The village of Panidhar is a cluster of 18 mud, brick and bamboo houses in a poor, wet corner of eastern India. Its problems will sound familiar to anyone who has traveled through the country's thick rural darkness. Panidhar's 195 residents live on rice and fish from the surrounding paddy fields and ponds; lucky children get vegetables and lentils, too, but few go to school. The brick factory across the Ichamati River sends boats to fetch a few of the young men; the rest have left for cities many miles away.
An accident of geography turns these ordinary lives into one of India's most surreal dramas. The border between India and Bangladesh, drawn in haste just before India's independence in 1947, snakes through Panidhar. It runs right in front of the modest, thatched-roof home of Fazlur Rehman, 50, the village's unofficial headman. His younger brother lives next door in another country. "His child, my child are the same," Rehman says. But in Panidhar, the children violate international law every time they run around the small patch of mango and betel-nut trees. A few hundred meters away, Indian and Bangladeshi border guards patrol on each side.
Neither the children nor their parents can ignore the reality of the border it's rushing up to meet them. Panidhar sits near Pillar No. 1, where the land border between the two countries begins. For the past 60 years, those markers were the only sign that there were two nations encompassed in this one village. But there is a new one nearby, made of steel, concrete and barbed wire. Like the U.S., Israel and other countries, India is constructing a massive frontier fence, hoping that it will act as a bulwark against what the government in New Delhi perceives to be problems and threats on the other side. When finished, the Indian fence along the 2,500-mile (4,100 km) border with its eastern neighbor will all but encircle Bangladesh.
India once welcomed refugees from Bangladesh. An estimated 4 million of them settled in India after the 1971 war that created its new neighbor. But their numbers have swelled to at least 10 million and a backlash has started. The fence, now two-thirds complete, was begun in earnest three years ago as a way to stop illegal migration and terrorist groups operating in the border areas. The siege of Mumbai the most dramatic of more than a dozen deadly attacks on Indian cities in the past year has turned the fence into a political imperative; it is presented as, literally, a concrete solution to India's border problems.
It isn't. "These are reflexive mechanisms of state," says Major General Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. "It's not a source of strength." From terrorism to rural development to its troubled relationships with its neighbors, almost every challenge that India faces is played out in some way along the border. But instead of resolving them, it only throws them into relief. "Fencing can't stop anything," says Adilur Khan, head of a Bangladeshi human-rights group called Odhikar. "It's kind of building the Berlin Wall again."
Regulating the Flow
India's northeastern state of Assam shares only a short border with Bangladesh, but the sentiment there against Bangladeshi migration is more intense than anywhere else in India. Bengali-speaking Muslims, both Indian and Bangladeshi, were once brought in to work as seasonal labor, and they now account for more than 30% of the state's population. Their numbers have made them a significant political force and have generated a frustration that will sound familiar to any country dealing with a large influx of migrants from a poorer country. "They take all the jobs," says Shibshankar Chatterjee, a journalist who is writing a book on migration in the northeast. "They are very cheap labor."
Issuing temporary work permits is a nonstarter in Assam, where the growing population of Bengali-speaking Muslims the euphemism for which is "demographic shift" is seen as both a political and an economic threat to the ethnic Assamese majority, who are mostly Hindu. "There is a very substantial geographic belt in which the Assamese are rapidly becoming a minority," says V.R. Raghavan, an adviser at the Delhi Policy Group. "They want to retain their dominant position."
The result is a toxic mix of immigrant backlash, Islamophobia and militant separatism, says Uddipana Goswami, a social scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University who has written extensively about the northeast. Ethnic Assamese political parties and separatist groups like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) have all taken up the anti-immigrant cause, as have other non-Muslim minorities. A series of bomb attacks in the state capital Guwahati on Oct. 30, 2008, killed more than 60 people, and local police say that militants agitating for an ethnic Bodo homeland, who have clashed violently with local Muslims, are to blame. In this environment, no one bothers to differentiate between the earlier, legal migrants from Bangladesh and newcomers. Says Goswami: "In Assam, if you're wearing a lungi or a beard, people say you're from Bangladesh."