Rajakur Rehman’s job involves walking. He begins early, at the crack of dawn, and walks alongside a pair of bullocks tied together. Dressed in a lungi and shirt, he covers his mouth with a towel to keep the dust away. He keeps a stick handy to prod the young pair every now and then. It might seem like a classic old Indian scene, caught in a centuries-old time warp. Except that he is not a farmer.
Rehman’s job is riskier. He walks not the length of a farm, but hundreds of kilometres in a single direction. The cloth that saves his throat from dust must also muffle his identity, occasionally. And it is not just one pair of bullocks he has with him, but a long trail of 20 pairs in tow, their pep reportedly guaranteed by generous doses of a banned anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac sodium, reportedly.
By dusk, Rehman expects to reach the Indo-Bangla border, where a group of smugglers will take charge and hustle the cattle across the river Padma in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. Today’s walkathon began at Berhampore, 220 km north of Kolkata. It will end 55 km from the city at a cattle shelter in Katlamari on the border, across which lie a series of slaughter houses. Every third cattlehead that Bangladesh consumes is said to come from India.
Are you not scared of getting caught? We ask Rehman. “Amra symbol peye gachchi (We have a symbol that lets us go freely),” he says.
The animals have been marked in advance. Rehman’s lead pair bears a painted ‘plus’ symbol within a circle, an unofficial passport that smoothens the journey all the way to the border. It’s a sign that all authorities en route have been paid off. Sure enough, any policemen who happen to spot the trail just look on nonchalantly, pleased perhaps to have their boredom broken.
It’s an illegal trade estimated at Rs 10,000 crore every year by the Indian Customs Department. Bangladesh has a bustling meat market. Its high-value meat packaging industry is doing very well too, with beef exports booming. India’s poverty-stricken Murshidabad and Nadia districts are a significant source of cattle supplies, with cattle handlers like Rehman paid Rs 100–200 per pair for their services. The bunch who ferry the live haul across the border earn about Rs 500 per pair, sometimes more.
It is the actual smugglers, the real operatives, who get to count the fat wads of cash that keep the trade going. A pair of bullocks fetches Rs 20,000 upfront at the border. At an abattoir, a pair could be encashed for the Indian currency equivalent of Rs 30,000–40,000, depending on the size of the beast and current state of demand.
For all the Diclofenac sodium at hand, several animals need motorised transport to reach the border. The 35 km stretch of state highway from Berhampore to Islampur is dotted with cycle-rickshaws equipped with makeshift motors and laden with bullocks lying on their side. On others, there are half-a-dozen or more calves trussed up. “Sick animals and calves that cannot walk long distances need to be carried,” says Alaudin Farook, a handler, “If they are not delivered, I have to pay Rs 20,000 per pair.”
One worry is India’s Border Security Force (BSF), which sometimes springs into action to seize animals; it seized a record 100,000 cattleheads in 2005. If the BSF happens to nab their haul, the handlers have to bear the bribes for their release; or else, the cost of re-buying them at official auctions. This can be done for as little as Rs 700 per pair, going by BSF records—which is a big relief since the pair would have been acquired for Rs 10,000 or so.
Most of these animals are picked up at cattle fairs as far away as Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, and are brought to Berhampore, where special operatives buy them, mark their hides, and send them trundling down the smuggling corridor.
The operation is well coordinated and has no time for religious taboos, evidently, with Muslims and Hindus jointly engaged in the pursuit of profit. For local administrators, it seems, the only thing four-legged and holy is the table under which they grab their share of the bounty. “Otherwise, how can 3,000 heads of cattle cross the border every week just here?” asks Gopen Chandra Sharma of the Manbadhikar Suraksha Manch (Masum), a human rights outfit that monitors the 170 km long border in the two districts for cases of illegal detention, eviction, torture and other horrors. In the course of keeping tabs on cross-border human trafficking (especially of girl children), Masum has acquainted itself well with cattle smuggling as well.
The passage on the other side is also smooth, with Bangladeshi authorities there equally happy to look the other way for a fee. Demand for cattle typically shoots up during their festive seasons, observes Masum, but over the past three months, supply has increased thanks to a BSF decision to refrain from using lethal weapons against cattle smugglers.
