Borders Without Borders
On the West Bengal border with Bangladesh the line is thin between the twilight and conflict zones
It’s the same old story in sublime Shonar Bangla’s serenity across the circles of barbed wire which separate two intimate geographical entities which used to be one once upon a time. They are still one, united in their diversity, in music, song, dance, cuisine, dress, and the heady festivals in a kaleidoscope of colours, with the hand-crafted fragrance of cotton saris floating across the pandals.
The shadows below the banana and coconut trees still give the same old comfort with their sheltered shade. The boat songs float on the moonshine waters making the river shine, as it ripples, like folk memories.
Across the barbed wires, the security forces man the border. In no man’s land and in the land inhabited by shared human civilisations. This reporter could not make a journey across the border into beautiful Bangladesh, but could almost touch it, beyond the river tributary, across the density of the green foliage, through the little forest of the magical fruits of nature, listening to the little fish ‘choto maach’ playing in the waters.
This is the pre-monsoon season when potol, the favourite vegetable of Bengalis, has flourished across the green landscape. They make ‘Potol Dalna’ with the eternal aloo, a curry which reminds of childhood nostalgia.
Earlier, they would make the nascent female flowers mate with the male flowers, waiting patiently for the green, striped vegetable to grow along with voluptuous red gardens of laal saag. In fertile Bengal, nature has expressed its magnanimity with a certain ease and lucidity, and no one is really complaining.
No one is complaining? Not really? Not true. This reporter finds out why.
In West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, the line is thin between a twilight zone and a conflict zone. Though there is no trace of any conflict between the two friendly nations. The atmospherics are deceptive.
The people, all Indian citizens, Muslims and Hindus, are often not sure why they are treated like outsiders. And the alienated jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF), mostly from the Hindi heartland, surviving far away from home and hearth, are often in a dilemma: to be, or not to be. It’s truly a deceptive relationship between the locals and the security forces, and the history of distrust goes back a long time.
“What is the point of having check posts and barbed wires in our fertile land? What is the point of blocking us from taking the nearest path to our agricultural fields and fishing ponds? What is the point of checking us, physically, day and night, as if we are enemies, even during our festivals, weddings and funerals?” The litany of complaints is endless and it has its roots in the lived logic of Indian citizens living on the borders of this beautiful land where they are eternally manned by the khaki presence of the security forces, the multiple-layered barbed wires, and one check post after another.
“It is as if we are living in an alien land, as if we are foreigners. Are we foreigners, though we do look like them, and why not, they are like us, we are made of the same skin, soil and soul, we inherit the same civilization and the same history,” says Taslima, as she dries raw rice on a huge pan placed on a wooden fire which she will later dry on the terrace.
In Bengal, this is a staple diet, sheddo rice, or boiled rice, but it is a painstaking task which Taslima is doing with her mother-in-law.
Taslima is a natural leader. This is because she has suffered in the hands of a certain overzealous BSF jawan manning the big gate which led to her agricultural field. She is also a leader because she fought back with all her might, in tears, walking a few miles to the office of the local officer and authorities, relentlessly pursuing her case, with the help of her community, both Hindus and Muslims.
So what was her crime? And why was it turned into a communal issue? What was the jawan’s objection?
She was carrying a big piece of beef for lunch as she went for her daily toil in the field. The jawan almost fainted, though it is legal and legitimate to consume beef in Bengal, as it is in Kerala and elsewhere in India.
So what happened? The jawan accused her of smuggling illegal stuff in her tiffin box, scattered her food around, and, when she protested, manhandled her despite her being a woman.
This is an angst shared by all the locals. Those manning the check posts would take a stick lying on the ground and scatter the food to check for smuggled goods. Food is a precious and private object of consumption, especially for those who are farmers, and this violation of privacy is resented by all. “Tell me, how can you eat your food if it is checked with a stick by someone every day,” asks Taslima.
Not only food, cycle tyres, the inside of the motorcycle seat, tempos and vehicles, lungis and clothes, etc, nothing is left outside the BSF scrutiny. They are checking for drugs mostly, most sought after across the border, especially the cough syrup, Phensydril, which gives a quick high. They are also searching for other goods, mostly silver, cosmetics, etc.
