Operation Zero Line Investigates the gateway of terror in the East – the 4,095 km (2,979 km land border and 1,116 km riverine border) long India-Bangladesh border, half of which is along West Bengal. Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura are the other states which encircle Bangladesh. The India-Bangladesh border is porous. It runs through rivers, ponds, agricultural fields, villages and even houses where the entrance is in India and the backdoor in Bangladesh. It is perhaps the most complex land border anywhere in the world.
That is why for nearly three decades this long stretch of the border was the hub for illegal migration, human trafficking, smuggling of narcotics, guns and ammunition and essential supplies.
The ease with which smugglers can bring in arms and ammunition and terror infiltrators to cross over into India is, perhaps, not adequately understood in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
All of the above continues unabated. But a new dimension has been added to the existing security threats. And that is infiltration by terrorists. The Border Security Force has identified 46 places along this border that is prone to infiltration. Fencing of this long border has already begun at several points along the border. Some sections have already been completed. Millions of Bangladeshis have entered India through this porous border and acquired Indian citizenship. Official figures stand at 1.2 million. But the latest Census figures of 2001 show that the demography of the six border districts of West Bengal have dramatically changed because of illegal migration.
To show how porous the border is and how easy it is for terrorists to infiltrate, I travelled along the South Bengal frontier from South Dinajpur till the Sundarbans. I crossed from India into Bangladesh at the Indian border town of Hilli to its namesake in Bangladesh and came back in via the same route. Here we also caught on camera stunning visuals of smuggling and Bangladeshis waiting to cross over.
Further down in Malda at the dead of the night I experienced first hand how despite the 24 hours vigil by the Border Security Force (BSF), it is possible for terrorists to cross over. I visited border villages in Malda and Murshidabad sectors which are right on the Zero Line and found out how easy it is for Bangladeshi illegal migrants, smugglers and terrorists to enter Indian Territory.
On paper, a long zigzag border separates India and Bangladesh. On the ground, little does. If the frontier along Malda is ideal for infiltrators to step across the zero line, at the border town of Hilli, a wall meant to divide two countries is now a channel for smuggling. There are border villages hugging the zero line where all anyone has to do to enter India is just walk across. The porous Indo-Bangladesh border presents a clear and present danger to India’s national security.
Smugglers on the Wall
At the border town of Hilli in South Dinajpur crossing the border simply means stretching a leg from a sturdy branch of tree to a wall. This is how easy it is to cross the border. Everyday, from the first daylight till sun down, a frenetic smuggling run takes place on a patch of a wall on the India-Bangladesh border. Nobody knows who built this wall in West Bengal’s border town of Hilli. The local administration says it was built during the pre-partition days. After all, Hilli was once a town with a railway line running right through its middle.
Further that night along with the BSF I planned a series of simulation exercises to find out for myself how infiltration happens along the Indo-Bangladesh border. The reality on the ground is astounding.
In 1947 the areas west of the railway line became Indian Territory and the areas on the East retained the name of the town but became part of another country. But far from dividing two countries it’s a wall that unites smugglers, illegal infiltrators and in recent times terrorists.
On the Indian side of the wall the houses are just an arm’s length away. On the Bangladeshi side are the Hilli railway station and the railway line, which is the lifeline of smuggling and illegal activities and is used by the illegal infiltrators, terror agents and terrorists for their movement.
I walked from the main square of the Hilli square in the Indian part of the town down the road, turned left into a packed residential locality, walked down the twisting and turning alleyways and reached the border wall standing on the zero line. On one side of the wall separated by a narrow lane are houses on the Indian side overlooking the railway line and across the wall, in the Bangladeshi side, I saw hordes of boys waiting to carry away smuggled goods.
On the wall scores of teenage boys waited for their Indian counterparts to hand over sacks of rice, cooking oil, medicinal drugs, phensydyl cough syrup bottles and almost everything that has a demand in Bangladesh. Since the wall technically is on Bangladeshi territory it’s virtually impossible to stop smuggling activities because it is considered to be a legitimate means of livelihood for a large proportion of the population on both sides of the border.
At one point the border wall curves left towards Bangladesh along a narrow alley-way and just at the turn is a small, sunken border pillar, the only marker of sovereignty in this small patch of a fuzzy borderland. Along with an Indian local I nonchalantly turned the corner and within seconds, just two steps and I had walked into Bangladeshi territory. For a while nobody noticed me and then I started attracting attention because an outsider is easy to spot in the milieu. But suspicious gazes gave way to a sudden flurry of activity. My local companion informed me that this was a sign of a train about to pull into the Hilli Station on the Bangladeshi side of the wall.
Every train that stops at Hilli station carries away smuggled Indian goods and also brings potential infiltrators and illegal migrants. My presence initially inhibited the smugglers on the wall. But they continued to stand fearlessly on the wall waiting to receive packages and sacks from their Indian agents. Soon noticing the Bangladeshi boys frozen on the wall and watching my movements, a man walked out of a house from the Indian side. “This is a daily occurrence. It goes down at night.” I realized that he might be involved in smuggling activities and was indirectly suggesting that I should go away so that the boys on the wall could go back to business-as-usual.
