Freedom for Indian girls, with bikes

By Molly Oleson (class of 2013)

BIHAR, India, April 2012—Imagine that you are a young girl growing up in West Bengal, India. Your village smells of spices, and coconuts and pineapples hang from the trees. Women roam through tea gardens, up to their bellies in leaves that they pluck by the handful and place in bags that rest on little head pillows.
But this is not a dreamy life…
Molly Oleson’s multimedia piece illustrates how bicycles are being used to heal and empower young survivors of sex trafficking at a remote ashram in one of India’s poorest states.

A Land Apart: India’s Northeast

By Becky Palmstrom (class of 2011)

ASSAM, India, April 2010—Khagel Barman was famished as he headed down a dirt path towards his home, a turquoise adobe house, sat on the green plains of Assam, in North East India. The twenty-year old directed the cows ahead of him and carried a woven sack over his shoulder. The sack bulged with the potatoes he’d spent the day gathering. The dying sunlight lit up the lush leaves and tilled fields he trudged. It was just after 6pm and it would be Khagel’s last sunset.

Khagel lived with his family in a region of India crammed between China, Burma and Bangladesh. This triangle of earth is attached to mainland India by a sliver of earth barely 15 kilometers wide. As multi-ethnic as Afghanistan or the Balkans it is not without similar troubles and although India’s conflict over Kashmir and the clashes with the Naxalites garner more headlines, the seven sister states of the North-East of India have some of the most stubborn and bloody insurgency movements in the country. There are some 130 different armed groups here: sometimes fighting for an ideology, sometimes for an autonomous ethnic homeland, sometimes for complete independence and sometimes because there is no other way to make a living. Over the years more and more groups have turned to extortion, “taxing” civilians and exploiting the vacuum of law and order to grow stronger. In some areas, like the state of Manipur, the war economy is so rooted it has become the main employment opportunity for young people.

Although this is a place wracked by ethnic conflict and where many are resentful of the Indian state, there had been little violence in the area surrounding the Barman’s house before that day in 2000 when Khagel, a second year art student, walked home with his sack of potatoes.

As Khagel ambled into his home’s small courtyard he greeted his father, a thin, bony man, who sat at the doorway watching the darkness settle. Khagel washed the grime of the fields off his face and out of his thick black hair and bushy moustache. He called to his mother for dinner and she started preparing rice. Khagel’s friend from Art College had stopped by to watch that night’s cricket match between India and Pakistan.

As 7 pm drew closer, the courtyard filled with Muslim worship songs from the television set, the clucking of chickens and the noise of the cricket commentary. It was the sound of the two cars that made Khagel’s father, Garnesh, look up from his place in the courtyard. The vehicles had stopped at the gate Khagel had just entered. Sixteen police officers and masked men got out.

The men were part of India’s policy to stamp out armed activities in Assam. Although the armed groups are responsible for human rights violations, the Indian state’s attempts to quell the insurgency also cause violations. The North East is currently the only area other than Kashmir, where an old British law is used to arrest, detain and shoot those “suspected” of insurgency. Under the law, no military personnel can be held accountable for their actions without permission from the Central government; offering immunity and some say, promoting impunity, even when, as in Khagel’s case, they get the wrong person.

“They were like this,” Khagel’s father Garnesh explains ten years later, taking a white and red faded scarf from his neck and wrapping it over his nose and mouth illustrating the masked men who visited that day. The men called out for Khagel and before his father could answer, Khagel stood facing the men.

“Yes, I am Khagel Barman,” he said.

Nilima, Khagel’s mother heard the scrunching of boots and voices of the men in the courtyard and abandoned the rice she was washing to ask what the men wanted from her son.

“You don’t know your son,” one of the policemen said. “You don’t know what your son has been doing.”

But all Khagel had been doing was running meetings and participating in student politics at the local Art College. According to family, friends and even local policemen, he had never been involved in armed activities. The Unified Command structure in Assam extends AFSPA to cover police working with the army against so-called terrorists. In the courtyard of the Barman’s turquoise house the physical ramifications of the Act played out.

One of the policemen pushed Khagel roughly into the dirt and kicked him in the stomach.

“They put their foot to his head.” Garnesh says, standing up to illustrate the raised foot crushing down onto the head of a Khagel who now only exists in the memories of his parents.

The chickens had stopped clucking, his parents remember. Nilima rushed forward screaming for them to stop. They didn’t. Instead she and other members of the family were shoved into a room off the courtyard. The door was bolted and the family watched through the gaps in the bamboo walls as the men lined up with their guns pointed towards Khagel.

“They took him to one side of the courtyard and they asked him to stand, like this,” Garnesh says, pointing out the scrap of earth where it happened. Then Garnesh describes the sound of the twenty-seven bullets that broke the skin of Khagel and Garnesh and Nilima’s world.

“The arm was separated because there were so many bullets,” Garnesh illustrates the strangled look of Khagel’s body as first his arm came off and then he fell. The men emptied Khagel’s sack of potatoes out onto the ground and stuffed his still warm body into the sack. Nilima says she doesn’t know what happened next – she blanked out.

