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.
Terror Trail in the East
The India-Bangladesh border is now the hub for terrorist infiltrators. After almost every recent terror attack the Government claimed that the terrorists had infiltrated into India from Bangladesh – men like Safiqul, alias Dipak, a suspected Lashkar-e-Tayebba terrorist. Safiqul used to regularly enter and leave India from Bangladesh, until he was arrested by the crime branch of the West Bengal police in Harishchandrapur in Malda last month, from the house of an ex-army driver. According to Siddhinath Gupta, DIG, CID (Operations), “…he (Safiqul) has confessed before the police that he had brought two LeT militants from Bangladesh in to J&K. Apart from that he was given the task of opening a shop in front of Siliguri cantonment and inform the Bangladeshi handler about the movement of the Army.”
I decided to trace the trail of terror along the border, and find out just how easy it is for infiltrators to enter India. I visited the stretch along the border in Malda, which Safiqul allegedly used. At the border, I found an improvised border fence, not much of a deterrent for a determined infiltrator. Sometimes I would come across small border pillars, but at the dead of the night, these pillars have little meaning or significance for border dwellers on both sides. “The infiltrators are not using any other border region as much as they use the India-Bangladesh border. This is why the BSF is very concerned about this region and has tightened the security here,” said Nilkanta Tada, BSF soldier.
BSF soldiers like Rai Singh work nearly 14 hours a day. Longer, when they are on night patrol. But despite their vigil, day after day, night after night, people make their way across this porous border. Each soldier has to guard a stretch of around 500 meters to 1 kilometer, armed with a gun and a torch. After sun down infiltrators are always waiting to make their move. “Yes they do. They watch our movements and when we cross a point or turn our back they cross over. Sometimes they also cause diversions to distract us and take advantage of the ensuing chaos…” Singh’s voice fades away as he walks into the darkness along the small patch of India’s border in the Malda sector that he was tasked to guard on the day I met him.
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. Along the vast, dark, unfenced areas of the border visibility is less than 15 feet. On a cloudy night or foggy night the visibility drops to 5 feet. Consider a small nugget of information that you might have read earlier in this piece; a BSF soldier is detailed to guard a stretch of 500 meters, sometimes even 1 km stretch in some areas. In the simulation exercises where I played the role of an illegal migrant, I would be merely 15 feet away from a BSF naka point or check post, but they could not see me. But I knew, like all the human traffickers and the guides who direct illegal migrants and subversive operatives, where the BSF soldiers were positioned by monitoring their patrolling movements. So if I were an illegal migrant, or even a terrorist, I could have easily evaded the check post and made my way into India.
Night visibility along the eastern borders is a key issue. In the pitch darkness of the night it is easy for determined terrorists to sneak across to India.
The BSF’s vigil along the eastern border has been scaled up significantly. Recognizing the BSF’s operational handicaps, the government has started a modernization drive. Some units have been given these night vision devices, to enable them to see in the dark. However, even with the help of scarce night vision devices distributed across units guarding vulnerable stretches of the border, the operational difficulties in fog and darkness disables the objective of effective domination of the border.
Recently, the BSF Director General, Mahendra Kumawat, stated that on the eastern frontier fencing is 75 per cent complete with 2,859 km of the sanctioned 3, 783 km fenced. The BSF will set up 300 additional Border Observation Posts (BOPs) on the eastern frontier in the next five years. These would include floating BOPs to monitor and interdict movements on the riverine border that stretches to about 1,160 km. At present there are two F/BOPs deployed in the Ichamati River along the riverine border in the Sundarbans area of West Bengal. The BSF’s water wing is being modernized to take up the enormous challenges of coastal security in the Sundarbans.
Night visibility along the eastern borders is a key issue. In the pitch darkness of the night it is easy for determined terrorists to sneak across to India. The BSF’s vigil along the eastern border has been scaled up significantly. But even then the task of border management continues to be challenging. This border continues to remain an easy passageway for terror.
Off camera senior BSF officers admit that some corrupt soldiers do accept inducements from infiltrators. But along the eastern border, overworked and stretched thin, 45,000 troops of the BSF soldiers are still India’s unsung heroes. The three-layered fence to secure India’s eastern border hasn’t been able to deter illegal migrants and all variety of smugglers. I have video evidence of narcotics smuggling across the fence. Small consignments of narcotics are hidden in dense vegetation along the fence.
The India-Bangladesh border is now the hub for terrorist infiltrators. After almost every recent terror attack the Government claimed that the terrorists had infiltrated into India from Bangladesh – men like Safiqul, a suspected Lashkar-e-Tayebba terrorist.
