Embarking a crowded train from Sealdah on my first ever field visit to Nadia I was in no way prepared for the experience that unfolded in the next two days of the trip. Situated in the heart of the Bengal delta with the Bhagirathi on the west and the Padma running into the Meghna estuary on the east, it is bounded by the district of Murshidabad on the north and north west and on the north-east and east it is bounded by the districts of Rajsahi and Kusthia in Bangladesh. My destination was a border village Char Meghna. It lies next to Murshidabad district’s Karimpur. It falls under the Hogolberia Police station.
Charmeghna is a Bangladeshi enclave, the land belonging to Bangladesh, residents being Indian citizens. The entire village is located beyond the electric fence. A pillar proudly proclaiming its Bangladeshi identity greeted us right at the entrance gate of the village. We had to submit our identification documents and sign our names before we could go in. It was almost like entering a high security apartment. Charmeghna is a strange paradox of the Partition as is Jamalpur on the other side of the border—this time Indian land with Bangladeshi citizens. The village of Charmeghna is situated between the electric fence and the Mathabhanga River, a distributary of Padma, beyond which is Bangladesh. The villagers are primarily engaged in agriculture.
My first meeting was with the seniors of the village in the primary school where they were waiting for me. Some of the young girls and older people accompanied me to the BSF post located within the village. From there we went to see the river which served as a border between the two countries. The river in reality turned out to be a narrow channel of water which would pose no kind of barrier to anyone wanting to cross the area. Following the exploration I was invited to one of the houses so that I could interact with the villagers.
The BSF, they held was a constant presence in their lives. But this has not been the situation always. In the past there was no BSF posting in the area which resulted into unregulated crime by people allegedly from the other side of the border. As a result of a movement spearheaded by the civil society organizations and the residents of the area the BSF was finally stationed within the village. Though there was complains of harassment by the jawans there had been no atrocities committed by them. They agreed that the BSF stationing has actually made the area more secure. Though there were still thefts of crops and cattle by ‘those Bangladeshis’ its frequency and intensity has definitely lessened. The villagers however were vociferous in articulating their grievances over the general state of affairs —lack of administration and development that they have been forced to grapple with everyday. Lack of electricity, good roads has been lacunas plaguing them for a very long time. The government perceived in the form of panchayat and the political parties seem oblivious to their needs. They only approach the villagers during election time and disappear once the polls are over. Moreover the residents of the village mostly hail from tribal background. But the administration does not supply them with the Scheduled Tribes certificates. Though they get all the benefits and privileges that the Scheduled Tribes are entitled to but without a certificate this would be true only within Nadia. It seems that with the gates closing behind them mainland India also turns her back towards them.
My next visit was to the local police station. I had the chance to interact with the local OC Arup Kumar Pal and he gave me a quite detailed insight on the state of the border villages. The inconvenience of the people living in the international bordering zone is caused by i) international security point of view and ii) when BSF personnel are guided by their whims. Cultivation of jute is forbidden adjacent to the IB fencing considering the international security point of view. He, however, claimed that trafficking of women and children have become a rare instance in this part of the Indo-Bangladesh border. However he is optimistic about the situation in these areas. “The local problems of the area are found to be solved with the intervention of local police station, local political personnel and, local NGO authority.” He concedes that the people of this area as poverty stricken mostly labourers or based on agriculture. Being located far from the district headquarter development is less, education is little and consciousness is minimal. Hence marginalization is only natural.
I was to spend the night in a border townlet called Shikarpur. It was much bigger in size than Charmeghna and much better developed with electricity and concrete roads. However this was also located at the margins. Just behind the settlement there was a far wider Mathabhanga beyond which was Bangladesh. A large contingent of BSF has been posted here. Though located just by the border it was not shut off from the Indian mainland by a gate which probably explains its much better condition than Charmeghna.
Being kept out of India’s border fence and not being a part of Bangladesh the very fact of its existence aggravates the security and developmental concerns that people struggle with everyday. The dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion continues as a part of their daily struggle for existence.