Ten years have gone by and she sits in the room where her son spent his last minutes. Her back is poker-straight as though she might break into fragments if she makes a sudden move.  There is a portrait of her dead son staring down at us from the wall. The turquoise paint is faded.

It is hard not to see this family entirely through the prism of their son’s death – an injustice that bleeds into every part of their reality: from the poverty they face without a son to support them, to the smudged sadness at the edges of their eyes. Despite an apology from members of the police in the weeks after their son’s death and promises of compensation, none of the police involved in the murder of Khagel Barman have faced trial. It has taken ten years for the compensation to come through. Anjuman Ara Begum, a researcher with Asia Human Rights Commission, says although the number of people killed by the state has fallen, abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Assam and Manipur continues.

Begum has spoken with over 70 families who have lost their loved ones in incidences similar to the Barman’s. She says more than 90 percent of the families have received no compensation for their loss.

AFSPA is the residue of Britain’s time in India and was once used to control “disturbed” areas of the country. In 1958 the Indian state resurrected AFSPA to quell an uprising in the Naga Hills in the north of the region. Way before 9/11, India, the largest democracy in the world, was using anti-terrorist legislation in its North East. The hill tribes on the border of Burma and China have always been easy to define as “disturbed” – they have always been fiercely dependent – yet the struggles of the armed groups in this region have remained off the international agenda and mainly ignored by the media. AFSPA is just one part of the culture of impunity in the seven sister states, where 230 ethnic groups fight to be heard.

On the heavily militarized border between Bhutan and India violations committed by non-government forces show the complexity of the North-Eastern conflicts and one of the reasons why a blanket repeal of AFSPA is unlikely. Here the rainy season has begun and the weather can’t seem to make up its mind, flipping between sharp sunlight and brutal hailstorms in minutes. The stories are familiar in a region where ethnic identity and territory have been intrinsically linked – as though claiming a homeland is the only way of claiming a voice.

I am in the heartland of one of the ethnic groups, the Adivasi, four hours north-west of the Barman’s in an area known as Boroland. The colors of the Adivasi women’s clothes are all the brighter for existing in a cluster of houses that look as though they might disappear under a plane of mud. The mud morphs from cracked desert to a clay-like swamp as the hailstorms begin. The women are constantly getting up to brush the mud out of their homes (whose floors are themselves made of the stuff). These are some of the internally displaced. They now live as strangers in their own land, without access to clean water, schools or adequate food.

Boroland is an autonomous council in the state of Assam. For years Boro armed groups fought for greater autonomy. Finally in the early 2000’s the Indian government relented and agreed that in the areas where the Boro population was at least 50 percent an autonomous council would be created to administer their own affairs. The Assam state government estimates two thousand people were killed as the Boro re-arranged the ethnic landscape.

“Before we were living a very peaceful life,” says a woman dressed in the bright green woven scarf typical of this area. “I do not know how it could have happened that our neighbors did this.”

“First they would come and take our buffalo,” she says, “Then they would come to our house and shoot us. They cut people into pieces.”

Almost 200,000 people were displaced.

“They burnt the 80 houses in our village, one after the other,” another woman nursing a baby chimes in. “If we tried to save anything from our home they took us and threw us to the ground.”

“We ran to the border and lived for three days without food or water,” she continues. “Now we cannot go back to our land. The Boro live there now.”

The women are talking over each other, arguing or disagreeing or correcting each other as the translator tries to keep up.

“My husband was beaten so badly last time that he can no longer work, his arms were too broken,” says one woman, while another illustrates the beating, standing and whacking her scarf over and over again on a stone in the middle of the muddy center of their village – “bang bang bang” she yells and the group of women laugh at her impersonation.

“Everybody is asking for a separate state,” says an old woman, laughing. “How will it work?” Others mutter in agreement. “We cannot build our houses properly because we do not know when we will have to leave again.”

“For a year or so they have stopped coming and killing,” says another. “But you never know when it will happen again.”

It is not only the Adivasi who were displaced. The Rajbongshis, the Muslims, the Nepalis and the Sutraohars also lost their land and therefore the ability to farm.

There is a mixed response when I ask the women about the Armed forces and the police. In some of the communities we visit, the women tell me the military has been helpful.

“They used to come to our village and protect and help us,” says one woman. “There was one police officer, he was very helpful. We wouldn’t have land if it wasn’t for him.”

While the world ignores the conflicts in the far North-East of India AFPSA is just one part of a complicated, violent series of relationships that steal security and life from civilians. Putting the blame on the shoulders of any one entity is a complicated, political and often dangerous process. In Boroland a few months ago a group of students crept out in the dead of night to paint “No Arms in Boroland” on a wall in the city. They were found by one of the military groups who told them they would be shown what no arms in Boroland looked like. The student’s arms were so badly cut they had to be hospitalized.

Although Meenakshi Gang, the Indian researcher for Human Rights Watch says rights are violated on all sides of the conflicts in the seven sister states the presence of AFSPA in some of the states for nearly six decades has not only led to widespread human rights violations, but has also created a mobilizing tool for the armed groups.