In the Basirhat-Barasat Bongaon stretch in 24 North Pargana of West Bengal, across the fences and green and fertile lands, with Icchamati river criss-crossing the terrain, the story of Taslima has become an epic. It is just that the jawan was apparently punished, the officer-in-charge was sympathetic, that such incidents against women have not been repeated anymore, and that the locals have now united with a collective resilience, assisted and guided by MASUM, the resolute human rights group in Kolkata, led by the veteran civil rights fighter, Kirity Roy.
“Taslima has become a role model for us and for the villagers. It is a lesson learnt by a section of the security forces. They should not interfere with their daily life and times, their work schedule, and, of course, the privacy of their food habits,” says Mohar Mandal, the highly respected local organiser for MASUM in the border villages.
This reporter met young Shamim, in the same area. He rides a bike and seems friendly with the BSF officer manning the check post in his border village. As a woman officer does patrolling in broad daylight, one can see villagers across the river grazing their cows, chatting in a circle under the shade of a tree. Villagers can indeed talk to each other across the river, and it is not always in sign language!
His father is a peasant and his mother a generous Muslim woman. While we eat sitting on the floor, a plateful of rice, fish fry and laal saag, Shamim tells the story of how, when he was much younger, he was badly beaten up by a jawan. But, why? “Because he wanted me to go get a bottle of country liquor for him, and I refused, because I was small and I was playing,” he said.
His case is still stuck in the legal labyrinth, like several others, including those who have spent their entire lifetime spending their savings in fighting the cases, especially those who have refused to compromise, despite the local police cajoling them to do so. Most Hindus and Muslims are of the opinion that when these are clear cases of injustice, the cops usually choose to side with the BSF, despite the loud rhetoric of Trinamool Congress leaders. The villagers are mostly left to their fate, while justice eludes.
In Goalda village near Bongaon, Aparna Basu, Apurba Biswas and others live in what is clearly a slum in the wilderness, surrounded by vast stretches of grass. Another no man’s land in the midst of a civilization left to its own fate.
They are fisher-folk who typically survive on fishing during monsoons. That is when sudden rain water and floods create multiple new water bodies, the floating waters are filled with breeding fish, especially small fish. That is when they collect the fish, eat them, and sell the surplus. The rest of the time they go partially hungry because there is no work, not even agricultural work, and there is no fish.
They say that most of them do not even have legitimate identity cards, neither Aadhar cards nor ration cards, though they are Indians. Almost all of them belong to the Scheduled Caste community but they have neither the papers, nor the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.
The West Bengal government has not moved one inch for their rehabilitation. This sad narrative began since the three-decade-old government run by the CPM was at the Writers’ Building, Kolkata.
Said Aparna Basu, “There is no work for women. There is no food for our kids. Our girls are not educated. Our boys don’t have work. Those who have passed class 12 are sitting at home. Many of them have become migrant workers. We are a ‘Matsayajivi’ community. We need work.”
“We have not got work under MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]” said Parbati. “If women get work, it will certainly help.”
A young man asks me to take a ride on his bike near his border village. He wants to show me something ‘exclusive’. The BSF officer from Kasgunj, UP, stops us. He asks for my identity, my address in Delhi, my occupation. We exchange notes.
“Kasgunj? You get wonderful sweets out there.”
He smiles, a wave of sweet nostalgia crossing his eyes. “Yes, that is true. You are right. Kasgunj makes lovely mithai!”
He lets us go with a smile. The youngster takes me to the back of a house. Across is a river full of green expanse, and beyond is a small forest. There is not a human in sight.
“There it is. You take hardly 10 steps in the wet mud. Enter the forest. And that is Bangladesh. And there is no BSF check post here to stop you going there. It takes merely five minutes. Will you like to go?”
I smile a sad smile, and take a picture. That should be enough for the day. I will rest happy by listening to the sublime national anthem of that sublime nation written by Rabindranath Tagore on radio.
Shonar Bangla, I will come another day!
AMIT SENGUPTA is an independent journalist. All photographs are taken by the writer.