Archive for the ‘Border Life’ Category

On Independence Day, the only noise on the street was that of helicopters circling overhead

  • Published 4.09.19, 1:14 AM
  • Updated 4.09.19, 1:14 AM
A Kashmiri man carries a child on his shoulders in a closed market area in SrinagarAP

As the aircraft was about to descend, the flight attendants started pulling down the window shades hurriedly for “security reasons”.

We were landing in Srinagar.

In the course of the next three days in the Valley, I encountered barbed wire, checkpoints, road diversions and metal shutters on my way to meet dozens of people whose voices have been cut off from the mainstream since August 5, the day Parliament abrogated Article 370 and 35A, which gave special status to Kashmir.

Listen in.

August 14, Srinagar.

In a cab, 7:25 am

Taxi driver Hilal, 42: “Everything was running fine, tourists poured in, there was good business. Then they destroyed it completely.”

Hotel Ahdoos, Residency Road, 8:15 am

Receptionist: “There is nothing to eat. No fresh vegetables are available. At best, we could serve you rice and lentils.”

District Commissioner’s Office, Tankipora, 11:30 am

Hundreds are taking the stairs to the first floor, where telephone lines have been set up for people to speak to their families outside the Valley.

“I have been in the queue for the past two hours to call my daughter who is studying in Bangalore. I wanted to inform her that her aunt in Delhi would send her the monthly expenses as banks are closed here,” said 59-year-old Sameer Bhat of Safa Kadal.

Gowhar Mir, 19, a student, requested me to ask the officials for the password of the Wi-Fi connection: “You are an Indian, they won’t refuse you. We can connect with your phone via Bluetooth, and use it for money transfer to my brother studying in Mohali.”

I disappointed him. I couldn’t ask for the password. As I stepped out, I bumped into a huge board showcasing the promises of ‘Digital India’.

Gojwara Chowk, Downtown Srinagar, 1:10 pm

A group of seven paramilitary personnel were screaming at three little boys with stones in hand.

Zafar Mahmood, 14 (student): “The jawans brought in some milk packets to distribute among locals two days back. But nobody took them. They would distribute a few packets and shoot a video and tell the world how humane they are.”

Gousia Colony, Bemina, 4 pm

Mehboob, 41 (businessman): “Indian media is showing that everything is normal. We were not even allowed to go to our mosques on the day of Eid. If everything was normal, why have they caged us?”

Dalgate, 5:30 pm

Zaffer Ahmed Boktoo, 50 (hotel owner): “Big leaders look for solutions, criminals look for ways to create problems. For us, they are only creating problems.”

Residency Road, 7:10 pm

As I stepped out of the police station after making a call from the mobile phone of a cop kept exclusively for reaching out to people outside Kashmir, a man asked, “Could you make a call?” When I nodded, he said, “But they don’t allow us in because we are terrorists.”

August 15, Independence Day.

Lal Chowk, 12 noon

The only noise on the street was that of helicopters circling overhead.

2:30 pm

Ubaid Mehraj, 22 (student): “Independence Day is for a selective few. Interestingly, the pro-government people are under house arrest too. What could Independence Day mean for people of Kashmir whose freedom has been taken away?”

Nowhatta, 4:25 pm

Nasir Ahmed, 49 (shop owner): “Even 10-12 year olds have been picked up randomly from this area before Independence Day. If India considers us its own, let me ask, which country does this to its own children?”

Dalgate, 6:10 pm

Shikarawallah (refused to give his name): “They asked the tourists to leave first. Were we killing them? We ourselves are dead, you have put us in jails. How long this cruelty would go on? ”

August 16.

Tral town, 8:00 am

Muzaffar Wani, father of the slain Hizb-ul Mujahideen militant, Burhan: “I never want the children to pelt stones but they don’t listen to anyone. I never told my child to pick up gun but he did… As adults, we still can bear the torture but children don’t have the strength to bear the torture.”

Eijaz, 35 (pharmacy owner): “My stock of medicines for diabetes and hypertension is over but I cannot go to Srinagar to collect them because I couldn’t get a curfew pass.”

Tariq Dar, 49 (contractor): “This is not democracy. All of this is done with a muscular approach. There is simply no dialogue India wants with us.”