“The law has been so widely abused that it has now become a symbol of hate in places like Manipur and Assam,” she says, which is why even a recent Indian government commission examining the Act recommended its repeal.


However, the Indian army is yet to be convinced. They claim the Act is a necessary tool for protecting civilians. An Indian army officer expresses a commonly held view.

“If you are saying that one misuse merits a repeal – it is like saying because of the government’s misuse of election laws we should get rid of democracy,” he says, emphasizing the importance of seeing the law in a context of battle, where split second decisions are part of daily life.

The officer spent several years fighting under AFSPA in the state of Manipur and asked not to be named for this piece.

“Look it is one violation in 100,000 acts. Once in a year by one random person,” he says. “You cannot fall into the trap of making a mountain out of a molehill.”

I think about one woman in Manipur who started a hunger fast after the Indian army mowed down ten people at a bus stop in the capital, Imphal. Her name is Irom Sharmila. Soon after Sharmila’s hunger strike began in 2000 the Indian government arrested her through another leftover British law, which charged her with “attempting to commit suicide.” She has been in and out of army custody ever since, where lentil soup is forced through her nose to keep her alive. She says she will not let food or liquid pass her lips until the government of India repeals AFSPA.

I ask the officer about the massacre that inspired Sharmila’s fast: In November 2000 on a road outside of Imphal, a bomb went off near a military truck. The Assam Rifles’ unit on board the truck let loose. They shot indiscriminately until ten people were dead. What about them?

“Now I don’t know this precise case, but sometimes, if innocent people die it is collateral damage,” the officer says. “It is an unfortunate event. But what about these illegal acts [committed by the armed groups] that cause collateral damage? They are far more abusive of power.”

“We should not work on repealing the act, but on ensuing it is used properly,” the officer says.

He also says that despite the provisions no law gives the army the power to shoot without cause. It is an argument that Colin Gonsalves of the Human Rights Law Network also makes, “No law actually gives anyone the right to take life. But because of that impression people will not litigate or file cases against the police and the armed forces.”

The controversy over the Act also lies in whether it actually curbs violence or exacerbates it and there are people who speak on both sides. Alhi Ahmed at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, a think tank that advises the Indian government, describes a period of 6 months when the Act was repealed in parts of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. There was an increase in violence, he says.

But those who oppose the act, like Binalakshmi Nepram, a friend of Sharmila’s and head of the Manipur Gun Survivors Network, the act has not helped fight insurgency either.

“It is not getting better, we have had the act for 50 years and there is more insurgency than ever,” she says. In Nepram’s state of Manipur, violence and corruption have sunk into every institution and business relationship. Both Catholic priests and doctors from Manipur told me they had no option but to pay bribes to the armed groups, the police and local authorities – when they stood on principal and refused to pay priests were shot dead and hospitals were bombed. Electricity in the capital, Imphal lasts only 4 or 5 hours a day, HIV rates are the highest in India and no one goes onto the street after 6 pm: it is too dangerous. But even within this context of insecurity Nepram still argues that AFPSA is not the answer and should be repealed. “If innocents are dying then who are you protecting?” she says.

However, in a place where running a school or selling rice requires payment to the local armed groups it is clear that solving tensions here will be tough and the need to reign in the army must be matched by reigning in the military groups.

No single actor, either state or non-state, has a monopoly on atrocities. Four hundred and sixty seven people, 64 of them civilians were killed in military operations in Manipur last year, reported the South Asian Terrorist Portal. Human rights activists, like Babloo Loitangbam of Human Rights Alert say that many of these were innocent people killed by the law Sharmila starves to repeal. Though those who know her well say her act of non-violent protest calls for a holistic notion of peace beyond just the repeal of AFSPA.

A picture of her stares down at me from the wall of a community NGO project in Boroland. A man from Manipur tells me that he thinks Sharmila is a saint, another in Assam talks about her as “a true Ghandian”, a conservative journalist and a member of the Indian government’s official think tank both say she should be given the Nobel Peace price, while Binalakshmi Nepram, a friend of Sharmila’s and head of the Manipur Gun Survivors Network says, “she is one of the most pure people I’ve met in my life.”

It seems Sharmila is not only a person, but also an idea. As Deepti Priya Mehrotra, author of Sharmila’s biographer, “she makes me question myself and what I am doing. Why I am not doing what she is doing.” AFSPA is one tiny cut on a sickened and bleeding body and Sharmila’s fast inspires many activists across the North East of India to work for peace that also looks beyond AFSPA.

She was last released in March this year, for one night, before they returned her to the military hospital to live out another 364 days of detention. She had stopped cutting her nails and hair and in her one day of freedom met with the women who run a daily sympathy fast with her, “look at the birds and the trees, they do not cut their nails and see how free they are,” she said. But as the tenth year of her hunger strike draws to a close, Sharmila’s freedom, just like an end to AFSPA, justice for Khagel Barman’s family or a right to return for the Adivasi, in this corner of a democracy, is still a long way off. The most forgotten conflict in India remains forgotten.