According to Sharma, there had been 30 reported firing incidents last year and 14 this year, some of them resulting in fatalities. What has silenced the guns is the case of Alamgir Seikh, a 30-year-old father of two who was shot under mysterious circumstances at the border on 21 April this year. Seikh escaped with injuries, but later died in Rajasahi Hospital, 2 km across the border in Bangladesh. With no evidence of what the man was up to, the BSF denied having shot him. However, once Masum took up the incident, writing to both the Bangladesh High Commission and Ministry of External Affairs, it became a diplomatic issue; Seikh’s body was recently returned to his family in India, but the BSF suffered such criticism that it ordered its guards to keep their fingers off the trigger.
Is there no better way to seal the border? “Fencing can never be an option as there are no proper buffer zones,” says a BSF official, “There are human settlements right on the border, often just a few metres from one another.” The terrain, with farms and water patches seeming to blend into each other, does not lend itself to the segregative clarities of border making.
At Rajanagore, a border village not far from Islampur, the river Padma is greenish after a spell of rain. “The river was dry this summer and is getting filled up now,” says villager Rajan Pandey, “Farmers have to cross over on boats to reach their farms.”
For some farmers, that’s just one of many problems. Kanhai Mondal, 58, for example, owns three acres across the river right at ‘zero point’, where a boundary pillar delineates the two countries. While the view all around is of a jute crop swaying gently in the breeze, his field looks as if an army has run through it. “Paat khete upor diye goru niye jaoai, oi khet nasto hoye geche (Smugglers have been driving cattle through my fields, ruining my crop and causing me losses),” he complains. The BSF’s Char Moiroshi camp, which watches over this section of the border, does not allow us to cross the river to Mondal’s field, though we can clearly see it 200 metres across the gurgling Padma.
As cattle are natural swimmers, the hustlers simply have to push them into the river to get them across.
“They are very clever,” says Mondal’s son, Vivek, an articulate painter, “They chase buffaloes into the river, and as the beasts love to wallow in water, they allow them the luxury… till an all-clear signal comes from a watcher to drive them over to the other side.”
Even as the father and son hold forth, a boat lands on the ghat. Several people disembark, and a wiry man with a gunny sack walks up. He has Bangladesh-made soap, cigarettes and torches for sale. This is daily practice here. The BSF allows people to cross back and forth, checking only their voter ID cards, but won’t let them carry mobile phones, which they see as a security threat for some odd reason. “We are allowed to cross the border post at 7 am to go the fields and have to be back by 4 pm. Five pm is the last re-entry. If we’re even a few minutes late, the guards beat us up,” says Mondal senior.
It is easy to make out those who are not really farmers. In Kahar Para village, a few kilometres away from Rajnagore, the grunt of our SUV wakes up a group of men in their 20s and 30s. They’re bleary eyed at noon; smuggling operatives, according to our local source. They admit nothing, preferring to get back to bed and rest for what might presumably be a busy night.
What makes late-night operations easier is the utter lack of lighting. At Char Bainsgara, Seikh’s village, there are electric poles but no power. Most villagers here have mobile phones, and we wonder how they charge them. For farmers with modest patches of land, they also appear to own rather too many motorcycles.
According to Tinku, Seikh’s neighbour, there are only two sources of income around here: farming and smuggling. “Sab chille pele ra bekar. Sarkaar kichu kore naa (The youth are jobless here. The government is not doing anything),” he says, adding that his regular job is as a mechanic in Hyderabad and he is here only to visit his ailing mother.
It’s a sombre day at the village. It’s the day of the funeral of Alamgir Seikh, whose body was in diplomatic limbo for so long that it has been released nearly three months after his death. As the burial rites are performed, we find ourselves and our SUV being photographed by a surreptitious stranger; the moment we confront him, he leaps onto a numberless motorcycle and vrooms out of sight.
Smuggling operatives, we are told, have a vast ring of informers around here. “Kaun kiske saath he, hame maloom nahin (Who is with whom is difficult to tell),” say the villagers in Hindi. They don’t know who’s running the smuggling racket either, they aver.
What they are sure of is this: they are tired of burying the bullet-ridden body of yet another village youth.
For Char Bainsgara, Seikh is the sixth victim of a border firing in recent memory. It explains why villagers have renamed a nearby border point Kargil. Until the BSF clamped down on its guards, it was one of the region’s deadliest spots. The bullets might have deterred a few smugglers, but what of ordinary villagers? Guilt and innocence, like the very border itself, is way too fuzzy in these parts for hard certainties.