A group of smugglers keep watch on border patrols and communicate with each other through mobile phones. Once an all clear signal is given, a smuggler rushes out of his hiding place, picks up a bundle and throws it over the three-layered fence, much like a expert basket ball player. Slam, dunk! The people who throw such consignments with practiced ease are called ‘throwers’ in the eastern borderland areas and, predictably, are much in demand. Soon across the fence on the Bangladeshi side, shadowy figures emerge; one of them scoots to the consignment, picks it up and vanishes into the undergrowth.
Narcotics are rampantly smuggled across the India-Bangladesh border. The three-layered fence is meant to accomplish the nettlesome task of preventing smugglers, migrants, traffickers and gun-runners from entering India from Bangladesh. As mentioned earlier, 2859 km of the 4095 km long border have been fenced with barbed wire and concrete by India, under an over Rs 600 crore rupee project. But as this author found out, migrants and infiltrators still make it across.
I met Kohinoor Asrafi, a suspected terrorist infiltrator, at the 57 Battalion HQ, BSF in the Malda sector. Interrogators from various agencies found out that he was fluent in Hindi and Bengali. He was caught by the BSF with a diary full of contacts in Pakistan, Delhi and Patna. The 2002 diary begins with the handwritten lines, ‘Ya Allah! Destroy these people’.
But Asrafi claimed innocence and said the diary was an old one and simply had personal details. I was allowed to interact with Asrafi. “A coolie demanded Rs 800 to get me across and Rs 400 for returning. I came here with the help of a dalal (human trafficker). He warned me if I tell anyone he will get me caught.”
Others like Safia cross over in search of a better life. Safia, who lives in Jessore district in Bangladesh, claims she entered India legally from the Petrapol border crossing, to get treatment for appendicitis.
“Q: How much did operation cost?
A: Rs 15,000/-?
Q: How much did you bring from Bangladesh?
A: Rs. 200/-
Q: How did you get so much money?
A: I begged at Hazir Ali Dargah in Kolkata.”
Once in Kolkata, Safia decided to stay back and do household work as a domestic help. “I earned Rs 4,500 because I needed the money to cross the border.” She was caught by the BSF while trying to illegally cross back into Bangladesh with her eight year old son. Safia says she was trying to fetch her daughter from Bangladesh, but was abandoned by a trafficker when they were spotted by the BSF.
“He ran away to Bangladesh. I could not. I fell down and could not get up.
Q: How many people from your village have crossed over?
A: None from my place …from other villages.
Q: Why do people cross over?
A: Bangladesh is a poor country. We cross over to earn money.”
Over 30 years the Left Front government has allowed Bangladeshi migrants to cross over into West Bengal to bloat their vote bank.
Large stretches of the infiltration-prone region continue to be unfenced, like the border areas of Barasat, just two hours away from Kolkata, where Indians and Bangladeshis live in close proximity. “I have my relatives there. My son has been settled in Bangladesh for a long time, he has also married there. We meet either when he comes here by road or when we go to Bangladesh with our passports and visas. Lots of people here have relatives in Bangladesh,” said Mosiur Rehman Sheikh. In some stretches along the north 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, the border appears to be better guarded.
Illegal migration along this stretch is an open secret. I met an illegal Bangladeshi migrant who has acquired all necessary documentation to prove his Indian citizenship. I video-recorded his interview along with pictures of his Indian voter identity card. This is what he had to say: “There are millions of Bangladeshi migrants who have settled down in India by procuring Indian citizenship documents, primarily ration cards and voter identity cards.
There are travel agents in the Bangladeshi border towns that employ human traffickers. They have contacts with political agents in West Bengal. It’s an elaborate network. So the moment a Bangladeshi migrant crosses over he or she knows where to go, whom to meet. They establish contact with representatives of the local politicians. The local politicians in turn have another set of people who interact with the bureaucracy and the police. So it’s a well oiled machinery that facilitates the entry of illegal migrants.
Once through the right channels an illegal migrant is introduced to the local politicians and government officers and he or she has paid the requisite speed money, everything gets done. Ration card, enrolment in the voters list, followed by voters identity card, driving license, all documents to prove Indian citizenship, genuine documents, are created. This entire process takes three to six months.”
Over 30 years the Left Front government has allowed Bangladeshi migrants to cross over into West Bengal to bloat their vote bank. I met many Bangladeshis who are now Indian by documentation and all of them revealed that they have made it into the voters list, and cast their ballots in elections. Here are some more quotable quotes of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. All these quotes are on record in video taped interviews.