The State of the Cycle Rickshaw

Video by Helene Goupil (class of 2010) and text by Allison Davis (class of 2010)

DELHI, India, April 2010—On a chilly night in downtown San Francisco, the Giant’s baseball game had just ended, unleashing a tumult of people into the street looking for a way home. Some wait in line for over-packed public transportation. Others wander towards the increasingly long taxi stand.  As the crowd grows restless, a twenty-something man rode up on a cycle rickshaw, he slows to a stop as two women waved him down. “How much for a ride to the Mission?” they asked, a distance of about 3 miles.

“Sorry, that’s too far,” he said riding off, the  lone cycle rickshaw seen that evening.

As the night ends in the Bay Area, the Sun is just beginning to rise over the craze of  Delhi streets.  The famous traffic moves like a mass of writhing snakes — cars, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and pedestrians all  moving through and around one another.  The cycle rickshaws, a favorite choice for commuters thanks to low fares, number 8 million in Delhi  and can deftly weave in and out of the commuter hustle. Among them. A thin and quick moving man in a light cotton, mustard button down Pasawan cycles through the Delhi streets looking for his first customer of the day.

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The Cycle rickshaw has always been a mainstay of life in Indian cities like Delhi and Kolkata. But, in the past decade as the push for green transportation reaches a fever pitch, it has spread to other cities. New York, San Francisco Bay Area and London all boast a growing cycle rickshaw force.  However, unlike the San Francisco counterparts  — a young, healthy man with a drivers’ license and a t-shirt boasting the company for which he works and a love of cycling — cycle rickshaw pullers in Delhi are rarely as fortunate.

Paswan, 32,  lives in the slums of Rohini, a town north of Delhi.   He has driven a pedicab for 16 years since migrating from Bihar.  At the end of his day transporting passengers an average of 20-25 km  returns to the minute room he rents in a two story stone structure. To get to his room, he wheels his rickshaw through the narrow, winding  avoiding stray dogs, free-roaming children and piles of  burning waste. He climbs a rickety wooden ladder and deftly scuttles across  a ledge the width of a bookshelf .  Drawing  back the curtain of the narrow doorway, Paswan reveals a  dark and cramped  room with a low ceiling— a full grown man can hardly stand up straight without having the top of his head lopped off by a spinning steel ceiling fan.  His possessions are few, some clothes a few sets of beads,  cooking utensil, a single plate stove and a plastic bucket in the corner for water.  But still it is better than other rickshaw drivers who have to sleep in their rickshaws pulled over on the side of the street — Paswan has done that too.

Paswan  is representative of  the class of struggling rickshaw drivers. He migrated from Bihar, and with little education he chose to pull rickshaws — a job with no necessary training. Paswan makes about 70 rupees a day (about $1.50) most of which, he sends home to the wife and child he left behind.

Is not a unique story.  Cycle rickshaws or pedicabs were  introduced to Delhi in the 1940’s to replace the hand-pulled rickshaw that is still popular in Kolkata.  Even with the rise of auto rickshaws, cars or motorcycles, the pedicab has continued to grow in number It’s hard physical labor but it requires little to no education or training. It is an entry level job that offers a way for the drivers to make money in the agricultural off-season though a higher number are year round drivers.

Vignesh Jha is the Director for the Federation for the Rights of Rickshaw Pullers (FORPI) and has immersed himself in the lives of rickshaw pullers in hopes  of  bettering their lives.  He witnesses the difficulties of migrant life. Often malnourished, the physical labor requires about 4,000 calories, while most only eat 1,600. The pullers live in Delhi for 10 or 11 months and often have no way of  communicating with his family for weeks.

Paswan missed the birth of his 4-month-old daughter.

Due to the loneliness and isolation, many pullers, like Paswan, turn to alcohol.  Some also turn to what Ina  delicately calls the “bachelor’s life”, which results in exposure to HIV or AIDS and is often transmitted back to the wives.  Malnutrition and tuberculosis are also common. “Everyday they work hard, they serve hard,” said Ina, “it is incredibly hard on their bodies.”

But what other choice is there?  “We stay here to feed our children,” Paswan said of his reasons for enduring the rampant hardships.

More than just bodily abuses, rickshaw pullers who do not own their own pedicabs,  often suffer exploitation from the people from which the rent— they are often forced to pay 30-40 rupees a day in rental fees.  Without formal licenses the police, who will sometimes seize their rickshaws, often harasses them said Paswan.

“They say our documents are not valid and slap us with more fines… the municipal corporation officials kept taking our rickshaws and fined us 1,000 rupees every time.”

That was before FORPI, says Paswan.

Outside of the Japanese Gardens in Rohini, over 50 rickshaw pullers parked their pedicabs in an abandoned expanse of dry land next to a building site. From the back of each of the Rickshaws was a red sign with the FORPI  motto written out.  Many of them were draped over the handles of their vehicles, sharing chewing tobacco and water from one silver milk container.  Some were napping in the seats of the rickshaws but all had come to hear  Vignesh Jha speaks from a warbling single amp and microphone.  As Ina passed through the crowd, an altruist rock star sweating in rumpled business attire, the group of pullers rose to their feet and   pressed their together in a pose of thanks.