On the highway, near Khanabal, 10: 15 am

Abdul Hamid, 45, (kulcha seller): “The BJP has betrayed us. Yeh kaun sa hukumat hai?”

Dangarpura, Awantipora, 11:15 am

Rasheed, 24 (unemployed): “My uncle, an imam with the local Jamia Masjid, was picked up by the police on August 6 without any charges. We have no clue when he would be released.”

Awantipora Jamia Masjid, 11:45 am

Milkman Nisar Ahmed, 49: “Yahan sirf fauj ka gasht hai, hum nahin chal sakte rasto mein.”

Delhi-bound flight, 5 pm

Fellow passenger: “Would you write what you saw and heard in these three days? Or would you too say, ‘All’s well’?’”

(It was published on September 4, 2019 in The Telegraph,

Bollywood’s jingoistic hero assures voters that he will stay put and work for the constituency

I must say I am a bit disappointed. I have been hoping to catch a glimpse of the macho man who felled many an enemy — to say nothing of the gruesome Pakistani villain — in Hindi cinema. But here he is, steering clear of all those jingoistic dialogues that made his films such hits.

Sunny Deol is on the road, canvassing for votes in Gurdaspur, a constituency in Punjab once held by Vinod Khanna, his senior in the Hindi film industry and in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, which lost the seat in a by-election after Khanna’s death, hopes to wrest it from the Congress. And Deol is seemingly just the right candidate for a party fighting the Lok Sabha polls on the proud plank of nationalism.

A dialogue from the blockbuster Ghadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) is being played at public meetings. In the film, Deol plays a truck driver who fights Pakistanis to bring his wife back to India in the film. Speakers blare out the line: “Hindustan zindabad thahai aur rahega (Hindustan was, is and will remain free)”.

But Deol, who mostly waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his car, may have realised that the voter is more concerned about development than filmi dialogues. He does not speak much about nationalism and the enemy across the border. He no longer dons the saffron turban or the military camouflage cap he was seen wearing earlier in the campaign. He doesn’t repeat the line “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot)” at the rallies.

“I don’t want people to vote for me because of my nationalist roles. I am connecting with people to genuinely serve them,” he tells BLink.

For the BJP, 62-year-old Deol is a potent symbol of the establishment. He has played the role of a soldier, cop and spy — in Border (1997), Indian (2001) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003) respectively. “Nobody else has done patriotic films like Sunny Deol has. He would work for the country just as (Narendra) Modiji does,” says BJP’s Gurdaspur president Bal Krishna Mittal.

The constituency in Gurdaspur, a district that shares a 110-km border with Pakistan, has its own set of problems. Heroin is smuggled in hollow pipes that come floating on the River Ravi from Pakistan’s Narowal, 50km from Gurdaspur. Two militant attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot were believed to have been carried out by terrorists from Pakistan. Speculation is rife about the revival of a movement for Khalistan — a homeland for Sikhs — with alleged support from Pakistan.

“Being a sensitive border constituency, the BJP wants to use the nationalism card in its favour,” political scientist Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University says.

The constituents, however, are watching the electoral play with a fair dose of scepticism. They would rather the BJP addressed issues of unemployment, farmers’ debt and drug trafficking. Sugar cane farmers allege that sugar mills are yet to pay them their dues worth 85 crore for the previous crushing season. There is agrarian debt, and 60 per cent of Batala’s cast iron and foundry production units have shut down in recent years.

“BJP’s nationalism won’t give us jobs, but new factories will,” says Jugraj Singh, a 25-year-old voter who lost his job in a sugar mill in 2017.

But Deol has his supporters, thousands of whom wait to catch a glimpse of him at rallies. His campaign trail, mostly road shows, carries on for 12 hours every day. Men want to shake hands with him and kids run alongside his white Land Rover on the highway. “When I meet people, I see the love and affection they have (for me),” he stresses.

Since the actor and now would-be politician came late into the fray — he joined the BJP last month — he has had very little time to cover his constituency’s nine assembly segments before the May 19 poll. He looks fatigued but despite his hectic schedule, takes out 40 minutes for a workout every morning.

“People become health conscious when they look at me. They want to be family-oriented and obedient the way I am. They are taking the right path of life,” he says. He also believes that his films have influenced the young to join the Army: “I have been unknowingly influencing people.”