Almost everyone in Hilli is involved in smuggling. Women couriers wrap small packages around their saris. Their destination: houses within touching distance of the border wall. These houses are crammed around narrow lanes and close to the border wall. For these Bangladeshi boys on the border wall, the last point between India and Bangladesh, it’s simply a hop, skip and jump into Bangladesh. They carry sacks of phensydyl, drugs, rice in broad daylight, in clear knowledge of everyone in this town. “I am going to take rice from here. I carry around 200 kg in installments, a sack-load of 50 kg in each trip. If the Bangladeshi Rifles catch us they just verbally abuse and let us go and the process goes on,” said a smuggler on the wall.
Every train that stops at Hilli station carries away smuggled Indian goods and also brings potential infiltrators and illegal migrants.
A video shot by an intelligence agency and in the author’s possession shows groups of Bangladeshi smugglers on one side of the railway track waiting to dodge the Bangladeshi Rifles border guard. But what’s more worrying in the video are images of Bangladeshi infiltrators waiting to cross over into India. And guess what’s even more worrying? These visuals show Bangladesh Rifles soldiers not making any attempt to stop smuggling or infiltration.
Smuggling is the main economic activity along the India-Bangladesh border. The ease with which smugglers can bring in arms and ammunition and terror infiltrators to cross over into India is, perhaps, not adequately understood in the corridors of power in New Delhi. On the Zero Line, right on the International Border, Bangladeshis and Indians live in close proximity; a situation that virtually makes the border and all security arrangements to make it inviolate absolutely meaningless. This is easily exploited by terror infiltrators and anti-national operatives and insurgents based in Bangladesh.
Hilli is only one of several vulnerable spots along the 4095-kilometre Indo-Bangladesh border. Through Israeli manufactured thermal imaging devices I witnessed Bangladeshi infiltrators trying to sneak into India in the dead of night. Staking out border locations in the Malda sector along with highly motivated BSF troops I was experienced first hand and understood the reasons why terrorists from Al-Qaeda backed outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayebba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkat-ul-Jehadi-Islam prefer to enter India from Bangladesh.
BSF should be called ” BANGLADESHI STRATEGIC FORCE ” They are more corrupt & venal than any police force of India..They are not only taking taking money to allow Bangladeshi infiltrators but compromising the security of India..Many Politicians of West Bengal,Tripura & other NE states along with the Civil services are deeply involved in the racket..One Temporary solution could be to Increase ex-servicemen entry into BSF, mix Army Jawans & Army officers with BSF,Give all posts of BSF intelligence to Mil.Intelligence & hand over the top officer cadre posts of BSF to Army & ex Army.. Also, Large consignments of Narcotics,Smuggled Chinese goods,Animal skins etc are being allowed entry by BSF into india from NE.
Well, I will raise a hornets nest by saying what I am saying. Smuggling of people on the BD border is an organised racket aided and abetted by the BSF. It was from the horses mouth when a BSF officer attached to my unit for training said over a couple of drinks that I am loosing 40000 a month by being there. The year was 1998. The rate is per head and its worked out by meetings with people across. If you remember there was a BSF officer killed by Bangladeshi civilians inside BD territory. It was an outrageous incident but why did the BSF and the Indian government hush it up. What was he doing across?? Negotiating the smuggling of humans. I know everyone is going to be baying for my blood and everyone is going to deny it; but it happens. My own source was caught and killed by the BSF in cold blood as they were scared he would spill the beans on them. He even told them to speak to me but he was just dragged aside and shot. Lot of the things I say cant be corroborated because there is no written record kept of issues that take place when we are fighting Insurgency. Taking reporters to the border is just an exercise in publicity but what actually happens ; we know. Smuggling of people is organised and financed by ISI aided by fundamentalist organisations in BD. It funded by Saudi money. The illegal is directed to a specific madrassa in Assam or one of the eastern states. He is then sustained by the madrassa till he finds an occupation. Bangladeshis work for a pittance to get a job undermining local labour. Just research rural Dimapur and you will get the answers. The army has been crying hoarse over the issue but the government turns a blind eye to the whole sordid mess. Just because of the muslim vote bank. There is a governors report on the demographic changes in a few districts of Assam and Kokrajhar is one of them. He was given a shut up call. He was an ex army guy.
You are absolutely right Colonel. That what you have said is the bitter truth; the harsh reality which this country would like to ignore. Bangladeshis work for a pittance as labourers almost through out the country. In Mumbai, I came across two labourers working in my building conversing in Bangla. On confronting them, they vamoosed. The Contractor defended his action stating that they worked for less than half the rate of Indian labourers. Unless stringent action is not taken, this demographic invasion will have serious repercussions for the country’s security.