After all, this was a man who was working to save their livelihoods and their lives.

Through FORPI, pullers like  Paswan have been able to stop drinking and have organized with other pullers. FORPI has worked with  over 870 pullers, provided them with id’s, medical attention and is working to subsidize the rickshaws the pullers can own their own.

The improvements seem small, but they make an enormous difference in their lives.

Jha has mortgaged his house to continue to fund his endeavor, he purses it with relentless fervor.

Several other organizations like American Indian Foundation have joined in partnerships with banks and government organizations and micro-credit lenders to improve do the same thing but on a much larger scale. There is, it seems, a much greater push to empower the pullers.

This week President Obama honors an Indian management philanthropist in the White House for his efforts in helping rickshaw pullers. He has invited Irfan Alam, chairman of SammaaN Foundation to a meeting of social Entrepreneurs. Alam, a resident of Patna , has been gaining media attention for the work he has done for  rickshaw pullers — it is incredibly similar to Jha’s work. Since launching in 2008, his program has helped over 300,000 pullers. He has banks finance rickshaw and stocks them with newspapers, bottled water and other items rickshaw passengers can buy. He also plasters ads on the cycle rickshaws themselves — the drivers receive some of the revenue as well as make a profit from the goods they sell.

Most importantly, Alam empowers the driver by giving them uniforms and I.D. cards and encourages weekly gatherings.

In Kolkata where the king of the road is the hand pulled rickshaw, the pullers thoroughly understand the importance of this empowerment. Hand pulled carts are incredibly important to the people of Koklata, especially when monsoon season renders all other vehicles useless.  For the pullers there,  life seems to be mildly better. Though, still wrought with diseases and a shorter lifespan. Many live together in darwas or garages that, for the most part, seem clean and comfortable though sparse.

Last year the government decided to ban hand pulled rickshaws from the road, with the help of organizations like the Calcutta Samaritan Fund, they were able to begin to fight the ban. Though many heralded 2008 as the last days of the handpullers, they are still on the road — an empowered puller can accomplish quite a bit.

“I think the rickshaws have been part of the city from way back they are needed in some parts of Kolkata negotiating the tiny lanes would be impossible for any other kind of vehicles, and because during the monsoon they’re deeply appreciated when the streets are flooded that’s when they make the most money. They become part of the culture the whole scenario of the city,” says Premila Pavamani the director of the Calcutta Samaritans.

To date, upgrading from hand pulled rickshaw to cycle rickshaw was the extent of the technological advance in the industry. For over 40 years, with the exception of making the cycle rickshaw lighter, there has been little done to ease the physical load  for pullers— until now.

With the anticipation of the Commonwealth games in October, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has developed and rolled out a fleet of solar rickshaws. The Soleckshaw, as it has been named, is a hybrid human/solar battery vehicle. With the extra boost from the battery, the driver can carry two passengers at speed of 9 mph. More than simply helping with physical labor, CSIR is providing uniforms and training — something many rickshaw drivers are denied.

The cost of the rickshaw is much higher, however,. At 20,000 – 30, 000 rupees it is out of the price range of the majority of pullers who aspire to own one, even with government subsidies.

Whether these improvements are for the benefit of the drivers or the benefit of Delhi’s public image remains to be seen. But, regardless, if the Soleckshaw becomes widespread it will be a government-sponsored way of making an enormous difference of the Indian rickshaw driver.

“We intend to replace all 8 million rickshaws with solar rickshaws.” Says CSIR director, Samir Bramachari.  Currently there are 1000 in service throughout India.

For now, the fight for survival, fair wages and for a healthy life continues to be a day-to-day struggle.

Growing Rice Debt Free

By Beth Hoffman, for Living on Earth (class of 2009)

ORISSA, India, April 2009—In recent years there have been many reports about desperately indebted farmers in India. Throughout the world, farmers have become increasingly dependent on artificial fertilizers and pesticides to boost production. But the costs are high – and many poor farmers end up buried in debt.

Beth Hoffman reported from Orissa, India on attempts by farmers there to break this cycle of chemical dependency. Some farmer advocates there are trying to find low-cost and low-tech solutions to India’s tired soil – solutions that can increase fertility and yield without more trips to the moneylender.

Beth’s story is a radio piece that aired for Living on Earth in April of 2009.

India’s Other Border: A Land of Beautiful Lies

By Sean Marciniak (class of 2004)

Indian Border Security Forces pose with confiscated cough syrup. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

KALYANI, West Bengal, March 2003 – On a searing day here this spring, the Indian border patrol nabbed a boy trying to slip between thatched huts with two dozen bottles of cough syrup. His clinking contraband did more than cure a sore throat — each bottle had an alcohol content equal to three jiggers of whisky. Everybody on the India-Bangladesh border knows the cough syrup packs a kick, and really that’s all it’s good for. At 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s too hot to catch a cold here right now.

After border patrol soldiers marched the boy away, some hung back with a photographer, and posed behind the medicine bottles with their guns. Chest out, chin high, the soldiers stood over the cough syrup as if they’d slaughtered the last wild buffalo on the Great Plains.

