Borderlands – India’s Great Wall

ALL NATIONAL BORDERS ARE IMAGINARY. But some are more imaginary than others. And perhaps some nations are more imaginative too. Somewhere in the labyrinths of the New Delhi bureaucracy, tucked within the recesses of the Ministry of Home Affairs, is a bureau called the Department of Border Management. The DBM, sometimes with just the flourish of an ink pen, conjures the sinuous, unsteady line that separates the triangle of the subcontinent from the mass of Asia. India’s shortest border, according to the department, is its ninety-nine mile border with Afghanistan. This one is especially imaginary, since it’s been in Pakistani hands for the past seventy years. India’s longest border is the 2,545 mile line that encircles Bangladesh. This one is being drawn right now, with steel and electric light.

Travel along the border districts of the east and you will see it unfurling slowly through the simmering green farmlands of Bengal, turning the territory into a map at last. It is an improbable structure: a double fence, eight feet high, consisting of two parallel rows of black columns made of sturdy angle iron and topped with overhanging beams. The two rows of columns are draped in a tapestry of barbed wire, with spools of concertina wire sandwiched between them.
This imposing national installation is still a work in progress. It has been under construction since 1989; 1700 miles have now been erected, at a cost of approximately $600 million. There have been many delays and cost overruns, but when it is complete it will render precisely 2042 miles of the invisible border an impenetrable barrier, a gigantic machine for processing bodies—designed, in the words of the DBM, to prevent “illegal immigration and other anti-national activities from across the border.”

Whether this is an appropriate or proportionate response to India’s perceived problem with its smaller neighbor is less certain. The issue of Bangladeshi migration into India has become part of the background chatter of Indian political discourse in the quarter century since work began on the fence, though in times of political turmoil it has been amplified into obtrusive static. Both the partition of India in 1947 and the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan occasioned a massive influx of refugees into India. But migrants of these generations are now generally accepted as naturalized Indians. While the number of subsequent migrants is presumed to be significant, the figures most commonly cited are wildly divergent and unverifiable. In 2000 the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina famously asserted there were no illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India at all, while three years later India’s Intelligence Bureau pegged the figure at 16 million. The Indian press routinely cites more sensational figures, which expand impressively each year. The unlikely sum of 60 million was a popular estimate a couple of years ago.

Just last year, during his election campaign tour of Bengal, Narendra Modi promised to send all illegal migrants “back to Bangladesh”—although, he reassured his audience, those who worshipped the Hindu goddess Durga would be “welcomed as sons of Mother India.” Nobody knows, of course, what proportion of the unknown number of Bangladeshi migrants are Hindu. Like all the other numbers, it is likely to be impressive. But it seems doubtful that the extravagant net that India is casting around Bangladesh will be up to the task of sieving Muslims from Hindus.

Whatever its inadequacies, it is already the world’s longest border fence by any measure. The infamous West Bank Barrier in Israel, for example, will stretch for 454 miles when complete. The USA-Mexico Wall covers an estimated 578 miles so far. Even the murderous Zonengrenze, which once divided Germany from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia, spanned a mere 866 miles. The German wall is said to have claimed a thousand lives in its forty-year career. But according to a report by Human Rights Watch, the same number of people were killed by the Indian Border Security Force on the India-Bangladesh border in just one decade, between 2000 and 2010. The Bengal-based human rights organization MASUM, which contributed to that report, has documented hundreds of instances of the shooting, beating to death, and torture of Indian citizens by the country’s own armed forces along this border. Its website features a grisly gallery of photographs and even videos of victims, both Bangladeshis and Indians. Comparisons may be odious, but, inevitably, India’s long fence has acquired an ambiguous sobriquet, sometimes invoked with pride, more frequently with sarcasm: “the Great Wall of India.”

Journey along this border and you will occasionally see the proud steel fence falter. Sometimes it yields to a mighty shape-shifting river, sometimes to a sluggish creek. Or a stubborn hamlet of farmers and fishermen in mud huts who just don’t want to move from its path. Often it’s reduced to a ramshackle fence of bamboo or chicken wire. In the north it surrenders to an archipelago of land-locked political “islands,” an impossible territory, too complex to demarcate. And then it returns, all sturdy posts and glinting wire and blazing floodlights. But by then it seems less convincing. And in its place you begin to pick up threads of a more credible narrative.
You will meet activists who complain about the border guards’ brutality and farmers who complain that the guards don’t shoot at infiltrators anymore. Soldiers with bandaged eyes who complain that the villagers are hand in glove with criminals and villagers who tell you that the soldiers are in cahoots with smugglers. Small-town politicians will complain that the border floodlights are keeping the crops awake at night.
And you will realize, sooner or later, that they were all right. Theirs are all true stories, inscribed on a fiction, the one that no nation-state can live without: here is the border, a long line without width. That is Bangladesh. This is India.

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