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Living on the edge: Excerpt from Borderlands by Pradeep Damodaran

Pradeep Damodaran travelled across India’s boundaries to understand life on the nation’s peripheries. This excerpt from Borderlands looks at cattle smuggling across the Indo-Bangladesh border

books Updated: Mar 03, 2017 22:41 IST
Hindustan Times
West Bengal,Bangladesh,BSF
Border Security Force soldiers at the Indo-Bangladesh border on 7th May 2014 (Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times)

… India and Bangladesh share a 4,096 kilometre-long border, the fifth longest land border in the world, out of which 2,217 kilometres lie in West Bengal. The border also passes through Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya, cutting across uninhabitable hilly terrain, passing through rivers and slicing villages into separate segments. Its only concrete manifestation is a giant fence constructed by the Indian government, wherever possible.

Searching for an Indian or Bangladeshi identity seemed a futile pursuit in a land where people think of themselves exclusively as Bengalis and do so with pride. For most of those living along this international border, the boundary line separating the two countries is merely a technical hindrance that they choose to ignore. However, it is a chronic headache for members of the security establishment in both countries, who describe these borderlands as havens for traffickers and smugglers and a base for countless other illegal and anti-national activities…

* * *

… The stretch of the Ichamati River that flows through West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district is among the few water bodies in the country to be recognized officially as an international boundary. At a certain location between the two banks of the river that flows over a flat plain lies the Zero Point separating India and Bangladesh. Although local fishermen, the BSF and even the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) claim to know the exact location of this line of demarcation, no one here is really sure.…

* * *

… I walked along a narrow, winding road that ran close to the river bank and reached Sodepur, which is situated less than a kilometre from the promenade. A few hundred families live in this border village and make a living by catching fish. Spotting a stranger walking towards their village late on a moonlit night, a crowd, mostly of women, immediately gathered around me. When I explained that I was a journalist and had come to spend the night in their village, they directed me to the house of an old fisherman, Puran Mundol…

‘So what is it that you want to know about our lives?’ Puran asked me bluntly, when I went to his hut.

‘I would like to witness whatever happens on the river at night,’ I told him. ‘I hear that so many things take place here after dark.’

‘This is an international border and many things happen along it. As long as we mind our own business and don’t invite any trouble from the BSF, there is no problem,’ he declared, taking out a beedi from behind his ear and lighting it…

Every fisherman here knew that hundreds, if not thousands, of cows from across the country were brought to these border villages to be smuggled to Bangladesh every day. The cows were herded across by smugglers who swam along with the animals until they reached the other shore safely. Besides cows, gold and other items were also being smuggled out. Villagers like Puran, who had been witnessing this for years, were sympathetic towards the BSF guards and claimed that their hands were tied.

‘Senior officers might be taking bribes and allowing the operation. What can these jawans do?’ asked his nephew Karthik Mundol…. ‘The cows come all the way from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashatra and other parts of India. If they can travel all the way to Taki and Sodepur without being detected, what is the point in blaming the poor BSF alone?’

By now, a crowd had gathered around me and the fishermen who had been hesitant to interact with me initially, were now chatting quite freely. According to them, while human trafficking and smuggling of gold and narcotics had been taking place along this border for years, cow smuggling had gained notoriety over the past decade or so.

‘Everyone here knows about it. Sometimes, when large-scale smuggling is planned for a particular evening, the guards send us a signal, warning us not to venture out. We wait till it is “all clear”, before resuming our fishing activities,’ volunteered an elderly woman, who even yelled out the name of the person she believed was controlling the riverside smuggling. ‘Every now and then, some cows and herders get shot or arrested, but not much is made of these incidents.’…

* * *

Pradeep Damodaran

Later that afternoon, we returned to Taki and struck a deal with Barun for a ride along the Ichamati at a much lower fare. The senior Das anchored the boat, while Debasish threw water out of the vessel with a plastic bucket. In less than ten minutes, we were cruising barely 10 feet from Bangladeshi territory, waving to their fishermen and to those camping along the bank on the other side of the river. A little distance away, I noticed a bunch of crows feeding on a floating carcass and asked Debasish to steer the boat closer. As we neared the spot, the stench of rotting flesh overwhelmed us.

‘It’s a dead cow,’ Debasis announced. ‘So many cows like this one die during the smuggling operation. The animals are flogged and forced to swim across the river. Some of them are unable to do so and die midstream. Their carcasses are left to rot in the river.’

I clicked some pictures of the floating carcass and we continued on our way.

As we moved away from the carcass and towards Bangladesh, Debasish remarked, ‘Didn’t I tell you that you should come back in the morning just to see the river expose everything that goes on at night? Now do you understand what I mean?’

Cooch Behar

Having had no success in tracking down the man whose house supposedly sat squarely on the international border between India and Bangladesh, I hired a local cab from Dinhata, situated about 28 kilometres from Cooch Behar town, and asked the driver Shafiq, a Dinhata resident, to take me to Dighaltari village near Nazirhat in the southeastern part of the district, where a road divides India from Bangladesh.