Dressed in a denim shirt and a pair of blue jeans, Deol stresses that his focus is on education, jobs, health and farmers.

The actor knows that Gurdaspur, once a Congress bastion, was won four times by Khanna largely on the plank of development. Khanna was known as “pulon ka badshah” (the king of bridges) among the locals for having built a bridge over the Beas, connecting the neighbouring Mukerian with Gurdaspur. After Khanna’s death, the BJP, along with its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, fielded a security guard company boss, Swaran Salaria, in the 2017 bypoll. Salaria lost to the Congress’s Sunil Jakhar — son of former speaker Balram Jakhar — by 1,90,000 votes.

“A combination of factors may work for Deol — his patriotism in movies, his Jat identity as Jats are in large numbers here, and the legacy of Vinod Khanna, the man from Deol’s fraternity,” says Kumar. And it helps that Deol’s father, actor and former BJP Bikaner MP Dharmendra, belongs to Ludhiana.

What may also help him is that Jakhar has not kept his poll promises of providing the youth with smartphones or creating jobs. There are also whispers linking him with illegal mining. But Jakhar’s answer to Deol is that once he returns to Mumbai, the actor will do nothing for the people.

Deol is fighting not just Jakhar but the rumours that he will not be seen after the poll. “They say: He is an actor. He won’t come here, he won’t stay here, he won’t do this, he won’t do that,” Deol complains. “I want to make people believe, I will be here, for them.”

I fear that as a line, it is not quite as effective as some of his fiery dialogues.

This story appeared in Hindu Business Line’s BLink on May 17, 2019

The Gurdaspur candidate has begun distancing himself from the nationalistic rhetoric


By Sonia Sarkar

The rich and resonant voice of Sunny Deol has mellowed down. He is barely audible. His sleep-deprived eyes are half-open. The 40-minute morning workout hasn’t really helped. He drinks a glass of lassi to boost himself. “It has been a little hectic because I came in pretty late,” says the 62-year-old Bollywood actor. He is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from Punjab’s Gurdaspur, pitted against incumbent Congress MP Sunil Jakhar.

Deol is flooded with visitors at the courtyard of a guesthouse at Nawan Pind Sardaran Di, about six kilometres away from Gurdaspur town. Mill workers who have been laid off, want their jobs back. Farmers want their debts paid off. Young men want selfies with him. Deol interacts with them for about 15 minutes, and then goes inside. “I am trying to understand everything; I am battling,” he says candidly, while fiddling with a string of white beads on his right wrist.

Clearly, his colleagues in the BJP haven’t briefed him enough about his constituents. It seems they are only keen to milk the barrel-chested Deol’s muscular nationalist image from the silver screen for Gurdaspur, which shares 110 kilometres of international boundary with Pakistan. This is the same constituency that saw two terrorist attacks four years ago. As Gurdaspur goes to the polls on May 19, the party wants to project Deol as a “tough man” who has taught Pakistan many “lessons” in films such as Border (1997), Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Maa Tujhhe Salaam (2002) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003).

Several patriotic dialogues from his films are a huge hit even today. This one from Gadar – “Hindustan zindabad tha, hai, aur rahega,” which is heard in his rallies, was tweeted by even Prime Minister Narendra Modi after Deol met him last month. BJP leaders call him the sachha deshbhakt (true patriot). Initially, Deol too used to parrot, “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot).” But, after he betrayed his ignorance over recent Indian Air Force strikes on Pakistan’s Balakot in a media interview, he seems to be distancing himself from the nationalist rhetoric.  “I didn’t do those films because I wanted to do patriotic films. They just happened. I am not trying to cash in on that image — no way — I will never do that,” he clarifies.

While patting his forehead gently with a white towel, the actor adds, “People just didn’t understand Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was a love story.”  He stresses, “In that film, I fought for my family — I didn’t fight for India.”

Slowly, he is picking up issues that matter to his constituents. On arsenic contamination of groundwater in Gurdaspur, he says, “We have to stop farmers from using fertilisers.” His solution to the region’s drug addiction problem is this — “We need to divert the attention of the youth towards sports.”