Times might look easy on India’s eastern border but this is a land filled with beautiful lies. Never mind the wandering cows, the plush rice fields or the children that tease the local livestock. These stretches of the Indo-Bangladeshi border exist as an uncanny space of calm — an eye in a gathering storm that promises political conspiracy and international espionage.

India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, has begun a propaganda war that describes this border as tameless and dangerous; its new frontline in a war against terrorism. Bangladeshi immigrants, it says, are predominantly Muslim and hostile. Pakistani spies and terrorists float among them, the party argues, ready to get downright ugly when Pakistan tips its hat. About 40,000 Indian paramilitary troops have arrived here since February to stop this alleged border infiltration.

Bangladesh has denied the allegations, and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Morshed Khan went a step further, telling a French news agency that India’s charges stemmed from “domestic compulsions.” However, he acknowledged that “small-scale intrusion” was possible and that “there is need for ensuring peace along this frontier.”

For a long time, all this was something one might expect of India’s more famous western border, the one it shares with Pakistan. It was always Pakistan that helped sneak in armed intruders, who then waged a “proxy war” over Kashmir. The infiltration in the west always drew more headlines, especially last year when it pushed both countries perilously close to nuclear war.

But this attention helped to change India’s border dynamics. In the past year, India’s western border has become much less porous, and those who insist on crossing the line now must look eastward. It’s the balloon effect in action, a law as old and tested as gravity.

A member of India's Border Security Force points out a well-traveled path along the India-Bangladesh border, used by smugglers and local villagers alike. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

Consequently, the Indo-Bangladeshi border has been getting more attention. In early January, India’s Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, looked over alarming Indian intelligence reports that estimated 16 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants had infiltrated the nation. Advani, who also commands India’s homeland security department, barked out to state leaders that India’s national security was at stake.

“For us in India, (immigration) is a hideous problem,” said Advani in an interview in New Delhi. “The numbers are enormous. It is not merely the eastern provinces that are affected. The immigrants have spread. Here in Delhi, there are colonies where only Bangladeshis live.”

However, a visit to the border, as well as extensive interviews with security officials, political leaders and local residents, show that Advani’s rhetoric has as much to do with his party’s politics as with national security. As the chief minister of New Delhi put it, a woman named Sheila Dikshit who heralds from the opposition Congress party and faces an election later this year: “He (Advani) comes up with these comments every time there is an election.”

And the Pakistani spies? Few doubt that ISI spies have infiltrated parts of West Bengal, but not to the degree claimed by the BJP. State leaders in West Bengal recently said they caught 60 men and women in 2002 who worked in ISI-sponsored spy rings, small cadres that mostly collected intelligence on border security troops. But Hindu nationalists have taken it a step further, whispering that spies are planning revolutions in East India that would cause it to secede to Bangladesh.

“Look, anything that happens in India is ISI,” said Jairam Ramesh, one of the most articulate spokesmen for the Congress Party. “Blame the ISI. The American embassy was attacked in Calcutta … ISI. It’s like what Bush says with Al Qaeda. Blame Al Qaeda.”

It has worked. Advani’s alarm bells have sounded shrilly, rousing even the sleepiest of dogs. The Marxist party of West Bengal, for example, which has ruled the state for 25 years and has always bitterly opposed the BJP, is for the first time on the defensive. On the issue of illegal immigration, it’s doing what many observers call a “substantive rethink” on its longstanding policy of nurturing migrants.

The Marxist’s policy change is bound to hurt many feelings. Hundreds of Bangladeshis cross into India every day, and have done so since 1971 when, helped by the Indian Army, Bangladesh was carved out of Pakistan. Getting specific numbers is guesswork, academics said, because no reliable census data exists. Indian intelligence officials estimate that up to 37,000 cross in a single month.

They come for different reasons. Poor Hindus — a minority in Bangladesh — seek refuge from what they describe as persecution of a new Muslim government, sections of which are openly anti-India. Poor Muslims, who make up an estimated two-thirds of the immigrants, are economic refugees, having fled one of the most penniless and crowded nations on earth — a country best known for biblically proportioned floods.

If it’s economics that makes them pack their bags, it’s geography that helps them move across. West Bengal’s 1,000-mile border with Bangladesh, for example, wanders through the Ganges River delta like a love-struck teenager. It crosses and re-crosses rivers, bisecting fields as flat as pancakes. There is no Rio Grande here to mark the international border, nor any sort of fence that extends for any helpful length.

What little traffic there is flows freely along a border road that passes through the village of Kalyani, near Bongaon, West Bengal. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

Unlike the U.S.-Mexico border, this line does not divide populations of different ethnicity. The entire area is home to an ethnic group known as Bengalis, and telling a Bangladeshi apart from an Indian here is as hard as distinguishing between twins. What turns this headache into a migraine is that India has no national identity card system — Advani is vigorously campaigning for one — and proving someone is not a citizen is virtually impossible.

