Where the cows don’t come home
India’s border with Bangladesh is the fifth longest in the world and the epicentre of a vibrant cow trade, which is spawning its own politics of hate
Sadiq Naqvi and Jasnea Sarma Dhubri/Guwahati
As the rugged Gypsy sped along the newly erected fence on the India-Bangladesh border, the Border Security Force (BSF) driver at the wheel smirked. “Cows don’t recognise borders,” he said.
In Dhubri district of Assam, cows, ducks, goats and even pigs are constantly moving from one side of the border to the other, he explained. He pointed to a healthy herd of bovines on the other side of the fence. “Those ones are Bangladeshis,” he said. Then he chuckled as he pointed to a couple of others, grazing at a distance from the herd. “And those two are Indians.”
One of the few important places on the Sikh religious map, Dhubri boasts a rich history. A grand gurudwara stands testimony to visits by Guru Nanak and the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur. And it was once an important port on the shipping route between India and Bangladesh, says Abu Taher Bepari, a lawyer who serves as an adviser to the home ministry in Assam. But in recent years, it has emerged as the epicentre of cattle smuggling.
“The apathy of the state has made Dhubri so backward,” says Bepari. Noting that Dhubri is at the bottom when it comes to the Human Development Index and compares with some of the worst developed regions in the country, he adds, “It is also the partition of 1947 which has ravaged this city.”
Residents of Guwahati scorn Dhubri as a border town plagued by everything the ethnic Assamese love to hate. It is one of those places which has been feeding the myth of largescale infiltration by Muslims from Bangladesh. The fact that it has a lot of Muslims, more than 70%, according to some estimates, only adds to that image.
Sammujal Bhattacharya, the powerful adviser to the All Assam Students Union who, locals joke, is the oldest student leader in the country, has no doubts that the district is being overrun. “Go and see for yourself,” he says with a big grin.
A top BSF officer serving in Dhubri concurs. “This district in particular sees a lot of infiltration by Bangladeshis,” he says. However, he declined to give an estimate when asked about the number of infiltrators the BSF had captured during its routine patrols. “It’s difficult. How many boats can you stop and screen for Bangladeshis?” he said. “They look the same. And once they are here, the locals on the many river islands spread across the area give them refuge.”
While he could not come up with evidence of infiltration, he had some more pointers to offer about how the state views this area with suspicion. “Why has there been no Aadhar card exercise in Dhubri? Clearly, the state government knows that it is not a good idea and many unwanted people may get Aadhar cards which will make it easier for them to get other documents,” he said.
All the security personnel interviewed by Hardnews agreed that it is remarkably easy for immigrants to get bogus voter identification cards and other documents. Notably, a similar claim has long been made by Bodos in the neighbouring area called Bodo Territorial Area District (BTAD). But when Hardnews visited that area in March 2015, we found that most people being labelled ‘Bangladeshis’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ and being targetted in violent attacks by the Bodos had valid documents that dated as far back as the 1950s.
For many, 2015 was the year of the cow in India. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014, Hindu nationalist vigilante groups have grown strong. Such groups have targetted minorities violently, often in the guise of protection of cows, which are considered sacred by the majority Hindus. Some BJP-run states, such as Haryana, have enacted harsh laws to curb the slaughter of cows.
The same impulse also led to the Central government clamping down heavily on the transport of cows to the border areas, from where they are smuggled to Bangladesh. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who has been issuing directives to the enforcement agencies to curb this illegal practice, in a recent statement claimed that the estimated smuggling of 1.8 million cows a year has come down by 70%. Rajnath has been making plans to visit Dhubri to invigorate the BJP cadre in a Muslim majority area in the lead-up to the Assam state assembly elections in April, according to a local official.
“He was supposed to come in September. Then the ground was swampy and unfit for the helicopter to land. Lately, he wanted to come in the first week of December. Even that trip had to be postponed,” the official said.
That attention has made the cattle smuggling business very risky, according to a home ministry official in Guwahati. “Although it is not top priority for us, since the cow protection vigilantes are running amok all over the country, being seen with a herd of cows can get you killed,” he said, referring to several instances in which people from the minority community were killed on mere suspicion of slaughtering cows. “This year even the leather exports have suffered immensely because there are no people ready to even skin the dead cows,” he says.
The BSF, which is the first line of defence on the Bangladesh border, insists that Dhubri continues to be an easy route for the rustlers.
“Cattle smuggling is a big problem here,” said Ajai Singh, who has been the BSF’s deputy inspector general in Dhubri sector for more than three years. “It may have gone down in neighbouring West Bengal because the border is entirely fenced but in my sector it has increased,” he said. “This year alone, `27 crore worth of cattle has been seized.” Recently transferred to a posting in Delhi, he met with Hardnews on his last day in Dhubri.
