asian borders unique. They are the lines of hatred, disunity, informal connections and voluminous informal trade, securitised and militarized lines, heavy para-military presence, communal discord, humanitarian crisis, human rights abuses, and enormous suspicion, yet informal cooperation.

While the Indo-Pakistan border (including the Line of Control) is in the eye of world attention, therefore closely monitored, the border in the East - Indo-Bangladesh border - remains neglected in terms of attention. Security concerns overwhelm all other equally legitimate concerns and values. Military security dominates over human security in the border region. As a result of this, States often forget that borders are not only lines to be guarded, they are also lines of humanitarian management, because borders are not lines but borderlands - that is to say these are areas where people live, pursue economic activities, and lead civilian lives attuned to the realities of the borders. Human security in the borderlands would mean first security of the civilian population along the borderlines.

Some of the aspects of the situation of forced migration along the Indo-Bangladesh border are:

(a) Many immigrants are prima facie accused of illegal entry and do not get due recourse to law;

(b) The border security forces on both sides engage in forcible push-backs - extreme harsh methods of deportation resulting in loss of limbs, lives, money, and dignity;

(c) The daily economic activities of segments of population like fishermen fishing in river-borders are hampered greatly resulting in sustained distress;

(d) Long and undue detention at jails and sub-jails;

(e) Rampant sexual abuses, and killings in no man's land by border guards;

(f) Undue harassment of immigrants on the suspicion of being terrorists;

(g) Extortion of money of the ordinary people allegedly working as part of smuggling;

(h) Distress of inhabitants of border enclaves;

(i) Boundaries running through villages and consequent harassment of villagers;

(j) Fencing and electrifying the fence with high voltage;

(k) Forcibly stranded people on the no-man's land as security forces on both sides refuse to accept them;

(l) Communalisation of border villages and subsequent killings of apprehended immigrants;

(m) Shifting river-borders

(n) Different types of boundaries in different sectors (river, village, train line, no natural demarcation, hills, etc.

(o) Existence of stateless population

(p) Widespread trafficking in labour, sex, animals, and goods

Four main themes pertaining to human rights and humanitarian protection of the victims of border violence emerge out of these issues: (a) border violence and civilian life around the Indo-Bangladesh border; (b) the vulnerability and insecurity of life of the people in Indo-Bangladesh Enclaves, and (c) rights of the so-called illegal immigrants, particularly women in prisons, and the related issues of dignity, rights, and humanitarian protection; and finally (d) the ways in which floods, disasters, and increasing salinity of land and water contribute to forced migration across the border.

In order to appreciate the enormity of the abuses of the rights of the migrants, we have to trace the historical perspective of the current situation marked by the realities of push back, trafficking, groups of population in protracted displacement situation, and violence of the border forces. The situation that the world faces in the form of repeated boat disasters in the Mediterranean is the same that we face along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Ranabir Samaddar has worked on issues of forced migration, the theory and practices of dialogue, nationalism and post­colonial statehood in South Asia. This work has culminated in the much­acclaimed "The Politics of Dialogue", as well as his recent "The Materi­ality of Politics" (2007), and "The Emergence of the Political Subject" (2009) challenging prevailing accounts of the origins of states and signaling a new turn in critical postcolonial thinking. He is currently the Director  of the Calcutta Research Group.