By Apu Sarwar, Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 14 February 2019, www.thecommunists.net
Fulani was one of Bengali migrant workers who moved back and forth between Bangladesh and India. Indian Border Security Force (BSF) ruthlessly killed Felani while crossing the border on 7 January 2012. She had gotten stuck on the barbed when she was shot and remained stuck in the barbed fence for 5 hours until she bled to death. Felani’s body hanging on a barbed fence become a symbol of Indian Border Force brutality and Indian attitude to its neighbouring countries people. The images of Felani's hanging body in the media created a big uproar among the people in Bangladesh. Since then some political and social organization observe 7 January as “Felani Day” – a symbol of protest against India.
The Indian government is continually building barbed fences across 4,222 km easily travelable India-Bangladesh border over 40 years in the name of security. Indo-Bangla Border snakes through plains, rivers, hills, and paddy fields, densely populated areas. The decision to build a fence was made in the 1980s when the issue of Bangladeshi migration turned politically explosive in the northeast Indian state of Assam. An eight-foot-high fence of barbed wire, intimidating structure, electrified in some stretches, runs along roughly 70 percent of this border. The border between Bangladesh and India has long been a source of contention between the two countries. It is the fifth-longest land border in the world.
Bangladesh, a country of South Asia, is surrounded by India on three sides and Myanmar to the Southeast. The Southern coastline is shaped by the Bay of Bengal. Once Indian barbed fences project will be finished, it will be the longest border fence in the world and Bangladesh will be a ‘unique‘ country sounded by barbed fences!
Every year, thousands of unemployed youth Bangladeshi cross the India – Bangladesh border illegally in search of work. The people on both sides of the border share similar ethnic, linguistic and cultural characteristics. The youth unemployment has increased significantly over the years. However, Bangladesh government always denies the existence of massive unemployment in the country as well as the presence of Bangladeshi workers in various cities of India.
The easily travelable border with India is also one of the contributing factors for the trafficking of women and children not only as the site of destination but also as the transit country. Consequently, about 200-400 young women and children are being a victim of trafficking every month in Bangladesh.
Who was Felani
Felani Khatun was a 15 years old Bangladeshi migrant worker who was living with her parents in New Delhi as an undocumented worker. The girls’ parents were living and working in India since about 10 years. The family never lost contact with their home in Bangladesh. Some Bangladeshi migrants try to go home once a year. Such “once a year go home” of migrant workers ensures regular income for the whole family. The girl was returning to Bangladesh from New Delhi with her father. Apparently, Felani was coming to Bangladesh to get married.
Child marriage remains high and widespread in Bangladesh. Girls are disproportionately the most affected by child marriage and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation.
Why migrate to India
Most youth from rural and semi-rural areas often find no prospect of getting work in the country. Chronic poverty, favoritism, poor quality of training, natural disaster and gender inequality, internally displacement are a too common problem in Bangladesh. A portion of this youth often moves to various Indian cities for work in hope of – as a popular saying goes – that “the grass is greener on the other side”. Migrating to India is not free but rather cost a reasonable amount. Migrating to an unknown land for a ‘better’ future is a common desire and means to escape from poverty in Bangladeshi youth. People with middle-class background often migrate to America, UK, Canada or Australia. The poorer sectors of the population move as migrant workers to the Middle East and the people of bottom often try their luck in India.
Birth of Bangladesh and India
Indian and Pakistani ruling classes often portrait the birth of Bangladesh as a consequence of a nine months war between the Pakistani Army and Bengali Liberation forces backed by India firepower. (1) This bird view wilfully ignores the history of a quarter-century lasting people’s movement from 1948 to 1971 in the then East Pakistan. India seized the opportunity to train Bengali liberation fighters, gave shelter to millions of refugees and finally entered the war to abruptly end it war and to ‘liberate‘ East Bengal. In a nutshell, India was the forefront of ‘birth’ of Bangladesh. In fact, behind of Indian humanitarian and military assistance in the Bangladesh liberation war 1971, India had politico-economic and strategic considerations.
During the Bangladeshi liberation war Indian Army launched a covert massive attack against national minorities of North-East India, in the states of Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, and Nagaland. These groups took refuge in Bangladesh territory Chittagong Hill Tracks. Separationist movements are continuing in the above Indian states since 1947. The demands of these separationist movements vary from full independence from India to regional autonomy. The Indian offensive did not get almost any attention as Bangladesh was celebrating the victory over Pakistan.
Another reason why India entered in the war as it wanted to stop the spreading of ethnic-linguistic movements across India and wanted to make sure that Bangladeshi liberation forces arms do not fall into the hands of the Indian Naxalist movements.
The Indian army received a warm welcome from the general public of Bangladesh after 16 December 1971. However, this good relation lasted only an unexpectedly short time. Soon after the defeat of the Pakistani army, the Indian army started looting abandoned arms and ammunition, factory machines, and gold from banks. This was a visible instance of the tension between the Indian army and some section of Bangladeshi freedom fighters.
India factor in Bangladesh politic nowadays
India has enormous political interest and influence on Bangladesh politic. There exist mainly two streams of thought among the main bosses’ parties. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) projects itself as being pro-nationalist and this with Islam and anti-Indian nationalism. Various brands of Islamic parties often rallies behind BNP. The Awami League presents itself as a ‘secular’ force which accommodates a friendly relationship with India. The third, moribund, streams are left socialists. They are vocal against Indian hegemony but their programs lack clarity.
