The Borderlands, an upcoming documentary film by Samarth Mahajan and Camera And Shorts, attempts to tell stories from the areas which line India's frontiers — stories which are left out of the mainstream narrative, or presented largely through the lens of the army, war or nationalism. In this series, Firstpost follows Mahajan and his team as they travel across India, presenting snippets from people's lives.
In Part 2, stories from the India-Bangladesh frontier. Read more from the series here.
“Before I crossed it, I used to think the border was a small door, which is why people could not go through it!”
Dhauli lives in North Bengal. She got married in Bangladesh and came here with her husband, an Indian citizen, while the border was still open. Soon after, a fence was put up, and she could not go beyond the ‘door’ to meet her parents.
Dhauli, and thousands like her, now await the Milan Mela — an annual fair in North Bengal when border restrictions are relaxed for a few hours — to catch a glimpse of their loved ones.
Previously, the border was rather fluid and there existed fewer distinctions between India and Bangladesh. “In those days there was a rule where one could exchange lands in these two countries, so a Hindu in Bangladesh could trade his piece of land with a Muslim in India. They had many relatives here, and because there was no fence, people would keep visiting,” says Samarth Mahajan.
Until recently, people in the area did not have phones or Internet connections. How did they remain in touch with their families across the border? The answer presented itself in the form of the Milan Mela.
“As an outsider, you expect this to be an emotional experience. But for people over there, it is just like guests visiting home. A plethora of gifts are exchanged, such as clothes, toys, fruits, and cold beverages,” Mahajan explains.
He further expounds on the idea of the “normalisation of border” that is caused by an event like the Milan Mela: “They see the fence every day, and yet, they are not able to see their relatives. On any other day, there would be clothes drying on the fence, women sitting by it dusting and sieving grains, children playing along the fence... But on the day of the Milan Mela, it suddenly becomes an eventful place. One could just talk about the emotions and people’s longing to meet each other, but we thought it would be more exciting to focus on life in these fenced-out areas.”
For this leg of the film’s shoot, Mahajan and his team — including Nupur Agrawal, the associate director, Omkar Divekar, the cinematographer, and Joyona Medhi, the interviewer/translator – decided to stay in a remote village a kilometre away from North Bengal. “People from the village weren’t willing to interact with us. Each day they’d ask why we were pursuing the project,” says Nupur Agrawal, “The locality had a mixed population, which is why there was a lot of speculation about why were we only looking for people who had relatives in Bangladesh… We told a 100-odd people, including the BSF, local politicians, journalists, and villagers, about what we wanted to do to. Ultimately, it was about being patient and waiting for the Milan Mela to unfold.”
Since the fence is built at a distance from the zero line, Indian villages can be found beyond it.
A unique phenomenon plays out between 6 pm and 6 am every day when the fence gates remain shut: around one lakh Indian citizens get locked out of the country.
The actual border, a river called Mathabhanga, remains relatively unregulated as compared to the fence. For people from India and Bangladesh alike, the river serves as a common site for bathing, washing clothes, grazing cattle – and even falling in love.
“A lot of people perceive the fence to be a border and assume that everything beyond it is not India. That is not the case. The fence is where the BSF is; there is no BSF presence at the river,” Mahajan explains. This factor, he says, leads to rampant smuggling in the area. It is also the reason why mobile networks are jammed, to mitigate smuggling incidents.
Despite this, Mahajan and Agrawal both say that the riverside is an interesting place to be, simply because we don’t visualise the river as a border. It is a site where Indians and Bangladeshis can interact, which has led to many a cross-border romance. “We found a couple where the woman was Bangladeshi and the man was Indian. Since there was no fence as such, this woman would come to the river quite often. Eventually, the man fell in love with her. Their families had an issue with the relationship because they belonged to two different countries, so they took the couple to the BSF and asked them for help. The BSF, in turn, told them, ‘They are consenting adults, let them get married. We don’t have any problem.’ Since then, the couple has resided in this fenced-out village.”
Alongside such stories are those of bachelors who are unable to find brides in these villages, because parents don’t want to send their daughters to live here. This has prompted many to look for land outside the area.
The need and desire to connect with the outside world is constricted because of poor mobile connectivity.
One can find young men sitting at random spots, in search of network. “In fact, there is a tree (many locals call it the ‘network tree’) where all these young men would gather and look for signal; it’s quite a sight (sic),” Mahajan adds.
The residents of this fenced-out village often negotiate with the very notion of a border. “We came across a Bangladeshi man who crossed the river to meet us and talk to us over a cigarette. He told us about how the BSF-BGB (Border Guards Bangladesh) would conduct India-Bangladesh football matches once upon a time… And yet, the number of deaths at this border surpasses the figure at the India-Pakistan frontier,” Mahajan says.
The director says that with India trying to distance itself from Bangladesh over reasons like smuggling and trafficking, many people feel that they won’t have a space where they can meet at the river and exchange pleasantries after a few years. “With time, they have seen how these borderlands have turned hostile,” he says.