But he isn’t speaking much at the rallies. He moves with a fleet of SUVs around villages, waves to the cheering crowd and shakes hands with a few enthusiasts from the sunroof of his white Land Rover. At rare times, he opens the door of his car, interacts with people. He nods when they share their problems with him, but he isn’t offering any solutions for now. Many find him honest, but are not convinced he would be around if he wins. After all, his father, actor Dharmendra, also a BJP man, remained a ‘missing MP’ in Rajasthan’s Bikaner.

His opponents allege he is fighting elections under pressure from the BJP to escape an income-tax raid, and that he has jumped into politics because his film career is virtually over. In fact, his latest release, Blank, where he plays an anti-terrorist squad (ATS) officer, isn’t doing well at the box office.

Are the allegations true, I ask?

He is irked. Now, I can hear the familiar intense voice. Without badmouthing his rivals, the actor, who has declared assets worth Rs 87.18 crore in his nomination papers, asserts: “My purpose of getting into politics is not for gaining anything… I am doing pretty well, where I am. I want to serve the people.”

Traditionally a Congress bastion, Gurdaspur was won by late Bollywood actor and BJP MP Vinod Khanna four times, till he died in 2017. Jakhar defeated BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) joint candidate Swaran Salaria in the by-elections. Rumours are that the BJP didn’t have a candidate who could match the charm of Khanna. So, at the last minute, it turned to this macho Jat Bollywood hero.

When I ask whether Khanna’s legacy would help him, he doesn’t have a straight answer. “There will be factors, which might work in my favour and also go against me,” Deol says. “I want everything to go against me, and I will still emerge a winner.”

His voice lacks conviction, though.


Published in Firstpost:

  • Sunny DeolThe 62-year-old actor has made a name for himself portraying soldiers, spies and police officers in a series of hypermasculine blockbusters
  • But will his on-screen anti-Pakistan persona prove popular among those who live in neighbouring Punjab state?

Pic — Kamalasagar

His dark skinny fingers clutch the barbed wires. The tips of his fingers move up and down, as if to some inaudible melody. His body swings left, and then right, and left again, but his eyes remain fixed on me. In his accented Bengali, Mohammed Joy tries to convince me that he has mastered some lessons in astrology from his kabiraj (ayurvedic practitioner) father.

He tells me, “You are an Aquarian. You are very close to getting a new opportunity but there are hurdles. To clear the hurdles, stop eating eggs. To know more, you must call up my father.” He insists I take his father’s phone number, accept his visiting card. But our man in uniform stops me. “Nahin, Madam, yeh allowed nahin hai… This is not allowed, Madam.”

We are on the zero line in Kamalasagar, 28 kilometres from Agartala town. The BSF jawan with the prominent Adam’s apple keeps a firm gaze on me to ensure I don’t walk up to Joy. But Joy, who is from Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh, is not ready to give up. “My father solves problems of many Indians. He can help you too,” he boasts. Joy’s words make me laugh out loud. In India, the government would have us believe that Bangladeshis are the real problem today.

Here, in Kamalasagar, Indians and Bangladeshis meet every Sunday “officially” to buy and sell sarees, cosmetics, vegetables, fruits and more. (For some, this border haat or bazaar is also a place for reunion with relatives from across the border.)

The small restaurants on the Sonamura border serve ilish from Bangladesh Image: Sonia Sarkar

A common grievance of the locals is that the much-raved-about ilish, or hilsa, of Bangladesh is not available in this weekend bazaar. That, however, doesn’t mean you cannot savour the delicately flavoured ilish of Bangladesh elsewhere and anywhere in Tripura. The small restaurants on the Sonamura border claim they get their ilish from Comilla in Bangladesh, only seven kilometers away. The waiter at Hotel Shankar in Agartala, in his accented Bengali reminiscent of Joy’s, says the restaurant sources its ilish from river Padma, the pride of Bangladesh.

The ilish has made me digress. The moot point I am making is this — Tripura’s connect with Bangladesh goes beyond fish.

Apparently, the idol of Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the state, has come from Chittagong, also in Bangladesh. During the 2018 Tripura Assembly elections, local BJP leaders appropriated Tripura Sundari to garner Hindu votes. After winning the elections, they attributed their victory to the goddess. (Mind you, Bangladeshi migrants were dubbed termites by party president Amit Shah.) And this Diwali, the state government organised a two-day religious extravaganza at the Tripura Sundari temple, apparently to “restore” the cultural identity of the state.

