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Why is Delhi building a new Berlin Wall to keep out its Bangladeshi neighbors?
Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old’s father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani’s wedding, arranged for a week later in her family’s ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.
There was no question of crossing legally — visas and passports from New Delhi could take years — and besides, the Bangladeshi village where Islam grew up was less than a mile away from the bus stand on the Indian side. Still, they knew it was dangerous. The Indians who watched the fence had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Islam had paid $65 to a broker who said he could bribe the Indian border guard, but he had no way of knowing whether the money actually made it into the right hands.
Father and daughter waited for the moment when the guards’ backs were turned and they could prop a ladder against the fence and clamber over. The broker held them back for hours, insisting it wasn’t safe yet. But eventually the first rays of dawn began to cut through the thick morning fog. They had no choice but to make a break for it.
Islam went first, clearing the barrier in seconds. Felani wasn’t so lucky. The hem of her salwar kameez caught on the barbed wire. She panicked, and screamed. An Indian soldier came running and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The father fled, leaving his daughter’s corpse tangled in the barbed wire. It hung there for another five hours before the border guards were able to negotiate a way to take her down; the Indians transferred the body across the border the next day. “When we got her body back the soldiers had even stolen her bridal jewelry,” Islam told us, speaking in a distant voice a week after the January incident.
Other border fortifications around the world may get all the headlines, but over the past decade the 1,790-mile fence barricading the near entirety of the frontier between India and Bangladesh has become one of the world’s bloodiest. Since 2000, Indian troops have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people like Felani there.
In India, the 25-year-old border fence — finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion — is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture — and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.
India did not always view its eastern neighbor in such hostile terms. When Bengali-speaking nationalists in what was then East Pakistan won Bangladesh’s independence in a bloody 1971 civil war, they did it armed with Indian weapons. But the war destroyed Bangladesh’s already anemic infrastructure and left more than a million dead, presaging the new country’s famously unlucky future. Bangladesh is now home to 160 million people crammed into an area smaller than Iowa; 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and the country bottoms out the list on most major international health indicators.
As bad as things are, they can get plenty worse. Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh’s rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country’s fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a “threat multiplier,” sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it’s no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?
India has a long history of accepting refugees, from the Tibetan government in exile to Sri Lankans fleeing a drawn-out civil war. Faced with the threat of mass migration from the east, however, New Delhi has drawn a line in the sand. Rather than prepare expensive and possibly permanent resettlement zones, India began erecting a fence, complete with well-armed guards, in 1986. After the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won national elections in 1998, the program was ramped up to placate anti-Muslim sentiment among the party faithful. The fence grew longer and the killings more frequent. After years of complaints from Bangladeshi politicians, India made promises on several occasions to switch to nonlethal weaponry, but has rarely followed through on them.
By next year, every available crossing point between India and Bangladesh will have been blocked off by the fence. But while tightened security has made the border more dangerous, it hasn’t actually made it much more secure. More than 100 border villages operate as illicit transit points through which thousands of migrants pass daily. Each of these villages has a “lineman” — what would be called a coyote on the U.S.-Mexican border — who facilitates the smuggling, paying border guards from both notoriously corrupt countries to look the other way when people pass through.
“Entire villages can cross the border with the right payoffs,” says Kirity Roy, head of the Indian human rights organization Masum, which together with Bangladeshi organization Odhikar and Human Rights Watch released a bleak report on the border situation in December. No one is likely to manage the crossing without a lineman’s help, Roy explains. “If someone tries to sneak past the linemen without paying, they will find them out and tell the border guards to shoot them.” An inefficient bribe system, he says, explains how border guards could kill 1,000 unarmed people in the last decade.
The ugly immigration politics on the western side of the fence, where popular sentiment runs decisively in favor of walling off Bangladesh, have made a bad situation worse. The New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses estimates that there are already 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. (By comparison, there are an estimated 11.2 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.)
The rise of global Islamist militancy in recent years has worsened the xenophobic streak in India’s already dicey relations with its Muslim neighbors, and Indian politicians have been quick to capitalize on it. By 2009, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was declaring that Bangladeshis have “no business to come to India.” The opposition BJP isn’t rolling out the welcome mat either: Tathagata Roy, the party’s leader in the Bangladesh-bordering state of West Bengal, has called for lining the border with antipersonnel mines. If the predictions come true for immigration from Bangladesh, Roy says, India’s population of 900 million Hindus will have no choice but “to convert or jump into the sea.”
The border itself has hardened into a grim killing field. Although border shootings are officially recorded by Indian officials as “shot in self-defense,” the Masum and Human Rights Watch report found that none of the victims was armed with anything more dangerous than a sickle, and it accused the Indian Border Security Force of “indiscriminate killing and torture.”
Most of the dead are farmers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In January, Bangladeshi soldiers told us, six Indian soldiers lured a Bangladeshi farmer named Shahjahan Ali into a swath of no man’s land along the border. They stripped him naked, beat him, broke his legs, and mutilated his genitals before throwing him back into Bangladesh, where he bled to death from his injuries. “It’s like they are drunk,” says the Bangladeshi soldier who found Ali. “Like they are on drugs.” Powerless to fire back without creating an international incident with their vastly stronger neighbor, the Bangladeshi border guards can do little more than pick up the bodies.
Felani’s death, however, galvanized Bangladesh. Graphic photos of her dead body made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and political parties posted her picture with the caption “Stop Border Killing!” on seemingly every available wall in the capital city of Dhaka. Shamsher Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary and current vice chairman of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, says, “The fence is our Berlin Wall.” The shooting seemed to have given India pause as well. In March, New Delhi once again agreed to strip its border guards of live ammunition, and for once actually did it. For the first month in almost a decade, Indian troops didn’t kill anyone on the border.
But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable.
Correction: The version of this story that appeared in the July/August 2011 print edition of Foreign Policy neglected to credit the Bangladeshi organization Odhikar as a co-author, along with the Indian organization Masum and Human Rights Watch, of a December 2010 report on the India-Bangladesh border cited in the story. The online version has been corrected.