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Smuggler ladies in land of few options

The 25-year-old woman from Ujal village in Hili looks like any other homemaker. She is a mother of two daughters and a son. But at night, she has a job, one that puts her at great risk.

She is part of an ever-increasing tribe of women smugglers at Hili in South Dinajpur district. This is her new job. She was a bidi worker before, earning Rs 100 a day at the most. She doesn’t like anything about her new job, except the money. She earns in thousands now. It makes all the difference.

“A few years ago, when a person from the neighbourhood had approached me, I was hesitant. But later, I understood that only spending an hour or two at night could give me much more in comparison to what I was getting from binding bidis for a day. I changed my mind,” she says.

“But there is danger, too. We often have to face the BSF men. They don’t hesitate to beat us during raids. They often try to molest us. I can say we earn a lot of money and that’s all,” she adds.

In a district without industry, women are swelling the ranks of smugglers working on the India-Bangladesh border. Women function in two ways: as carriers and also as “human shields” for men.

At least four BSF men were seriously injured on February 7 night in a confrontation with smugglers at Ujal village. The security personnel were acting on the information that a gang from the village was smuggling spices and cough syrup into Bangladesh. The BSF jawans were chasing a group of suspected smugglers, when a few women came and blocked their way, protecting the men. The jawans became confused and were hit by stones thrown by the men who were running away.

Later, the BSF seized 122kg of spices and 159 bottles of cough syrup from the village.

“From Ujal to Sidhai, a large tract of land adjacent to Bangladesh is unfenced. The smugglers lure the poor women with money. The women, too, confront us, making our job difficult,” says Rajen Sud, commanding officer of 96 battalion of BSF. “We have been witnessing this new trend on the border of Hili for the past few months,” he adds.

Sources said BSF apprehended around 250 people in the last three years from the border area of Hili on charges of infiltration, smuggling and attacking the BSF. One fourth of them were women. The BSF also seized cattle, spices, gold, weapons and fake Indian currency notes, valued more than Rs 5 crore.

Sources said if a “pusher” could “push” cattle into Bangladesh, he or she would get Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000.

“A woman can hide something in her clothing. Special jackets are used for smuggling. Spices, narcotics and prohibited drugs are hidden in the jackets and pushed into Bangladesh. Many women are engaged in smuggling and earn a good amount of money, which they couldn’t with their little education,” says a BSF officer.

The recruitment has also to do with the rising aspirations of women. More than ever, women want to work, irrespective of education or economic status. But a job is a rare thing in South Dinajpur, especially for women.

“There is no factory in the district. The people here are very poor. Taking advantage of this, the smugglers lure the men and women with enough money,” says Sud.

“We don’t have any other opportunity of work. We cannot go to another state leaving our families here,” says the 25-year-old woman from Ujal.

“A great number of women are being used in smuggling as shields for the smugglers and to carry illegal goods. Many women aspire to earn more,” says Suraj Das, central co-ordinator of Childline, an NGO.

The BSF is not known to deal kindly with women always. BSF men have often been accused of committing extreme acts of violence against women. The women smugglers try to take advantage of that. Das says women often file false complaints of molestation against the BSF, an allegation seconded by the BSF.

But Das also points out that smuggling makes women vulnerable in other ways. “There is a chance that the women engaged in smuggling might be trafficked,” he adds.

The smuggling and trafficking routes are often same.

At many places, a house is on the border, from where it is easy to “push” something into Bangladesh. Smugglers try to use women from such houses in particular.

“Engaging women in smuggling is not a new trend. But the use of women has gone up,” says a BSF officer. “When I was here in 1992, I found women wrapping a number of saris around their bodies getting into Bangladesh and returning with another set of goods. But women then were few in numbers,” he said.

Trinamul Congress MLA of Kumarganj and a district level leader of the women’s cell of the party, Mahmuda Begam, said it was a complex problem.

“There are many problems in the border area. Of course, there is a section of women that is adamant and engaged in smuggling. We often hear of incidents of molestation by the BSF,” she says.