Since the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, took over the government in 2001, there has been a radical change in relations with India. The two states have signed contracts, exchange of territorial enclaves, transit of India to the road, permission to use sea ports, India-Bangladesh Defense Agreement and many others. Bangladesh's helped in countering and wiping out the separatists outposts from Indo-Bengal border area. In the event of a military conflict between India and China, the India-Bangladesh Defense Agreement allows India to get access to the country.
As the events in summer 2017 demonstrated, military tensions between India and China can take the form of war at any moment. (2) India-Bangla military agreement can be utilised to transport troops and war equipment’s within a short time to protect the Siliguri Corridor and North East Indian states.
The Siliguri Corridor, or Chicken's Neck, is a narrow stretch of land of 200-km stretch with width varying from 17 to 60 km. It is located in the Indian state of West Bengal and the region has no access to the sea. The narrow Siliguri Corridor is the only getaway between the northeaster part of India and the rest of the country. A Chinese military advance around 120 kilometres will separate seven north eastern Indian states from rest of India and occupied state Sikkim.
The left in Bangladesh were by and large in disarray during the Bangladesh liberation war and the Indian intervention in the war 1971. In our opinion revolutionaries should have supported the National Liberation War of the Bangladeshi people and their struggle for independence from the Pakistani state. At the same time, they could not lend any support to the intervention of the Indian army.
Likewise, revolutionaries in India have to support today the struggle of national minorities for self-determination (including the right to form a separate state). Such an approach is highly relevant for Kashmir as well as for a number of other national minorities in India.
Why border fence
US President Donald Trump has ordered the construction of a wall along the 3200-km long border between the United States and Mexico. In Europe Austria and Hungary have built fences and Israel's barrier with Egypt incorporates cameras and motion sensors. Saudi Arabia has built a fence at the Saudi-Yemen border. Globally, more barriers between countries now exist than at any other time in modern history. There are around 70 small and big border fences around the globe.
Why are fences getting more popular among ruling bosses? In a nutshell, the capitalist system is in crisis, unemployment, poverty is rising, banks collapse, bursting of the housing bubble – these are only some on the long list of capitalism’s crisis. Capitalist bosses need scapegoats and these are the migrants. Peoples from another land are often a useful tool to distract people from real problems. It is xenophobia.
Border killing and justice
The killing of Felani got wide attention in Bangladesh and India. The Indian administration arranged the trial of Felani’s killing in order to mitigate public anger on the both sides of the fence. However, judge, jury and witness were all from Indian border forces. After 8 years juggling between court to court, all accused were acquitted. Justice in the Felani case could have been a departure point for justice in all other such cases that happened and continue to happen.
In the last ten years more than thousand people were killed at the Bangladesh–India border, most of them are Bangladeshi. In many cases Indian authority have even not given back the dead bodies. There are a couple of instances where both sides carried slain bodies of Border Forces or of civilians tied to a pole and carried like an animal corpse.
The Indian authorities link the border killings to preventive measures of stop cow smuggling. As religious Hindus do not consume beef, they consider slaughtering of cows as a sin. The informal trade between Bangladesh and India is gigantic and often it goes one way – from India to Bangladesh. The estimated value of this informal trade is around one billion dollars. India treats Bangladesh for commodity purpose as one of its states.
The question is why does the Indian state try to stop this informal trade now after tolerating it for decades? The reason is that protecting ‘holy’ cows is one of the sensitive issues in Indian electoral politics. The currently ruling party in India, the BJP, and Hindu fundamentalists often use the ‘protecting the holy cow’ card. BJP and it’s allies want to be saver of the ‘holy cow‘. Several innocent Indian persons were lynched to death by the mobs in the name of ‘protecting cow’.
Trying to stop smuggling cows in Bangladesh does not necessarily mean that India has stopped slaughtering cow all together. Australia has been tightening cattle export in the past years due to public opinion against cruel condition of live animal exports. As consequence, the Middle Eastern countries are inclined to import cows from India and Brazil, due to lack of animal welfare regulations. India has seized the opportunity of this situation, became second largest combined beef and life cow exporter in the world.
India has tightened the Bangladesh border to meet the Middle Eastern demand. Most of the Indian cattle sellers through smugglers in Bangladesh, are small farmers, they sell cattle as they need. However, force to selling cattle to multinational is an altogether different game.
What is to be done?
Communal attacks on the Indian Muslims played an important role in the politics of Bangladesh and Pakistan. Similarly, violence against Hindus in Bangladesh played in the hands of Indian ruling bosses. Various kinds of oppression of religious minorities on the both sides of barbed fence fuelled nationalism and religious superiority sentiments in both nations. Only the ruling bosses are benefiting from such sentiments.
United front initiatives are needed to build solidarity across the border between people and among secular social and political organisations within in the respective countries. Only people’s solidarity and unity can build an effective resistance against communalism, discrimination, oppression, border killing and anti-human activities in the people's interest beyond the borders.
1) See on this e.g. Theses on capitalism and class struggle in Bangladesh. Joint Theses of the International Secretariat of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT) and the Revolutionary Workers Organization (RCIT Section in Pakistan), November 2013, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/asia/theses-on-bangladesh/
2) See on this the RCIT’s pamphlet by Michael Pröbsting: The China-India Conflict: Its Causes and Consequences. What are the background and the nature of the tensions between China and India in the Sikkim border region? What should be the tactical conclusions for Socialists and Activists of the Liberation Movements? 18 August 2017, Revolutionary Communism No. 71, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/china-india-rivalry/