April 4, 2014

Beyond borders

Indo-Bangladesh border management and illegal immigration needs a policy overhaul to protect Indian national interest without violating individual freedoms of people living close to the border.

The killings of Bangladeshis attempting to cross the  India-Bangladesh border have been a sore point in bilateral engagements for decades now. The issue reached its worst point with the case of a 15 year old, Felani Khatun who was shot down by Border Security Force (BSF) guards while climbing over the fence that separates the two nations. The body kept hanging for over five hours and was allegedly suspended from a bamboo pole before being handed over to the Bangladeshi authorities.  Meanwhile, images (fake and real) of the body went viral all around Bangladesh and strained relationships between the two governments. With this unfortunate and regrettable incident as the backdrop, let us reflect on the issues relating to the Indo-Bangladesh border management.


Though not immediately apparent, India’s longest terrestrial border amongst all of its neighbours is with Bangladesh. The border runs for 4096 km through a densely populated region making it vastly different from the other sensitive border in Kashmir. The border passes through farms, villages, rivulets and even homes in some places. Many people work on one side and live on the other or have relatives on the wrong side of the border. By 2014, 1930 km of the 4096 km boundary had been fenced with  barbed wire. This fence is aligned with the 150 yards no man’s land limit within the Indian border.

The border security is managed by the Border Security Force (BSF) which has been forced to walk the tight rope at every step. BSF and its counterpart Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) have previously co-operated in handing over illegal migrants to each other. In order to prevent illegal immigration related to smuggling, human trafficking and militancy the BSF has been forced to use lethal weapons. When BSF resorted to non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets, there were instances of  the trespassers injuring the BSF personnel severely. This makes BSF’s task of upholding national security without using weapons on ordinary trespassers an onerous one.

The larger issue that makes such confrontations unavoidable is that of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. With the two national governments failing to give shape to any immigration policy, the residents in the border areas are left to fend for themselves, employing trade ‘operators’ who try to get them over the border through illegal and dangerous means. India’s entry in the 1971 war was at least partially due to a wave of large scale immigration into India. Given the recurrent political volatility in Bangladesh, the immigration problem has worsened at various times since then. There is no mechanism currently that hints at the abatement of immigration. Moreover, rising sea levels and recurrent floods will only make the problem more severe in the future. Thus, it is prudent to make policy interventions now to resolve this issue.

Trespassing from Bangladesh has taken place due to four primary reasons. The first two are directly related to immigration issues. First, promise of better economic opportunities in India and second, fear of religious persecution in Bangladesh. Currently, Bangladesh maintains that there are ‘zero’ illegal immigrants in India whereas India pegs the number anywhere between 20 lakh and 2 crore. Like India, the US has also been struggling with immigration from Mexico. Essentially, whenever there is a border between two  countries where economic opportunities differ, immigration – legal or illegal will follow. In the Indo-Bangladesh case, the immigration is further complicated due to flight from repeated instances of religious persecution of minorities in Bangladesh. In recognition of this situation, the Indian government could align on a robust immigration policy for Bangladeshis. As a start, resident permits can be offered to victims of religious and ethnic persecution and then extended to cover those seeking better economic opportunities as well. The numbers can be decided based on the Indian interests and can be varied depending on the terms of engagement with Bangladesh. A formal policy on immigration will also help in analytically proving the number of immigrants coming from Bangladesh.

The third reason that benefits from trespassing is the operation of nefarious rackets like smuggling, terrorism and human trafficking. With an immigration policy in place to address Bangladesh’s interests, India can push harder on stopping this illegal movement. The fence being built on the border has already reduced the number of killings. Like the fence at the Line of Control (LoC), technological interventions like electrified wires, thermal imaging devices and alarms will control the fourth reason for trespassing. These interventions will increase the material and non-material costs  of crossing the border. Though the Bangladesh government is hostile to the idea of a fence that will cover them on three sides and understandably so, other levers in the bilateral engagement will help in getting both sides on board.

The fourth reason – short-term-short-distance migration on account of workplaces and families being split by the border is by far the toughest problem to solve. A consensus on both sides to resolve long-pending issues like border rationalisation and exchanging enclaves will be the ideal solution. Before that, introducing trans-border cards or daily visas for short-term-short-distance movement of individuals across the border can be implemented. The current arrangement of exchanging overstaying migrants needs to be encouraged and incentivised so that both the BSF and BDR have a stake in returning individuals without using lethal weapons. In the past there have been cases where the BDR has refused to accept individuals claiming that they were not Bangladeshi citizens. Under the international law, repatriation is not allowed unless the country of origin agrees to it. Identification through documentation like daily visas at the micro-level and realignment of the foreign policy with Bangladesh at the macro-level could help avoid such cases.

Indo-Bangladesh border management and the larger issue of illegal immigration needs a policy overhaul to protect Indian national interest without violating individual freedoms of people living close to the border.

Photo: Magnus Hasnes

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