As we took a speedboat up the mighty Brahmaputra, he explained the difficulties that the BSF faces due to the beautiful but often violent river. Pointing out that the Brahmaputra, unlike other rivers, is constantly carving new paths for itself among countless river islands, he said that the many shifting channels make it almost impossible to police. “We have speedboats, but it is such a long border that it is very difficult to keep a watch,” he said.
India’s 4,096-km border with Bangladesh is the fifth longest in the world. Around 55 km of it runs along the Brahmaputra in Dhubri sector alone.
At the remote border outpost of Kalaicharbari, stats posted on the wall indicate that seizures of contraband have increased from around Rs 60 lakh in 2013 and 2014 to more than Rs 1.2 crore – in the first seven months of 2015 alone.
“In the last two months, I have carried out seizures worth Rs 2 crore, which included 3,000 cattle, and arrested some 22 smugglers,” says Kamal Kishore, one of the Assistant Commandants of the BSF, who is hailed as a hero by his colleagues for his outstanding record of chasing smugglers. He is stationed at the Border Outpost at Mahamayachar, a few kilometres from Kalaicharbari.
Narrating the story of one such operation, on the night of December 6, he said, “At 3 am we got information from our patrolling party that 30-40 people, in five to seven country boats with around 40 cattle in each, were moving towards the international border.” The BSF’s four-man patrolling party was no match for the 40-man gang moving with the cattle. “My team, with 10 other people, decided to give chase,” Kishore said. “We encircled them with our speedboats and fired pump action guns.” Before they could close in and apprehend the smugglers, however, the criminals had jumped into the river. “Our people are not well trained to swim so they managed to get away,” Kishore said. Nevertheless, the BSF seized 89 cattle and three paddle boats. Three machetes were also found in the boats.
Often, such encounters go the other way. Kishore says attacks on the BSF by the cattle runners are routine. “There are times when they manage to overpower us,” he said. “Or they lure us with a few cattle while they push the rest.”
One reason, according to Kishore and other BSF officers, is that the BSF is no longer allowed to use rifles against the smugglers. They have to make do with pump action guns and other non-lethal weapons. The home ministry issued a directive asking the BSF to refrain from shooting people on the border unless they perceived a threat to their own lives, following protests from the Bangladesh government.
“This has come as a big blow to us,” a senior BSF official says. “The deterrence is gone.” The BSF official says that now the smugglers know that the degree of threat to them has come down so they have become more audacious. Another BSF officer pointed out how this directive is affecting their psychology in the long run. “Here, such a directive is fine because we understand that indiscriminate firing can affect good relations with Bangladesh. But what happens when our battalion moves to another area, say, along the border with Pakistan where firing from the other side is commonplace? How will our men react if they get used to not firing?” he asks.
Meanwhile, in Dhubri, cows dot the entire landscape. “Most of these cows are not the indigenous kind,” Bepari points out. “The local variety is Burmese, which is smaller in size. The ones you mostly spot here are bigger and brought in from other areas.” On the roads leading to the border, it is common to see people walking with cows. “They will eventually land up on the fence or in boats,” a BSF personnel says.
The journey of the cattle which finally land up across the border begins sometimes in the deserts of Rajasthan. They are also brought in from Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh where stringent laws don’t allow slaughter. In a recent meeting, the former RSS ideologue and a champion of the cow protection movement in the country, KN Govindacharya, told Hardnews how smugglers were active even on the outskirts of Delhi.
Pointing out that demand for cows is high across the border, and that India has a surplus, now that machines have replaced draft animals in agriculture, Ajai said it’s only natural that people are trying to turn that discrepancy into cash. “It is not a Hindu-Muslim communal issue. It is a very profitable trade,” Ajai said. State laws make Assam the flashpoint. A cow which may cost less than a thousand bucks in places like Rajasthan, fetches more than Rs 50,000 once it crosses over to Bangladesh, where meat exporters find the Indian variety to be of high quality.
Cattle from states like Rajasthan are packed into containers so they cannot be seen and transported to the Sreerampur border crossing. There, they cross into Bangladesh even though more than 20 government agencies are active at this entry point.
The reason is simple, according to a local official of the state’s vigilance cell: Virtually without exception, the people tasked with stopping smuggling love cash more than they love cows. “It is a very lucrative posting. Officials of all the departments make a killing and are keen to have themselves posted there,” he said.