…Shortly afterwards, we crossed our first BSF check post… The next check post was about two kilometres further on, a makeshift hut with a thatched roof made of dry palm leaves that stood beside an uneven, gravel road. Inside the hut sat two BSF personnel wielding SLR guns. The senior officer, Sub-Inspector Pappu Singh, approached our car…

The police officer asked to see our identity cards and walked back to his hut for the mandatory inspection. Shafiq and I stepped out of the car and went to the check post to hand over our identity cards to him.

Pappu Singh, who hailed from Chandigarh, looked at my voter identity card and said, ‘Chennaiiiii… You have come a very long way indeed.’

I nodded and explained once again that I wanted to visit border villages and talk to the people living there.

Singh pointed at the paddy field to my left and said, ‘Look, that signboard is the border.’

Pradeep Damodaran on the Ichamati ( Pic courtesy the author )

I realized that we were in Dighaltari…

‘So what do you want to find out from these villagers?’ Pappu Singh enquired. ‘Do you want to find out how bad and ruthless the BSF officers are? Let me tell you that the only important activity in these villages is cow smuggling. And it is not as if just one or two people are involved in it; the entire village is hand in glove and each one makes a good income out of it. People always find it convenient to blame the BSF guards. What can we do? Can’t you see for yourself? It is an open border and only two of us are assigned to guard a one-kilometre stretch. ‘On rainy nights, it is pitch dark and foggy,’ Singh continued. ‘If I were to sweep the light from my torch this side and walk, a dozen cows would cross the border behind my back. And if we happen to catch anyone red-handed or seize the animals they are smuggling, a hundred villagers on the Bangladeshi side of the border and another hundred on the Indian side will come and hurl stones at us in protest, blaming the BSF for its alleged atrocities. Nobody ever bothers to find out how so many cows manage to arrive in these remote border villages every day. If the cows can travel all the way from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana to this place without being intercepted, would it be that difficult for them to cross this open border? But we have to take all the blame when they do.’

Singh watched me scribbling in my notepad and paused in his monologue. Then he urged me to go ahead and write down whatever he had shared with me. ‘If you write about this, my bosses will either yell at me or I will be transferred. But someone has to tell the truth.’

…As we walked back to the car, I turned again to look at the international border – a series of decaying granite posts splitting a waterlogged paddy field in two.

‘But this is not the last border village,’ Shafiq informed me. ‘There is another village called C.G. Jora or Chhoto Gorul Jora, about five kilometres from this place. It is the last Indian village at the point where the BSF has erected fencing along the border. Let’s go there.’

We resumed our bumpy ride along the gravelled road… All through the journey, Shafiq had been a useful source of information, narrating interesting anecdotes and providing me with other trivia that I would otherwise have missed out on. …I asked Shafiq about the rampant cow-smuggling activities that everyone who lived along the West Bengal–Bangladesh border was concerned about. Since my visit to Taki, I had been really curious about the reason behind so many cows being smuggled to Bangladesh from India. After all, with both countries having similar topography and vegetation, it was very likely that there would be cows on the other side of the border as well. If so, where was the need for such rampant smuggling of these bovines? I put the question that had been hovering in my mind to Shafiq.

‘It is the most profitable business in West Bengal,’ he replied. ‘A cow that costs ₹5,000 here could fetch up to five times that price once it crosses the border. And handlers could earn anywhere between two thousand and ₹5,000 for smuggling out a single cow. That is why this business is so rampant here. As the BSF officer said, every villager in these border areas has a role to play in cow smuggling and makes a lot of money.’

He added that while there were enough cows in Bangladesh to satiate the local need for beef, the cows that were smuggled out from India were primarily intended for the Middle East market.

‘The cows that are smuggled out from here are not slaughtered,’ Shafiq went on. ‘They are killed slowly in boiling water and their hide is peeled off. Then the meat is sliced and packaged as various products, such as beef sausages, ground beef and even steak slices, before being exported. Beef exports represent the biggest industry in Bangladesh. Healthy cows, bred under the right conditions, can fetch up to ₹100,000 each.’

Read more: Govt takes steps to stop cow smuggling to Bangladesh

A little research confirmed the driver’s feedback. According to a Reuters report, at least two million heads of cattle were smuggled into Bangladesh from India every year. Annually, this trade was worth at least US $600 million. The smuggled cows were auctioned by Bangladeshi traders to facilitate the sale of cattle to slaughter houses, beef-processing units, tanneries and bone-crushing factories, which contributed approximately 3 per cent to the country’s $190 billion economy. Most of the beef flesh and beef products were marked for export and sent to the Middle East; Singapore, Malaysia and other countries in the Far East.

‘All the beef consumed in the Arab countries and in South East Asia are processed from Indian cows,’ Shafiq volunteered, while driving past deserted check posts and green fields.

Driving on for another three or four kilometres, we halted near a petty shop, where four clean-shaven young men, neatly dressed in t-shirt and jeans, were standing together and chatting. Their bikes were parked at some distance from the shop.

Shafiq turned his head towards me and then pointed at those boys.

‘Do you see? The villagers here are not as poor as those are in other parts of West Bengal. This just confirms what the BSF officer said: Everyone here is involved in the smuggling racket and makes some profit out of it.’…

First Published: Mar 03, 2017 22:31 IST