After Meghalaya

I’ve just finished my tour of the villages along the Bangladesh border in the Indian province of Meghalaya. This is some stunning landscape: overwhelmingly green with slender betel nut trees, paan vines, rice patties and fruit orchards. Many of the people who live in these areas are known as ‘scheduled tribes,’ India’s official indigenous peoples. Most of the tribes in the area have adopted Christianity with vigour. There are churches everywhere, Bible verses painted on trucks, and statues of Christ along the roadside. Still, some of the old beliefs still persist. Yesterday at the main market in Shillong, a goat was slaughtered and his entrails ‘read’ as an oracle of the year ahead

Traditionally, the official border has meant little to the people who live on the frontier. The villagers here are used to passing freely across the line to sell fruit and betel nut to the Bangladeshis, and the Bangladeshis come north to sell meat, fish and imported kitchenware. Security has tightened in recent years, but India’s Border Security Force soldiers assigned to protect India from ‘infiltration’ are happy enough to let visitors pass through for a small bribe.

But times are changing. India’s entire border with Bangladesh is due to be fenced, and in light of the recent bombings in Gauhati which were blamed on cross-border militants, the government has made fencing a national security priority. Those who live on the borderlands understand this, and are resigned to the coming of the fence, but they disagree with its route.

According to an agreement between India and Bangladesh, no defensive structures can be built within 150 yards of the actual border, or ‘zero line.’ This means that for many villagers, their land will lie on the other side of the fence. For some of them, their homes will be lost. The government promises to build gates to allow access to the fields, and there are rumours of compensation, but no one knows any details. Where will the gates be located? How long will they be opened for and who mans them? Who decides the value of the land that is lost and when is the money paid out?

Also, the villagers worry about the security of their crops. Even now without a fence, villagers assign armed guards to watch over the fields during harvest season to protect against thieves from Bangladesh. Who will protect their crops when the fence is built?

The issue here is the collision of big, national interests with the ‘small’ interests of those who work the land. Big issues like terrorism and infiltration have louder voices than the small landowner who needs to sell his oranges or tend to his rice. I had tea with a village headman whose family home is close to the zero line. He will lose the house if the fence follows the planned route. Even if he is compensated for the house, there is nowhere else to build. He doesn’t know where he will go. “We are not rich people,” he said, “or big landowners. We are labourers. If the fence comes and we lose our land, what are we supposed to do?”

It may be small consolation, but they have plenty of time to consider their options. The newspapers are full of politician bluster about sealing the border quickly, but very little of the fence has been completed. I rode along one border road near Baghmara to see the progress on the fence. In some areas, the posts were up. In other areas the strip of land for the fence was still being flattened. Mostly, though, there was no evidence of fencing at all, and Bangladeshi traders were passing over the line without any problems.

Small black stones on the edges of the rice patties claimed ‘India ends here,’ but only in the quietest of whispers.