The new chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, too has a Bangladesh connect — his parents belonged to Chandpur in Chittagong, though he was born in Tripura. The newly-built museum at Ujjyanta Palace, one of the former abodes of Tripura’s Manikya kings, has a separate section on the 1971 Liberation War with special emphasis on the contribution of the people of Tripura to the movement.

Food and culture, people and gods, history and heritage, there is more than one thing enforcing the India-Bangladesh connect in general and the Tripura-Bangladesh connect in particular. In fact, so closely connected are we that at the Agartala-Akhaura border, barely six kilometers away from the palace, the filth of our swachh Bharat flows into Bangladesh through a canal.

Agartala–Akhaur border

After a three-day tour of this northeastern state, I am sitting at the departure lounge of the Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport, waiting for my flight. At this point, India’s fastest mobile network has given up and my phone picks up signals of Robi Axiata — the cellular network of Bangladesh. It reminds me how the moment I stepped on the zero line at Kamlasagar, my smartphone had flashed: “Welcome to Bangladesh!”

Once again, I remember Joy’s words — opportunity, obstacles, no eggs. And that’s when it occurs to me that he was bluffing all along. How do I know? Because to begin with I am no Aquarian. The realisation and the subsequent relief sweeps over me. I won’t have to deprive myself of my routine fix of sunny side up, after all.


Link —

With India and Bangladesh signing a land boundary agreement, the focus now is on people who live on the border, straddling both countries. This is an attempt to catch a glimpse of life in nowhere land.

Eleven-year-old Abhijit Majumdar plans to spend most of his summer holidays in Bangladesh. Not with a passport and a visa, but by just stepping out into his backyard. The front of his house is in India, the back in Bangladesh.

“My friends from Bangladesh come to play football with me,” says Majumdar, who lives in Dakshin Para in the South Dinajpur district of West Bengal.

His house is among the 70 houses in his village on or near the zero line or Radcliffe Line, the international boundary (IB) drawn between India and what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. A large part of the house falls in India, while a portion lies in Bangladesh.

As India and Bangladesh sealed a Land Boundary Agreement recently to exchange enclaves on the border where thousands of people from the two countries live without proper citizenship and legal rights, the focus is now on people who are placed near the zero line of the India-Bangladesh border.
A 2216km-long stretch of the 4,096km border falls in West Bengal, covering North 24-Parganas, South 24-Parganas, Murshidabad, Nadia, Malda, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.

Around 70,000 people live on or near the zero line across the border, more than 11,000 in South Dinajpur alone, where the border is the most porous.

There should be no settlements within 150 yards of the IB. But this no man’s land is dotted with houses, with large agricultural fields and ponds surrounding the habitat.

One can easily cross the border by stretching one’s leg. The distance between the two countries is less than a foot in most areas. A series of white pillars – some submerged in ponds or half buried in the ground – indicate that this is the border area.

For the residents, there is nothing new about living in two countries. But when Hamida Bibi came to Shrikrishnapur village after getting married 10 years ago, she felt strange when she looked out of her window into Bangladesh.

“Now it is so normal,” Bibi says, standing next to a bamboo tree which was planted in India and branches out into Bangladesh.

For people across the two sides, the border is no barrier. “I often cross the border. I go to the Katla market in Bangladesh, two kilometres away, to buy clothes or grocery,” Bibi says.

It is difficult to tell which house is in India for the undulating by-lanes with packed mud houses snake across the two countries seamlessly. From one house, you can hear the sounds of two women quarrelling – one is in India, the other in Bangladesh. The bone of contention is the quality of saris that a Bangladeshi woman has sold to Indian villagers.

Stories of harassment are common. To go to another village a few kilometres away, the local people have to take permission from the jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF). The huge black gates that stand next to the IB fence, around 150 yards away from these villages, open only from 6am to 6pm. To cross the gates, the villagers have to submit their identity cards at the checkpost.

Other villagers who live beyond the gates are not allowed into this area – this correspondent entered covertly with the help of a local villager.

“They have cut us off from our own country. They refuse to open the gates for us even if there is an emergency at night,” says 24-year-old Tahmina Bibi of Shrikrishnapur village. “We have to wait till a senior officer gives us permission.”

