| Bangladeshis on their way to the border at Petrapole. Picture by Amit Datta
Petrapole (West Bengal), Feb. 9: The Border Security Force jawan barks out: “Ei buri, uth, bhag (Get up old woman, scoot).”
The old lady, who had tumbled after her sari got caught in the makeshift barbed wire fence on the Indian side of the border, scrambles back on her feet and walks about 20 yards to the Bangladesh fence. She searches anxiously for the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) jawan who must surely be on that side. He isn’t there. And, carrying two blue plastic cans containing memories from India, she labours her way back into her homeland.
A quiet trek back of hundreds every day into Bangladesh through this border point in Bengal’s North 24-Parganas district has begun as the eyes of the world have been peeled several hundred miles up north in Cooch Behar where a week-long standoff occurred between the two countries a few days ago over the nationality of a group of nomads.
Bangladeshis — many from Mumbai — are returning to their country under the very nose of the BDR which made such a fuss about taking back the nomads.
As if it has entered into an unwritten arrangement with its Bangladesh counterpart, the BSF, which should be arresting anyone trying to cross the border illegally, keeps its eye shut and sometimes even delivers a push or a shove. The touts on either side are doing brisk business.
At least 500 people a day are pouring into Bangladesh through the villages, mango orchards and, of course, the gaps in the border fencing. Staying — on rent — in huts in Indian villages, they wait for the signal from touts to move across.
Today, around 600 people scurried through, with babies in their arms, at Petrapole in two shifts. Most were from Mumbai — some had been living there for as many as eight years — and admitted that they were returning to their homeland which they had left in search of a living.
Khokon Mistri was one of them. He had been living in Mumbai for eight years but decided that it was no longer safe to remain there without “adequate proof of India citizenship”.
“Police there have turned on the heat and I felt it wiser to move before being forced to (do so),” he said, moments before going back to his own country with his wife and four children.
Another waiting to go was Sheikh Moinuddin. He lived in Mumbai for close to two years, working as a zari worker, but chose to return to his country (Satkhira district) with his wife and mother because he, too, felt that the “pressure was building up”. Pressure cookers, television sets, clothes and trunks and other household items are what they were going back with.
The route they are taking is also predictable: from Mumbai to Howrah, from Howrah to Sealdah, and from there to Jayantipur, Angrail, Chakdah, Petrapole, Sutia, Bagdah and other places that are nearest to their homes on the other side of the border.
Despite the nudging from the BSF and the eyes-firmly-shut policy of the BDR, it’s the touts who are again making a killing in these abnormal times. It’s they who liaise between the lower-level personnel of both agencies, informing them of the exact time when they should “look away”, and help in the crossover, as they do in normal times.
Villagers on this side of the border, too, are witnessing an upturn in their fortunes. Each returning person pays at least Rs 20 to the owner of the hut where he/she is biding time for the border-crossing hour, each hut accommodates at least 10 people, which means an extra income of at least Rs 200.
The commandant of the 100th Battalion of the BSF, Ajay Singh, admitted that there “could” be Bangladeshis going back to their country with the help of touts.
“But we apprehend any Bangladeshi citizen we spot and push him/her back officially after posting records,” he insisted.
For BSF personnel who have come from a posting in Jammu and Kashmir, Bengal is proving to be a tougher assignment. “There we shot anyone who tried to cross over from the other side,” a jawan said.
“Here, we have got to guard our rear as well,” he explained, adding that it felt like being in the midst of a “foreign land” despite being on the right side of the border.