23 Jul 2009

India's great wall – the world's deadliest frontier

Fortress India is building a new fence along the Bangladeshi border and over a thousand miles have been completed so far.

The project, which began in 2000, is inspired by Israel’s wall in the West Bank, and since the killing of over 170 people by Islamist militants in Mumbai last November, construction is accelerating.

80,000 Indian soldiers of the Border Security Force, or BSF, are standing guard along the border with Muslim Bangladesh; and when it is finished, the fence will be as long as America’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Yet although the fencing isn’t due to be finished till next year, it can already claim to have created one of the most dangerous frontiers in the world, because you can be shot for crossing it or even going near it.

Many of those confronting death are like the Bangladeshi family Channel 4 News found walking towards the fence along with their seven-year-old daughter. They were searching for a route out of poverty to the booming powerhouse of India beyond.

They stopped at a railway line with the fence clearly visible, only 150 yards ahead of them. But the smuggler accompanying them warned that they were on the edge of a “no mans land” – Indian territory where anyone could be shot. So they waited for nightfall before risking the desperate scramble across.

Travel by motorbike into the remote Bangladeshi border villages and you find that it’s not just economic migrants risking death.

In the three villages our team visited, locals queued up with photographs of their relatives to show our camera just how many farmers and herdsmen had been shot. More than 60 dead so far this year and others scarred by bullets. Scores of villagers desperate to tell us they’d either been injured themselves or lost relatives to Indian border patrols.

Some of those shot are undoubtedly Bangladeshi cattle rustlers. Bangladeshis need to import Indian cows because they doesn’t have enough cattle or grazing land of their own. Much of Bangladesh is below sea level, after all, while the Hindus of neighbouring India, who don’t eat meat, have lots of spare cattle to sell.

Yet the fence and the guards along it are making it deadly for cattle rustlers to bring their livestock across.

It makes you wonder what will happen if climate change plunges more of Bangladesh below water; for if the country is encircled by Indian watchtowers and searchlights – and that is the plan – then mass economic migration by Bangladeshis may prove well nigh impossible. And that, of course, may be the point.

“If any goats or cattle go to the fence, if anyone goes near the fence, we can be shot,” one villager told us. “Without doing anything wrong we can still be shot.”

At a Bangladeshi morgue, Channel 4 News filmed stacks of death certificates of those killed by Indian soldiers. The doctors told us the bodies are always handed back to their families. But nobody has even heard of Indian soldiers being prosecuted for any crime.

Our request for an official interview with the Indian Border Security Force was turned down. And that may be because when you travel down the Indian side of the fence, you find that the Indians have killed even more of their own villagers than they have Bangladeshis.

In the village of Baliasisha, local Hindus crowded round us in scenes the mirror image of Muslim villages in Bangladesh; mothers grieving over sons, men mourning their brothers, all shot by Indian patrols.

“My son went to see his land one foggy morning around 4.30am, and that’s when they killed him from behind,” said one man. “Two bullets, one in the back and one in the head. I went to the police but they said they could not register any case against the border security force. My son was 19 years old. I am crazy for my boy.”

Some 65,000 Indians live in villages in the “no man’s land” beyond the fence. To get to these villages, they have to be fingerprinted by Indian soldiers in case any Bangladeshi tries sneaking back across. These Indians are nicknamed the “nowhere people”; if they try crossing the fence without permission, or break the nighttime curfew, they could be shot by their own troops.

Faced with this barrage of bullets, it is hardly surprising that the numbers arrested entering India illegally from Bangladesh have halved in the past year. The Indians say the Mumbai terror attacks have changed the equation, and that anyway soldiers give ample warning before criminals and terrorists are shot.

One night in the Indian border town of Murshidabad our team was told of another shooting. They drove to the hospital with a worried father who’d heard that his son had been shot by the fence.

At the hospital the father couldn’t find his son on the ordinary wards because he was being treated in a locked cell.

“They shot me in the arm and I shouted ‘Don’t kill me!” the boy said. “Now they try and say I am a cattle smuggler. But I don’t even own a cow. I don’t own anything!”

The fence is over half-finished now, though 386 “border outposts” aren’t due to be completed till 2014. Last week the Indian officer in charge of guarding the border told the Bangladeshis he had “zero tolerance” for human rights abuses. Though his troops have reportedly killed another seven people – on both sides – in the last few days.