The idea of spending a few days in the Sundarbans on a floating BOP may sound rather exotic to the uninitiated with images of being surrounded by lush mangrove forests and the occasional glimpse of the wild life looming in the horizon. The reality however is a far cry. Literally meaning ‘beautiful forest’ owing to the extensive presence of Sundari trees (the mangrove species Heritiera fomes) the Sundarbans are brutally hot and humid for most part of the year. Also famous as the home to the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger (roughly 270 according to a 2011 census), the oppressive weather and the presence of the man-eating dangerous feline render them a far cry from being ‘sundar’ or beautiful. The Sundarban forest lies in the Bay of Bengal, the delta lying at the confluence of the Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers across southern Bangladesh and covers some 10,000 km2, of which about 6,000 are in Bangladesh. The Indian part of Sundarbans is about 4,110 km², of which about 1,700 km² is occupied by water bodies in the forms of river, canals and creeks of meandering across this mangrove forest.
A large part of the border between India and Bangladesh comprises of the Sundarbans, located in the south-western part of Bangladesh between the river Baleswar in the East and the Harinbanga in the West. The Sundarbans is the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world and the International Boundary (IB) between India and Bangladesh passes through a channel of rivers namely Kalindi, Ichhamati, Raimangal and Haribhanga.
This area is dominated by BSF with the help of floating and land based Border Outposts (BOPs). To maintain a visible presence in this region, the BSF has inducted six floating border outposts, each supported by two medium crafts and approximately six dozen fast patrol crafts. A floating border outpost houses 30 – 35 crew members with force multipliers such as modern surveillance equipment, high tech communication systems and weapons including medium and light machine guns. A floating BOP will typically be at ‘sea’ for three weeks at a stretch
and during this time the lifeline remains the speed boats who perform daily ADAM duties such as bringing fresh water, vegetables, food, medicines and even newspapers for the staff. As the dominant force in the region, these floating BOPs perform the task of maintaining a close watch on the fishermen, protecting the Sundarbans and also act as floating check points.
Boats moving from Bangladesh to India are routinely inspected for illegal immigrants, livestock, drugs and currency. To understand the challenges faced by the BSF and the role played by them in promoting a sense of security among the people living in the border areas, the Homeland Warriors team decided to spend a few days with the 03 and 41st battalion of the BSF earlier in March 2014.
The India-Bangladesh border is perhaps one of the most heavily populated and impoverished border in the world and is also considered the bloodiest. Unlike India’s northern and western borders, the blood spilled along the Bangladesh border is not owing to religion, ethnicity or culture, or marginalisation of local population but it is largely due to smuggling of goods – a business that is worth a few billion rupees a year. It is estimated that over a million and a half cows are smuggled into Bangladesh every year, supported by a cattle running mafia that has over the past many decades built a network across large parts of North and Eastern India. The sheer scale of operations and the economic interests involved across both sides of the border make policing a limited option. While legalising the trade is an unlikely option, the views of the former Director General of the BSF, UK Bansal summarises the ground reality when he stated “We all have to think about it seriously. It is not a problem that can be solved by policing”.
Interestingly, the local inhabitants of the region claimed not to ‘know’ any smugglers but appeared to be well aware of the intricacies of their operations and locations from where the cattle originate. Ultimately it all boils down to the basic economics of demand and supply. So profitable is cattle smuggling that villages along the main national highways often erect check posts to collect a ‘transit tax’ from every passing vehicle that is transporting cows.
And when these vehicles do reach the border areas, it is a game of cat and mouse between the cattle mafia and the guards of the Border Security force, entasked to curb and check illegal activities along the international border.
What is most intriguing is the fact that if cattle smuggling is indeed a huge problem as everyone claims, then how does cattle from north India end up moving so freely all the way to the Eastern border in the first place? Surely various state police forces and other central agencies are aware of this large-scale bovine movement and therefore the long term solution eventually lies with the states forces and not solely with the BSF.
In 1986, the Indian parliament approved construction of the India-Bangladesh border fence a move aimed to reduce the intensity of illegal activities taking place along the border, check infiltration of terror groups and manage regional fears of illegal immigrants tipping religious majorities in the Assam province. After many years of delay, this ‘impregnable fence’ is ‘almost’ complete and once ready the fence will cover over 3,436 kilometres of Indo-Bangladesh border, making it the longest geopolitical barrier in the world. But a quick walk along the fence exposes the actual ground reality, and why guarding this impregnable fence is such an unwieldy task for the BSF jawans.
The fence which runs parallel to the main roads and is visible to the general public consists of double-rows of fencing and concertina wire, eight to twelve feet in height and very impregnable, and built on the same lines as the Indo-Pakistan border fence. However, as one travels further away from the main roads and towns, the fence becomes nothing more than sporadic posts with a few strands of barbed wire strung between them. At some locations the fence abruptly ends to accommodate a road connecting two villages – one on the Indian side and the other on the Bangladeshi side. The problem is compounded by the fact that the border cuts across heavily populated villages, market places, roads and railways and common agricultural land and at some spots, the International Border actually runs through people’s homes. Half the house falls in India and the other in Bangladesh !