The BSF claims that security in these villages has been tightened because this is the hub of illegal trade. The villagers, mostly women and children, smuggle into Bangladesh goods such as cough syrups, rice, spices, cooking oil, saris and cycles. The goods are mostly transported by trains to and from Bangladesh which pass through Hili Block close to the zero line. Trafficking of cows and trading of illegal currency are the two biggest problems that security forces face on this porous border.

“Having a house on the zero line is not a problem. The problem is that these houses are used for illegal activities,” says Veena Sikri, former Indian envoy to Bangladesh.

Villagers accuse the BSF of raiding their houses in search of illegal goods. “The jawans beat us up. They treat us worse than animals,” complains Minhajul Islam, who runs a grocery shop in Purba Gobindapur.

The BSF denies the allegations. “We do our job for security issues but they think we are harassing them. If we don’t keep a check, we would be accused of colluding with them on illegal trade,” says Sandeep Salunke, inspector-general, BSF, South Bengal Frontier, who is also in charge of the North Bengal border.
Some of the villagers claim that they possess identity cards issued by both Bangladesh and India.

“Living on zero line is like living on the edge. There is always an air of suspicion around us. Dual identity cards help because when we are not allowed to cross the gate we can always go to the other side in case of any emergency,” says Monirul Islam (name changed).

The BSF says that the identity cards are issued by district administrations, and they have no way to control this. But to check crime, it has proposed to the ministry of home affairs to facilitate the relocation of these villages to an area outside the IB fence. The ministry of home affairs has asked for a response from the states bordering Bangladesh.

“It would be appropriate if the issue of people living ahead of the fence near the zero line receive the same kind of attention that the areas under Land Boundary Agreement received,” says Salunke. “The onus is on state governments to provide land and ensure that the villages ahead of the fence are relocated and that no Indian is staying close to the zero line.”

The villagers are worried about being relocated, and not being adequately compensated.
“Most of these people have been living in their ancestral houses. Some of them have agricultural land, too.

If they don’t get good compensation, why should they move out of their homes,” asks Anil Roy, a member of the Dhalpara Gram Panchayat in Hili block.

And would it affect their schooling, ask the children of Purba Gobindapur village. Ever since their primary school shut down two years ago, many of them have been walking to Daudpur in Bangladesh to study in a madrasa.

“We want to study. It doesn’t matter if it is an Indian or a Bangladeshi school,” says Jahana Khatoon (name changed).

Clearly, for the villagers, straddling two countries is part of life. Cross-border love stories are common. Tamina Bibi of Islambagh in Bangladesh and Rashid of Jamalpur in South Dinajpur met when Bibi crossed the border to fetch water from Rashid’s village seven years ago.

“We fell in love and got married. The borders didn’t matter,” she says.

In the Haripukur mosque, next to a boundary pillar, Indians and Bangladeshis pray together every Friday. “The mosque belongs to Bangladesh but we pray here because it is right next to our village,” Haripukur resident Mohammed Amjad Ali points out. “When the leaders of the two countries are promoting goodwill, where is the problem when we do so?”

The story has been published in The Telegraph, June 14, 2015

Impoverished children on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border have found a new way to survive — they work as goods carriers, smuggling items between the two countries, says Sonia Sarkar

Salil Burman’s eyes are restless. It’s one in the afternoon — and time for the 13-year-old boy to get to work. A resident of Dumrain village in north Bengal, he has to meet a local businessman to pick up 25 kilograms of sugar. Once that’s done, he has to hand over the package to a boy waiting on the other side of the Indo-Bangladesh border. Burman is paid around Rs 200 every day by traders whose goods he carries to the border.

“Usually, we have to dodge at least five men of the Border Security Force (BSF) along the 2km stretch from the trader’s shop to the border. But the afternoons are better for us, for there are few jawans to be seen then,” says Burman, whose village is in Hili block, South Dinajpur.

More than 500km away, Moinuddin Khan has been waiting at the Benapole checkpost in Bangladesh’s Jessore district to pick up 30kg of urea from his Indian counterpart. “I am afraid that I’ll be caught by the BSF or the Border Guard Bangladesh. I feel relieved once I come back to safer ground,” says Khan, 14.

