People living on the boundaries have their own social operations that transgress legal norms applicable otherwise. West Bengal and Bangladesh have positioned their citizens to live cheek-by-jowl across borders. Women are an important part of this transactional relationship that exists here. They coalesce domestic and societal needs through cross-border movements.

Tales from periphery: Gendered violence at the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Arunita Samaddar is an Assistant Professor of English, an avid reader, and a lover of literature. She pursued her research on gender-inequalities within the urban-rural division. She also enjoys traveling and collecting artifacts from wherever she goes.

People living at the fringes of a civilization can be easily ignored but the irrefutable truth is that they are imperative to comprehend the core of nation building, especially in the Bengal Delta. The study of a nation cannot disregard the kinetic quality of its population. Our political understanding must be concretized by an inclusive attitude towards these stories from the margins. 

 

Since movement in any form has structured relationships between land and people, it is worth investigating across time and national geographies. (Sur, 70). The migration in divided Bengal which happened twice; in 1947 and 1971, led to Hindus and Muslims, once more, living in close quarters owing to the geographic binding in the territory. The populace shuffled within a closed circuit with the only difference being that a border ‘happened’ to the inhabitants who long preceded it. 

 

With strict boundaries comes the alleged reason for violence. “The horrors of partitions and wars in South Asia led to sexual violence.” (Sur, 131) the violence that is perpetrated against women at the borders has to be studied under the lens of increasing militarisation. Over the last decades defence measures have tightened. Border forces on both sides maintain a strict vigil to prevent unauthorised trespassing. For women the challenge is multifarious since the perils of male gaze, sexual predation or trafficking makes them susceptible to higher risks. One of the numerous examples to gain a national momentum was that of Felani Khatun.  On a misty January morning she was gunned down by the Border Security Forces. Her lifeless body hanging on the border fence created public outrage at the iniquitous murder of a 15-year-old.

 

Such brutalities are commonplace in the lives of border dwellers. They have learned to live and negotiate with the various agents of national security that impinge upon their daily movements. Even during the pandemic outbreak there was the news of a ‘mentally-challenged’ woman who was found stranded on an islet near the border. On further inspection it was found that some locals, with the help of Border Guards Bangladesh were trying to force her within the Indian boundaries.

 

Such human indecencies at trying times make the wars waged at the borders since the partition, hard to ignore. The national consciousness has to be accountable for the perverse treatment people on the fringes receive as a part of the state policies on borders.

 

There are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. This unique topology makes enclave-dwellers susceptible to changes in the larger political economy on both sides. With the Citizenship Act being rigorously imposed in India, the inhabitants of the enclaves find themselves questioning their own identities. The Dhaka Summit between Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina had settled an age-old border dispute, but the advent of NRC and CAA in India has stirred up further turbulence within the relationship.  Religious divide has been soiled by ethnic similarities in this part of the nation. An Indian Muslim living in the enclave can be scrutinised under the act while a Bangladeshi Hindu faces minority oppression in the Indian enclave by virtue of nationality. These discrepancies again multiply when it comes to women because of inter-enclave marriages or marriages from outside within the enclave. Thus, an Indian woman entering the Bangladeshi enclave after marriage can either choose her national identity or her familial bonds. The frenzy of legitimate nationhood is pushing such minority groups in a further perilous position.

 

Physical atrocities or imprisonments however, are not the only ambush perpetrated against women at the check posts. Anthropologist Sahana Ghosh interviewed a woman of Bangladeshi origin who had come to India after her marriage. Cross-border marriages were, and in some locales still are, prevalent by virtue of ethnic and linguistic similarities. Gradually though, vigilance at the Bengal-Bangladesh border tautened making a short commute increasingly hazardous. She had received the news of her father’s deteriorating health and wanted to cross over and visit him on the other side. However, she recapitulates “The BSF didn’t let me go. I had got news that he was dying and wanted to go immediately – but it was a bad officer on duty…Earlier when there was no fence and fewer BSF guards I used to play there [no man’s land] with friends from the other side.” (Ghosh, 52). This unpretentious interview brings forth a number of complex realities from the jagged lines at the frontier. The image of an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant furtively entering Indian territory is subverted with this story, since this journey was to happen in the opposite direction. It also accentuates the immense mental trauma and subjugation that men in positions of power exert on women of seemingly inferior social strata. Women have to trounce more than circuitous roads to reach their destinations. 

 

For a holistic understanding of the grievous crimes we need to acknowledge that the repercussions of border skirmishes on a woman’s social standing is often found to be detrimental. Women who have circumvented the border for work often end up being domestic help in various cities in India. Another option some choose is to go Bombay to pursue careers as bar-dancers. Such working women are condemned and shunned from social contact upon their return. A strict gendered hierarchy dictates the spectrum of good and bad work that women can do. Interviewing social welfare workers, Ghosh identifies that the woman’s esteem is as porous as the border they live in. “Women become desperate [in poverty, with children they have to support] and fall under bad influences, which seem to offer promising options for work.” (Ghosh, 4). This sentence is embedded with implicit moral codes which can label women as ‘desperate’ and susceptible to ‘bad influences.’ The pervading idea seems to be that crossing the border places an unshakable taboo on the moral faculties of women who are naturally built for a life within homes. The minute she transgresses her personal (that of her home) and national borders she is a fallen woman. 

 

The emplacement of strict gender roles has suppressed women in myriad ways. While men can choose the risks, they are willing to undertake for the sake of financial gain or otherwise, women are repeatedly pushed to the frontlines in extreme situations. Whether they voluntarily travel or are coaxed under false pretences, the fates of many women are marred by unrelenting border politics. The obvious threat to life is complimented with a threat to their social reputation and possible future condemnation. While society does need to recognise the vulnerability of women in borders, there are larger recompenses due for them. This plight must be borne by the nation whose border defines them so persuasively. Migrating under such precarious conditions calls for increased research along with licit objections to the distressing transitional quality of existence for such transnational lives. 

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