Fortress India: Why Is Delhi Building a New Berlin Wall to Keep out Its Bangladeshi Neighbors?

Article excerpt

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FELANI WORE HER GOLD bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old's father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani's wedding, arranged for a week later in her family's ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.

There was no question of crossing legally--visas and passports from New Delhi could take years--and besides, the Bangladeshi village where Islam grew up was less than a mile away from the bus stand on the Indian side. Still, they knew it was dangerous. The Indians who watched the fence had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Islam had paid $65 to a broker who said he could bribe the Indian border guard, but he had no way of knowing whether the money actually made it into the right hands.

Father and daughter waited for the moment when the guards' backs were turned and they could prop a ladder against the fence and clamber over. The broker held them back for hours, insisting it wasn't safe yet. But eventually the first rays of dawn began to cut through the thick morning fog. They had no choice but to make a break for it.

Islam went first, clearing the barrier in seconds. Felani wasn't so lucky. The hem of her salwar kameez caught on the barbed wire. She panicked, and screamed. An Indian soldier came running and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The father fled, leaving his daughter's corpse tangled in the barbed wire. It hung there for another five hours before the border guards were able to negotiate a way to take her down; the Indians transferred the body across the border the next day. "When we got her body back the soldiers had even stolen her bridal jewelry," Islam told us, speaking in a distant voice a week after the January incident.

Other border fortifications around the world may get all the headlines, but over the past decade the 1,790-mile fence barricading the near entirety of the frontier between India and Bangladesh has become one of the world's bloodiest. Since 2000, Indian troops have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people like Felani there.

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In India, the 25-year-old border fence--finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion--is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture--and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

INDIA DID NOT ALWAYS VIEW its eastern neighbor in such hostile terms. When Bengali-speaking nationalists in what was then East Pakistan won Bangladesh's independence in a bloody 1971 civil war, they did it armed with Indian weapons. But the war destroyed Bangladesh's already anemic infrastructure and left more than a million dead, presaging the new country's famously unlucky future. Bangladesh is now home to 160 million people crammed into an area smaller than Iowa; 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and the country bottoms out the list on most major international health indicators.

As bad as things are, they can get plenty worse. Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. …