Unlike the India-Pakistan border where the No Man’s Land is owned by the government, here it is still owned by individuals. There is also an abundance of farmers working in the fields in this area; barring a few villages, nearly the entire fenced area comprises farms. There are, however, restrictions whereby one cannot access the lands all the time. The gate opens for one hour thrice a day; one can go in and come out before 4 pm. This time restriction means that farming in these lands is not conducive for farmers.
But some have found a way to work around this situation. “We met a person here who doesn’t even belong to the place [he belongs to Islampur] and yet has bought a lot of land here. Since these lands are fenced out, he bought them at one-third the price,” Agrawal explains, “This man is very entrepreneurial, he’s realised that the schedule for tea farming is aligned with these timings. Plus, there’s a rule that crops taller than three feet cannot be grown in these areas. So, tea farming fit the bill. Additional, tea requires very little maintenance.”
The crew decided to shoot a segment in shelter homes because they wanted to explore narratives that go beyond physical borders. Mahajan says the stories of people living in these shelters begin at borders but get far more complicated as they progress. “We wanted to talk about how even after they are rescued, there is so much that goes on – the process of repatriation, the idea of living in confined spaces,” he says.
They were initially keen on shooting somewhere near the Dakshin Dinajpur area, where a lot of boys cross the border not to smuggle or traffic, but merely to meet relatives. “We wanted to show this connection between the two Bengals. When a boy crossed the border to meet his chacha (uncle), he would be caught and put in these shelter homes,” Agrawal explains. What ensues is a stay in these homes for many years, because of the complex and cumbersome nature of the repatriation process. “For many, the fact that there is a legitimate border between the two countries is not clear. They often cross the fence and go pandal hopping during Durga Puja, to this day,” she adds.
Around 50,000 Bangladeshi girls are reportedly trafficked into India every year. Most are told they will find a better job, some get kidnapped, and few knowingly cross the border. A handful are rescued and sent to shelter homes till their repatriation, which can take around four years, especially when their families refuse to identify them in order to protect familial ‘honour’.
A majority of the girls in these shelter homes are either victims of trafficking or have escaped it. Most of them aren’t even aware that they are being trafficked; they are either swindled with the promise of a job or a chance to be in the Indian entertainment industry. Somewhere down the line, they realise that something is amiss – that they are being moved from one man to the next.
Mahajan’s team also came across girls who have been rescued, but not all of them wanted this fate for themselves. Some girls came to India for education and the police found out that they have come from Bangladesh, following which they were put in a shelter home. Some crossed the border by accident and were being followed; since they felt unsafe, they went to the police station and they were then sent to a shelter home. “The very idea of being ‘rescued’ is a bit muddled there,” Mahajan observes.
This segment in the film helped the crew to break certain notions and look at new perspectives. While the general image of a girl in a shelter home is that of someone who has been trafficked and has undergone severe trauma, the girls in one shelter home near Kolkata were rather warm and full of life. “There was more to them than just being ‘survivors’,” Mahajan remarks.
Agrawal talks about how sometimes, these shelter homes – despite being closed spaces – open new doors for some. Speaking about a woman Z (name hidden to protect identity) in the shelter home, who was rescued from a brothel, Agrawal narrates, “She was married to someone (probably a customer) in the brothel. After coming to the home, she befriended another girl. She really liked her, because the girl reminded her of her husband – the way she walked or spoke. They fell in love; the other girl proposed to her. She was bewildered by the idea that a girl could fall in love with another girl. Eventually, their story blossomed beyond this narrative of intimacy. Z showed us a whole book filled with love letters. The other girl was an Indian and she was sent to her hometown. In her memory, Z got the names of both her husband and her lover tattooed on each of her arms.”
Several NGOs are actively working towards the repatriation of these rescued girls. Many of them — as young as 10 — can’t remember their addresses. When these NGOs find a way to connect these children to their homes, often their families refuse to take them in. “The families tell these organisations that they don’t know who they are talking about. They feel their child may have been trafficked and raped; they don’t want the stigma that will follow if they take the child in,” Mahajan explains.
Some of these girls don’t want to go back to their homes, because their own families are complicit in the trafficking. Despite this, as per the norms, the girls are sent back to their families – without any consideration of their own choice in the matter. Notably, when a family crosses the border and gets caught and rescued, the parents and children are put in separate shelter homes. After some time, the parents are repatriated, but not the children.
Agrawal and Mahajan recount the experience of meeting a girl who was pregnant when she was rescued. “She was 16 and unmarried. She delivered this child inside the shelter home and was worried about the child’s future because, after a certain age, the child will not be allowed to stay with her in the home. The boy is four now. According to the regulations, he will be shifted to a separate shelter home for boys at the age of five. Additionally, his repatriation will be independent of hers,” Agrawal says.
I have seen everything, and now I just want my child to be safe, they remember her pleading.
All images courtesy of The Borderlands team and Camera and Shorts Media Pvt. Ltd