Burman and Khan are divided by borders but they have a link. They act as carriers of goods that are illegally traded between India and Bangladesh. While cows are the most commonly smuggled item, the Indian children carry rice, sugar, urea, bicycles, nylon saris and country-made pistols to Bangladesh.

“Goods that are cheaper in India are smuggled into Bangladesh for higher profits,” explains Suraj Das, district co-ordinator of the Society for Participatory Action and Reflection, an NGO that works on border issues. “Fifty kilograms of urea bought for Rs 320 in India can fetch Rs 1,000 Bangladesh taka (BDT) or Rs 600. But goods with a price difference of Rs 5-10 a kg are also smuggled,” he says.

Diesel is one of the items illegally brought in from Bangladesh to India for it is cheaper there than in India, says Mohammad Nurul Amin, district magistrate, Jessore. Other goods smuggled from Bangladesh include fish, soaps and mobile handsets. “Every month, we confiscate goods worth 4 crore BDT (Rs 2.38 crore),” Amin adds.

The child carriers belong to poor families on both sides. “My father was an agricultural labourer but he didn’t earn more than Rs 300 a month. So I became a carrier,” says Burman, who now provides for his family of five.

Moinuddin’s story is no different. His father had a debt of 2 lakh BDT (Rs 1.19 lakh) in the local credit market and he fled the village without repaying it two years ago. “I have to pay off the debt as well as run the house. There was no option but to work as a carrier because it gave me an assured means of income,” says Moinuddin, who earns around 500 BDT (Rs 300) every month.

Poverty is so stark in the villages that often the children start smuggling with the consent of their parents. “My mother knows, but she doesn’t stop me because the family needs this money to survive,” says 13-year-old Abdul Rehman of Sharsha village in Jessore. Rehman is also paying off his father’s debts.

Child carriers are in demand for two reasons. One, as Das stresses, they are cheaper than adult carriers. But what’s more important is that paramilitary forces often mistake them for students. Most of the smuggled good, he adds, are carried in school bags.

“About 25 per cent of children are in the trade — up from 10 per cent five years ago,” says Sabita Pradhan, a member of the Panjun gram panchayat which includes Hili’s border villages.

The 4,095km stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border is porous enough to encourage smuggling. And the children adopt different methods to cross the border. “First we clear the shrubs that grow around the fence and then cut the fence with a pair of pliers,” says Mullah Javed, a Bangladeshi carrier.

Activists stress that the illegal trade is huge business, with three sets of participants — traders, children and linemen or agents, who ensure the smooth movement of goods across the border. “Each trader pays around Rs 15,000 every month to these linemen,” says an activist in Hili.

A senior BSF official based in Delhi admits that porous points on the border aid smuggling. “Keeping tab on such activities is a daunting task for Indian forces,” he says. The official adds that there are occasions when jawans are bribed. “There may be some black sheep in uniform too. But it is also very difficult for the personnel to remain clean as there is immense pressure on them from local people to ignore the smuggling,” he says.

Locals accuse the BSF jawans of abusing children caught smuggling. The global rights group, Human Rights Watch, said in a report in December last year that scores of Indian and Bangladeshi citizens, including minors, end up as victims of BSF abuse ranging “from verbal abuse to intimidation to torture, beatings and killings”.

Many of the children bear scars on their faces, palms, arms and feet. “Once I was stopped and badly beaten by a BSF jawan while carrying 20kg of mangoes,” says Azhar Khan, a Bangladeshi carrier. “My friends ran away with my mangoes. That helped me, because if the mangoes had got confiscated, I would have had to pay the trader for the loss.”

But the children believe that the trade is worth the risks, for the money they earn doesn’t just help keep the kitchen fires burning, but occasionally leads to luxury. Baburam Mandal of Dakhinpara in Hili, who has been smuggling goods for months, has a television set, a video player and a new bed.

Moinuddin likes to take time off from work every now and then to play cricket. “My running skills for smuggling help me score runs between the wickets,” he says.

The Bangladesh boy, who has scars around his eyes, dreams of getting out of smuggling some day. “I want to go to Darjeeling and see the sun rise from Tiger Hill.” Perhaps that will mark a new morning for him.

(The names of the child carriers have been changed to protect their identity)