The gunshots that rang out at Lalmonirhat border pillar 863 one moonless night last month were heard nowhere else: The place was too distant, the cause too small and the victims too insignificant for governments or media to care. Twenty-eight-year-old Sujan Mian—recruited by traffickers to herd cows across the border—managed to straggle back home into Lalmonirhat, haemorrhaging from the bullet wound in his abdomen. Alam Hossain, shot in the leg, was captured by the Border Security Force.
Along the Bangladesh-India border, the price of smuggling cattle is paid in human blood. The issue is deeply uncomfortable for both countries. But as opposition mounts against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the failure to address border killings is providing ammunition to critics of India’s most important partner in the region.
18 Bangladeshi residents, human rights watchdog Odhikar has reported, were killed and another 21 injured along the border last year—figures that are higher than terrorism-related violence along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Despite India’s commitment to use non-lethal weapons on the border, 51 Bangladeshis were allegedly killed by the BSF in 2021, 49 the year before, and 43 in 2019.
Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi—worried at the political impact of the border killings—promised to reduce shooting deaths to zero. Even as the two leaders were meeting, the BSF shot dead a ninth-grade student Minarul Islam.
The victims are mainly among the cattle traffickers but they also include economic immigrants and individuals engaged in the trafficking of commodities like liquor and narcotics. In one tragic incident last year, eight-year-old Parvin Khatun and her four-year-old brother Shakibul Hasan drowned in the Nilkamal River, after their parents sought to flee a BSF patrol. Although the suffering of Indian illegal immigrants to the West gets significant media coverage in India, the deaths of the children received no mention.
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The politics of cattle trafficking
From the work of anthropologist Malini Sur, it is evident that the cattle-trafficking issue is deeply enmeshed with the region’s troubled communal past. Through the early 20th century, she notes, colonial authorities despatched veterinary officers to meet trains bringing cattle from northern India to meet the demands of the eastern borderlands. This trade became a political cause for Hindu nationalists, who used it to emphasise Hindu-Muslim difference and protest against the colonial state in India.
The creation of a border in 1947 brought an end to the organised transport of cattle but it meant lack of opportunity for communities in the borderlands. The years after Independence saw a surge in raiding and cattle-rustling, with authorities in erstwhile East Pakistan describing Dalit communities living along the border as “notorious cattle lifters.”
Following the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, India continued to restrict the transport of live cattle but a de-facto open-border regime descended. The situation became more fraught after movements against Bangladesh migrants tore through Assam in 1979.
The two-metre-high $500 million fence built to separate Bangladesh and India, as scholar Elena Dabova notes, was far from hermetic: The existence of broad rivers, marshes and forest meant some 30 per cent of the border remained open.
Large traders used these gaps to bribe their way through the controls enforced by the BSF and the Bangladesh border guards, often with the patronage of local political notables. Trinamool Congress leader Anubrata Mandal is currently facing trial for his alleged role in laundering funds from cattle runners.
“Each pradhan (village head) came prepared with a list of the total number of cattle they wanted to be allowed entry into their villages past the BSF patrols,” scholar Sahana Ghosh has written of meetings she witnessed. “Over cups of tea and samosas, the negotiations began. This melodramatic haggling of the number of cattle that was to be ‘permitted’ for Qurbani Eid seemed to be entertaining for all parties concerned.”
The authorities also used their power to deter smaller traffickers from encroaching into the business. Following one trafficking expedition conducted without payments to the border authorities, Malini Sur writes, gunfire was heard, and news arrived that “the decomposing bodies of cattle transporters had been found floating in the Brahmaputra.”
“No one claimed responsibility.”
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Has shoot-to-kill worked?
Evidence of the success of shoot-to-kill anti-trafficking policies is ambiguous. The Ministry of Home Affairs has no official estimates of the scale of cattle smuggling but uses seizures as a metric. The BSF said it recovered 21,917 cattle in 2021, down from 1,68,801 five years earlier. This shows aggressive measures against traffickers worked. The data also shows, however, that recoveries surged after 2012 when they stood at 1,20,724. This was despite the fact that border killings were higher in the period from 2011-2015, at 177, compared to 157 for 2016-2020. This suggests there was no simple link between deterrence-by-killing and smuggling.
The BSF itself seemed sceptical of the success of its anti-cattle trafficking measures in 2017 testimony to a standing committee of Parliament. “The cattle seized by the BSF are handed over to the Customs authorities who dispose them of by auction and very often the cattle so auctioned find their way back to the smugglers,” Parliament was told.
Last year, former BSF director-general Pankaj Singh complained that the burden of caring for tens of thousands of cattle was distracting the force from its core border-protection duties. Lower recoveries might indicate local BSF units are seizing fewer cattle.
Finally, Bangladesh itself has significantly expanded its domestic production of beef. Local producers sought protection against imports, including cows trafficked from India, leading to a red-meat import ban two years ago. The government of India, perhaps ironically, has been lobbying for buffalo-meat exports to Bangladesh.
A durable traffic
Trafficking of cows, though, continues on a not-insignificant scale—with bans on slaughter elsewhere actually making more animals available, one expert analysis suggests. Trafficking through Bengal sometimes results in violence, with paid mobs battling the BSF. Elsewhere, stealth works. Earlier this month, the BSF recovered a herd being moved through the forests of the East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. The transport of cattle into Meghalaya is legal, scholar Baniateilang Majaw has recorded, to meet the demand from its beef-eating hill communities.
Local networks then profit from routing cattle into Bangladesh. Towns like Thymmai served as hubs for wider networks of cross-border trade. Traders at the Thymmai Haat, or bazaar, sell liquor to Bangladesh, in addition to arranging for the trafficking of cows. “Long-term contact means that Meghalaya tribals do not consider Bangladeshis as strangers, and some tribal women are happy to enter marriages,” Majaw writes. “A restaurateur of Haat Nongjri said her youngest cousin sister eloped with a stranger from Bangladesh, whom she met at the haat.”
The Hynniewtrep Integrated Territorial Organization, a powerful ethnic-nationalist political organisation in Meghalaya, has been demanding legalisation of cattle exports to Bangladesh, arguing both the state government and local communities would benefit.
Even though ideological considerations make it unlikely for any government to permit the transport of cows into Bangladesh, it is in India’s interest to end the culture of violence and killing on the border. Legalising and expanding existing grey-market trade conducted through haats on the border would be one step forward. The use of identity card regimes to facilitate the local movement of labour and traders has long been discussed.
The extraordinary success Sheikh Hasina’s government has had in crushing jihadist terrorism—and its deep cooperation with the New Delhi government—have had a crucial role in making India more secure. The killings on the border engender resentment and bitterness that threatens the legitimacy of her policies. The gains India has made ought not be frittered away.
Praveen Swami is ThePrint’s National Security Editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)