Take the town of Petrapole, where the border is little more than an imaginary line marked by white stones that only sometimes can be sighted in the thick grass, and it’s easy to step into Bangladesh by accident. A short walk from the official customs crossing, people trickle out from a banana grove, then lope across a rice field into Bangladesh without so much as a hop.

Wiping away sweat and watching from a nearby railroad track sat soldiers from the Border Security Force. The BSF, the largest paramilitary force in the world, is charged with wringing a tourniquet around borderlands traffic, but the 96,000 stationed on the eastern border have only recently shown some degree of effectiveness. Some say it’s the increased numbers. Others say Advani’s focus on the east has forced BSF commanders to curtail what has been described as rampant corruption, a characteristic so often discussed that the BSF has become known as the Border Smuggling Force.

Still others wonder why everyone is fussing. Problems on the border, they argue, have existed since 1948, when the subcontinent was cleaved into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan. For years, borderland smuggling outfits and undocumented immigration came and went without so much as a second glance. Nothing has changed, they say, but the political ambitions of the ruling party behind Advani, the BJP. And the new nervousness of the ruling Marxists.

Making the Marxists See Red

West Bengal, internationally most famous for its giant tigers, is known within India for loftier reasons: it’s the country’s best-governed state, thanks to the continuous re-election of a government as unique as its big cats. The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, has remained in power for a quarter century. Under it, the literacy rate hovers at 76 percent and sociologists have noted that West Bengal doesn’t see the high degree of Hindu-Muslim violence that has plagued the rest of India.

Because of its ideology and electoral success, the Left Front has long been the bane of central New Delhi governments. Its grassroots organizing and discipline have caused their political enemies endless headaches, such that even the BJP, so mighty in New Delhi, has maintained an anemic presence here. In 1984 the state garnered less than half a percentage of the vote; since capturing power at the federal level, it’s only managed to raise its share of the vote to six percent.

But the BJP is poised for a power grab, thanks to recent outcries over immigration and terrorism.

The 2001 census confirmed what had long been suspected: that the demographics of West Bengal have changed to the advantage of Muslims. In districts like Maldah, for example, almost 50 percent of the rural population is Muslim; in Murshidabad, it’s more than 60 percent. Blocs of Hindu voters have grown nervous and the BJP has been quick to stoke these fears.

Wary that this could give the BJP a foot in the state’s door, the Marxists, many political observers say, have decided to realign their immigration policy with Advani’s more conservative vision. Or, at least, make noises to that effect.

“We had the immigration problem here long before the Kashmir problem but that was not so serious,” said Jayanta Roy, leader of the Forward Bloc, a member of the ruling Left Front. “But then we got information from the Central government that Muslim fundamentalists, with the political patronage of the Pakistani government, are very much active in India and they have chosen Calcutta as a soft target.”

In recent months, the Marxists have called for more security and deportations. They have even talked of “modernizing” the madrassahs along the border, accusing them of breeding fundamentalism. Such language is unprecedented, coming from a party that encouraged an open border and accommodated so-called hostile Bangladeshis. Why? The reason is simple: the immigrants vote.

A Bandladeshi woman cooks dinner for her family on a busy sidewalk in downtown Calcutta. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

How is an even more interesting matter. In exchange for support during elections, Indian politicians were rumored to distribute “ration cards” to newly arrived Bangladeshis. Ration cards, equivalent of food stamps, are key to the transaction because, aside from allowing one to purchase subsidized rice, wheat and sugar at local stores, these documents serve as identity cards. Ration cards are what gets you on the local voter registry.

Since the accusations were made years ago, no one publicly admitted to this vote-getting strategy. However, recent interviews with political party members drew outright or partial admissions.

Nirupam Sen, the second-most powerful Marxist in West Bengal, gave the following response: “It differs from area to area; I cannot spell out these things. I cannot make any comments on exactly where, who, how it has been done. That is absolutely not possible.”

Neither can leaders in West Bengal’s immigrant communities.

Bangladeshis currently congregate in such places as Calcutta’s Municipal Ward 30, a squalid neighborhood in the north of the city. Ward 30 has steadily has grown over the last two decades, slowly spilling over the banks of a nearby black water canal. Infrastructure is scarce; people are not. Thatched homes, dirt roads, and outhouses are the order of the day. But locals say this den of illegal immigrants manages to squeeze a population of 9,000 into a space that measures 500 meters by about 33 meters.

The leader of the neighborhood is identifiable by his large pot belly, the only one in sight.

“No one here is Bangladeshi,” said Basander Das, who officially is a branch committee member for the Marxists. Questioned further, he acknowledged that 600 to 700 neighbors couldn’t produce documents, and that many feared Advani’s latest grumblings.

“No one is Bangladeshi,” he repeated, “but we fear that if there is a drive against illegal settlers, we may be affected unnecessarily. No one here has been dislocated, but if there is any move, there will be rioting.”

Feeding the Fear

Das’ warning betrays the growing unease in the Left Front as it prepares its bitter pill for Bangladeshi immigrants. To stem mass demonstrations, state leaders have said, time and again, that its campaign is aimed at only those who are “terrorists backed by Pakistan and the ISI.” Of which there aren’t that many.

