The Plight of People Living in between Spaces—the Migrant Perspective

By Unmukta Sinha

Bilateral policies regarding Bangladeshi migrants must not forget the vicissitudes of the migrants

The border dividing the nations India and Bangladesh is not a straightforward geometric line drawn from point A to B. In some areas it snakes across villages, agricultural farmlands, temples, and even households. Some of the families who live literally on the borderland, the in-between spaces also known as “contact zones” straddling two nations, often have members technically cross borders on a daily basis.

This brings forward a whole new dynamic of what “triggers” the migrant to move/migrate and what “destination” he chooses. While in the domain of geopolitical discourse this quotidian movement of people across the fence would constitute cross border migration, for those residing in the “contact zones” it might not be as simple or straightforward. In many cases, the “trigger” could be as basic as fetching water from the well and the choice of “destination” as simple as his own backyard.

Cultural affinities, common language, co-mingling and a long shared colonial history in the regions of today’s West Bengal, north-eastern India and Bangladesh (before the post-Independence political borders were formed) provide shared identities and thus a relatively strong bond between these rather poor and powerless border residents, especially when they have relatives living across the river, or their children attending school which stands in the political territory of the other nation. To these so-called “migrants” the notion of borders as international, national or local barriers is merely a symbol of power deeply entrenched in geopolitical disputes, and one that hinders the dynamic of their day to day lives.

Therefore, the people living at the borders, more than often people living hand to mouth, are found constantly toying with their lives (even to the extent of risking their lives) in an attempt to dismantle this barrier both physically and psychologically. In order to combat their dire poverty, adults as well as children are often drawn into rackets of bootlegging and human trafficking. The smuggling of goods – usually fish, oil, mobile handsets, soaps, fake currency metals and small arms from the Bangladeshi side and cattle, fruits, fertilizers, pesticide, salt, spices, sugar and “bidi” (hand rolled local cheap cigars) from the Indian side is rampant.

Along the porous borders of India and Bangladesh there are numerous shanties where prostitution is a roaring business. Minor Bangladeshi girls moreover are coerced into contractual marriages with the Indian farmers or sold as slaves by the poor Bangladeshi families. Driven by the need of survival, families at large and women and children specifically are subjected to rapes, murders, extortion, slavery and sexual abuse on a daily basis.

Furthermore, daily wage labourers are treated inhumanely and are subject to the whims and fancies of the border security personnel. For residents of these borderlands whose households, family ties, livelihoods, or even daily chores were disrupted all of a sudden by the Radcliffe Line, these are valid questions. These narratives hint/point towards the continuous plight of the residents, the volatility of their lives and violation of their basic human rights—those whose physical villages, communities or households straddle two nations while their basic needs as well as psychological needs transcend these artificially constructed geopolitical barriers.

Thus, while coming up with bilateral policies regarding the Bangladeshi migrants the Indian government as well as its Bangladeshi counterpart must factor in these sensitive issues. The region although divided by an international border has been historically, culturally, linguistically, quintessentially one; thus the people residing officially on either sides of the border are one—extremely close-knit and hard to break. In an attempt to escape poverty or sustain themselves borderland quotidian “migrants” will find a way to cut corners by resorting to illegal means supported by their vast migrant network—the local gangs, political parties, border security personnel and friends and kinship across the borders. If the States must break this vicious cycle and sincerely address this issue, it is imperative to factor in the migrant perspective.

Unmukta Sinha has previously interned with the Takshashila Institution

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