In order to maintain a close vigil, the BSF has created a small picket at every half a kilometre, accommodating two to four men whose main task is to provide security to the local villagers, stop illegal smuggling and immigration. Names and records are maintained at the BSF outpost of every villager, their family, occupation and residence. This helps in keeping a track of all movement near the border and checks illegal activity and infiltration. The manning of Eastern Borders is quite complex, especially since this is a ‘friendly border’. In order to maintain these friendly relations, the BDR and BSF operate under joint-guidelines for management of the Bangladesh-India borders. These guidelines set the ground-rules for day-to-day management so that both the forces can operate within close proximity displaying much camaraderie.
Joint India-Bangladesh Guidelines (JIBG) for Border Authorities emphasise strict checks, regular and frequent contacts and the exchange of information and intelligence at appropriate levels between border authorities in order to contain smuggling and cross-border criminal activities or untoward incidents at the border. Organising regular sports competitions between the two border forces is another popularly deployed technique to erase the adversarial image that persists and help build mutual trust and confidence. Apart from operational issues such as sharing of intelligence, this approach needs maturity and skill. It is mandatory for the BSF officers and jawans posted in this region to quickly understand their surroundings and have a clear understanding of the geography, demographics, economics and politics of this critical and rather unique border area as each of these plays a key role in the management of this border.
However, the challenges are far too many and the job of the BSF troops is easier said than done. To begin with, the weather in the Sundarbans is oppressively warm and harsh and to make matters worse, these border outposts are normally stationed in remote areas, completely cut off from civilisation. Often living in extremely cramped conditions and with limited or no mobile connectivity, the soldiers need to be constantly motivated - a role played extremely well by the commanding officers.
A few candid conversations and one-to-one interactions with officers and a few jawans of the BSF, reveal that their life in the Sundarbans based on five emotions - frustration, repetition and minimal variation from their day to day routine, lack of privacy and above all, isolation. “Boredom is our biggest enemy”, said an officer on the Floating BOP, “even when we try and rotate the daily tasks, we are still stuck in the middle of a river. And to make matters worse, there is no live television, mobile connectivity and because of the salty water all our electronics regularly stop working”.
Perhaps, the most telling observation made by the Homeland Warriors team was that since most of the BSF jawans do not hail from the area, they are unable to speak in Bengali. Therefore, communication becomes a huge problem and leads to a major disconnect with the local populace. Another major concern that was repeatedly raised by Bangladesh was the use of force by the BSF and this led to the alienation of those inhabiting border areas and created hostility towards the men and women in uniform. To resolve this, the BSF has consciously taken the decision to induct and use non-lethal weapons wherever possible. While this has drastically brought down the casualties and injuries in border areas, it has however brought up the number of instances where smugglers and cattle mafia now openly challenge the BSF; this invariably leads to higher casualties amongst the BSF jawans.
Besides manning the huge border posts, BSF also plays a key role in winning the hearts and minds of the locals. At one BSF border outpost, it was very heartening to observe a steady stream of people filling their buckets with clean drinking water, while at another border outpost, village elders were found seeking the advice of the commanding officer to resolve a property dispute. At the end of the day, it is the soft skills of these soldiers that come handy to rectify almost any and every situation.
It doesn’t take long to realise that hidden beneath the vast expanse and beauty of the Sunderbans, lies one of the most inhospitable and unforgiving lands in the world. The snaking border that divides the two countries runs for 1,300 miles, across thick jungles, marshlands and moving tides and is manned by a force that needs to be visible but also responsive.
Surprisingly, despite the hardships, the jawans on board the FBOP are focused, walk tall with straight shoulders and remain cheerful despite the unrelenting afternoon heat. And if the high temperature and humidity are not enough to dampen spirits, navigation of the swollen tidal rivers in the monsoon months is another challenge. Standing at the port side of the FBOP, the commanding officer proudly told the HW team that “if required these boys would be happy to spend many more nights on the FBOPs as long as the borders of India remain protected”.
Inauguration of the much pending ‘joint retreat ceremony’ on the zero line of Bangladesh-India border at the Benapole-Petrapole in November 2013 by the Bangladesh and Indian Home ministers Mhiuddin Khan Alamgir and Sushil Kumar Shinde, respectively are small albeit significant steps to augment the existing cordial and harmonious relations between BSF and BGB, the two Border Guarding Forces.
As Canadian author Yann Martel reveals in his much acclaimed work Life of Pi , “All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.” Perhaps, it is this very madness, this very ability to overcome and survive, no matter what, that enables these border land warriors to live up to the challenges and accept their call of duty even amidst the tranquil wilderness of the striking Sudarbans. - Karanjit SIngh