A fading hammer and sickle painted on a wall in Calcutta's Municipal Ward 30, a community of over a thousand Bangladeshi immigrants. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

A Calcutta Police inspector agreed to meet with reporters in a relative’s shop, one nestled deep in the side of a narrow alley. Asked about the presence of terrorist ISI agents in West Bengal, he looked pained to say that he had not encountered any Pakistani spies in Calcutta for five years. “We are searching the pebbles,” he said, “but it is very tough.”

Despite limited information, Advani and his followers have been able to gain support in hostile West Bengal by taking an international slogan — the war on terrorism — and localizing it.

If Advani has set the tone, his junior colleagues in the party are amplifying it to alarmist levels. According to regional BJP leaders, there are ISI spies lurking in every border village and immigrant colony, blending into places like the village of Kalyani and Calcutta’s Municipal Ward 30. According to them, secret agents are poised to incite insurrection at the command of Islamabad.

“You don’t expect part of America to break away and join Mexico, but over here, the problem is that if a part of India becomes a Muslim majority, then we’d be scared,” said Tathagata Roy, president of West Bengal’s BJP chapter. Asked what this fear was based on, Roy said: “I have no access to intelligence reports. I go largely on newspaper reports … and what I get on the net.”

The Border’s Dadas

By Sean Marciniak (class of 2004)

Officially a waiter at a coffee shop near the Bongaon bus depot, Vikram Saha helps transport illegal immigrants across the India-Bangladesh border. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

BONGAON, West Bengal, March 2003 – Three miles from the border, in this lawless outpost, a man in a cheap shirt emerges from a café in the bus station. He doesn’t look especially menacing; he’s what Americans would call a coyote, a smuggler of humans. Here in Bongaon, they call him a dada, which carries a slightly less pejorative connotation. It effectively means a don.

But lost on the West Bengal gangster are the ostentatious suits and cigars of the Italian-American wiseguys.

“I’m totally invisible. No one will know I’m here,” said Vikram Saha, who “officially” works as a waiter in the corner coffee shop. And, it’s a good thing. The Government’s focus on the border has meant that the business of smuggling has soured. Nowadays, the most active border activity is by agents sending back Bangladeshi migrants.

It’s already noon and Saha hasn’t found a single customer for his side business. Normally he culls the bus stop for the poor and disheveled — people who obviously have arrived to sneak back into Bangladesh and visit family. For a fee of 450 rupees (about $10), Saha will transport them from the bus stop to a safehouse on the border. There, another dada will guide them across into Bangladesh.

Farther down the road, another sort of dada has been fiddling his thumbs.

In the claustrophobic backroom of this three-man-wide money exchange store, Saroj Biswas has been waiting for the government’s firestorm to blow over. Biswas, who is uncommonly tall for the area at about 5’8″, is the A-dog leader of a syndicate that deals in smuggled goods.

“Everything except heroin and gold,” he said, eyeballing the strangers around him. “That’s on principle.”

The number one illegally transported good between India and Bangladesh is cattle. Experts estimate that dadas stampede more than 1.5 million cattle across the border every year.

Business is down, said Biswas; border trade has braked to a standstill. “It’s the political climate,” he said. And then there’s the new assistant commander of the Border Security Force, a “good officer” whom they are lobbying to transfer.

The Border Insecurity Force

Sitting in a small foreign exchange shop he manages, Saroj Biswas moves goods across the India-Bangladesh border. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

That new assistant is commander Senthil Kumar, stationed at the nearby Petrapole office for about 10 months.

Sitting in his office where it’s hard to ignore the stuffed toy Bengal tiger in the corner, the 26-year-old Kumar echoes Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani’s rhetoric to the last word. “Pakistan feels a setback there (in the west). The ISI agents look for a safe passage and where do they find a safe passage? Bangladesh,” he says. However, he acknowledged: “We have not caught any ISI agents but we have lots of reports. We don’t have a direct confrontation with them because they sneak in clandestinely.”

But with so many men and relatively so little an area, it would seem impossible to slip something past the BSF, which boasts about 250,000 members — 20 times bigger than the U.S. Border Patrol. Kumar said he has stationed two BSF agents every few hundred yards, each outfitted with night vision goggles. Behind the line, teams of foot, bike, horse and vehicle patrols provide zone coverage.

However, size never really has seemed to equal potency. In 2001, the BSF apprehended about 11,000 transborder criminals and 8,349 Bangladeshi nationals. The U.S. Border Patrol, with a force of about 10,000, apprehended 1.2 million undocumented immigrants.

So what does he do given Advani’s message? Kumar says he has little choice other than conducting “push-ins.” Push-ins are informal acts of repatriation that usually occur at night, in which BSF agents round up their daily catches and march them through unguarded stretches of the Bangladeshi border. Since February, it has been estimated that the BSF has pushed back 15,000 to 20,000 immigrants. “We try to contact them (BDR agents), but they don’t respond,” Kumar said. “We have a game over here.”

Subrata Nagchowhury and Mark Murrmann contributed to this report.