This official explained how a large syndicate of the cattle smugglers was active here and cited the name of a big smuggler from Andhra Pradesh, who started his career as a government official at this gate. “This person is now one of the biggest players in this racket,” the official says. He was a small-timer here till he forged contacts with other players and now he is so big that one of the gates, No. 26, is totally controlled by him. The smuggler is also said to have contacts with influential politicians and is said to be in the race for an Assembly election ticket from Gossaingaon in Kokrajhar district. “He is competing with me for an AIUDF ticket,” says a prospective AIUDF candidate from Gossaingaon. Perfume baron and AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal, interestingly, also happens to be the MP from Dhubri.
The man from Andhra may be just one of the people active in this trade. “The funny thing is, mostly Hindu moneybags finance this trade,” said a BSF official. According to him, it is usually a Marwari sitting in a big city like Guwahati who puts in the initial money to buy the cattle. The cattle are then brought in trucks to the Sreerampur gate. After that they are offloaded and made to walk to cattle haats in Barpeta and Dhubri. “There are so many cattle haats in this area. Most of these are providing cover for smuggling,” Ajai said. It is here that they are sold again to the local guys who then use local couriers to send them across the border. “The big guys are often not from local villages. They come from places like Fakirganj and Hajirahaat,” Kishore points out.
Once the cattle are resold again in the local cattle haats, their journey to the border begins. Often accompanied by local villagers who act as couriers, they are transported to the various river islands or villages closer to the fence. The couriers make anywhere from Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 per animal. The inhabitants of the river islands or the villages close to the border, who keep them for the night, too, get around Rs 500 per head. “You can’t catch them because when you ask them they always say that they have got them for their domestic use,” a BSF official claims. It is from these river islands and the villages that the cattle are transported in boats or are driven across the fence. “They have now come up with improvised pulleys to push the cattle to the other side,” the BSF guard told Hardnews.
Bepari burst out laughing at the claim. “Is it possible to push such big animals through a pulley when there is a BSF guard stationed every 500 metres along the border?” he asked.
Meanwhile, the obsession with cattle smuggling prevents the BSF from doing anything else, and even if they nab a few rustlers, nothing changes, officers lament.
“We can’t prosecute or confiscate the cattle,” a disillusioned officer explained.
Instead, the BSF turns the beasts over to the customs officials and hands the smugglers to local police. Because of sheer numbers, it’s impossible to send the confiscated cattle back to the district headquarters, so customs auctions them on the spot. As often as not, the buyer is the same smuggler who lost them to begin with.
“It is a win-win situation for everyone,” the BSF official points out. “The customs officials and the local police are actually securing these cattle corridors in connivance with the rustlers. Even after all the cuts and commissions, pushing the cattle across is still a very profitable thing.”
While some BSF officers would like to see a “sterile zone” created in the border areas, the truth is that the border is sometimes the only resource that the people living in the area have. In Bansichar, one of the bigger river islands on the Brahmaputra, for instance, few of its more than 4,000 inhabitants have land or employment. The only school, which functions out of a bamboo hut, hasn’t seen a teacher for the past many months. And only groundnuts can be grown in the sandy soil.
Explaining that the home ministry has pulled up the local administration for failing to utilise the Border Areas Development Fund being provided by the Central government, Ajai said it was only natural that they’ve turned to smuggling. “The people here have no other option when you see how the state is treating them,” he said.
The government’s obsession with the securing of border areas, and the absurd border trade policy, too, only made things worse for those living along the frontier. Consider the plight of the people in the villages of Bouthidanga and Fauskarkutti, for example. Though they belong to India, they are surrounded by Bangladeshi villages on three sides.
This small area couldn’t be fenced. International law demands a distance of 150 metres between the international border and the fence. This space didn’t exist so the fence couldn’t cover these two villages and they were left out on the other side. The 25-odd families living in this village depend on gate No. 50 in the fence for their movement to the outside world. All their movements are watched by the BSF personnel and they have to report even the quantity of meat or the number of cattle they get for their domestic use. “We can’t buy a big packet of urea or edible ghee because the BSF thinks we will smuggle it to the Bangladeshi villages,” says Birkanta Roy, a teacher at the small primary school in Bouthidanga. Only a pond stands between Bangladesh and India here. But if residents need a tube of toothpaste or a bar of soap, they must travel a good seven kilometres to the nearest shop. The BSF hasn’t even allowed a shop in these villages. “When we have no option we have to go to the Bangladeshi villages to get the routine stuff,” a villager said.
With such absurdity prevailing, it’s no wonder the state government is lax about tackling cattle smuggling. “The district administration keeps telling us that it will become a big law and order problem if we were to come down heavily on this,” a BSF official pointed out. They feel that people will take to crime when there are no other avenues of earning.
But there’s an obvious solution.
On the Bangladesh side, the cross-border trade is legal, with the government collecting 500 taka for every cow that crosses the border from India. Were India to do the same, it could be a big revenue earner and also a source of employment for the locals. Is anybody listening?