Bangladeshis at border caught in the crossfire

In Part 1 of the 3-part series on life along the Indo-Bangladesh border, Khaleej Times gave you an insight into how the common man survives in both countries. In Part 2 of the series, SANDHYA RAVISHANKAR delves into why a once harmonious land is now seething with tension, thanks to polarising politics in India.

By Sandhya Ravishankar

Published: Wed 18 Mar 2015, 10:13 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 9:10 PM

North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal:

Maharani Biswas thinks aharani she is 70 years old, although not entirely certain about her age. She is now Indian and has been Indian for the past 15 years. Before that, Biswas was a Bangladeshi national, who fled from her homeland due to ethnic strife.

Biswas migrated to India 30 years ago with her family and sought refuge at Kalia village about 95km from Kolkata.

“Gangs of men would come into our Hindu colonies and take away girls at that time,” Biswas says, recalling a turbulent time in Bangladesh’s past following a bloody war for independence from Pakistan.

“When a couple of families started moving to India, all of us followed suit. Now we get by doing a little bit of farming on our small patch of land. One of my sons works as a carpenter in Maharashtra and another son makes violins in Kolkata. They send me some money and it is enough. India is our home now. There is no question of moving back to Bangladesh,” she says with a toothless grin.

While Biswas is a Hindu refugee, Fathima Biwi (name changed) is not. She is 40 years old and works as a construction labourer, hauling heavy bricks on her head in busy Kolkata.

Fathima crept across the Bangladesh border at night three years ago along with her family and has worked in various construction sites ever since. “We hardly had any food to eat in Bangladesh,” she says warily.

“When it is a question of the stomach, what can anyone do? Work is tough but at least my children eat three meals a day now,” she says. Fathima steers clear of the Indian police. If she is caught at any time, it will mean a seven year jail term for her under the Indian Foreigners Act of 1946. Her minor children will be sent away to homes and possibly to Bangladesh afterward. It is between the likes of Biswas and Fathima that politics in eastern India is brewing. Biswas is termed a refugee, while Fathima is termed an illegal immigrant. Political positions taken up by rival parties in eastern India are strident and opposing.

In May 2014, current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, roared to the gallery at a packed rally in Kolkata. “Two types of people have come from Bangladesh — the refugees who have been thrown out in the name of religion and the infiltrators,” he said. “Those who are Bangladeshi infiltrators will have to go back.”

His staunch rival, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) spat fire immediately after that. “If on Bengal’s soil he (Modi) says Bangladeshis will have to pack their bags and go, then the people of Bengal will throw him (Modi) out,” she shrieked.

As a high pitched electoral battle for the state of West Bengal looms in 2016, both the BJP and the TMC have hardened their stands.

“We need to build something along the lines of a Great Wall of China,” says Rahul Sinha, state president of the BJP in West Bengal. “The border has to be sealed fully. The state government must be pressurised to stop sheltering illegal immigrants,” he says.

While the TMC refused to respond to repeated requests from Khaleej Times, their strategy is clear. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is unwilling to buckle under pressure from the Centre and the ruling BJP. And experts say this conflicting politicking is only leading to polarization of the atmosphere in the eastern and north eastern states of India.

“The BJP and Mamata are creating a competing communal atmosphere,” insists Mohammed Salim, Member of Parliament and Spokesperson for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal. “This will only worsen things. Mamata’s opposite stand is helping the BJP and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) work on the ground. Stereotyping and profiling is taking place and this pits one community against the other,” he says. These tensions have culminated in the Dimapur lynching in March of a man accused of rape. He was falsely said to be an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, taken out of jail by an angry mob and lynched in Nagaland, an event that sent shockwaves around the country. Some feel that the danger of terror is real and present especially after the Burdwan blasts of 2014 in which Bangladeshi infiltrators hatched a plot against India on Indian soil. “There has to be greater sensitisation on this issue from a national security angle,” says Anirban Ganguly, Director of the Syama Prasad Mookherjee Research Foundation, a political think tank.

“Implications, ramifications have to be discussed. There has to be a greater understanding of the problem. We need informed debate and dissemination about various dimensions of this problem,” he says.

Conflicting votebank politics will hurt the poor Bangladeshi migrants the most. With the atmosphere getting increasingly charged, a once peaceful people have now begun to seethe against those they once believed were their own relatives.

“Aliens come and take our natural resources and our jobs and make us poor,” says 60-year-old Kasim Ali, at Dattapara village in Bengal. “Bangladeshis are working for half the rate of Indian labourers and our people are going hungry. This must be stopped,” he spits.

And that would mean Fathima Biwi and her family are hunted, hounded and punished for the crime of simply seeking food.

More news from WORLD