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The Borderland and Its Zero People

by Aveek Sen, 8 December 2008

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The Telegraph, 9 December 2008

The shooting of a girl in a border village in West Bengal makes Aveek Sen wonder about the possibility of justice in no man’s land

Khukuli Khatun was a little more than 18 years old when a bullet, fired point-blank, went through her stomach and came out from the other side, killing her a few hours later. This happened less than a month ago in Hatkhola, a village in the Nadia district of West Bengal. The bullet was fired from the rifle of a Border Security Force jawan, and the encounter had taken place literally on the margins of the nation. The girl and the jawan were just a few feet into India, on the border road that runs between Khukuli’s home and the barbed-wire fence that separates India from Bangladesh. Her uncle and a neighbour rushed the profusely bleeding Khukuli to the nearest health centre 12 kilometres away, somehow on a motorcycle. There, the nurses who grudgingly took her in were not being able to understand her first name. So the last thing she did before she died was spell her name out to them in clear English.

When I visited Hatkhola recently, Khukuli’s tutors at the child protection unit (run by a local NGO), which she used to attend enthusiastically every day, shared with me their memory of what, for them, was a terrible moment of truth. After burying her, they came back to her home to see her parents. This was when her father, a landless farmer, told them that had Khukuli not gone to the CPU, she would have been not only alive still, but also married and possibly a mother, safely away from this blighted border village. To her father, it was precisely his daughter’s empowerment through education that had brought her face to face with the most brutal form of power shadowing their everyday lives in the terrain they were doomed to strike roots in. Travelling through the border villages along the three-km-wide strip under the BSF’s jurisdiction in Nadia and North 24 Parganas, I began to fathom why Khukuli’s teachers found it impossible not to see the point of what her father had said to them.

The Khatuns represent, almost too perfectly, the vulnerability that keeps the landless poor under the rule of the gun in these villages. Khukuli has three other sisters. The two older ones are married and were early drop-outs from school. Her younger sister, for whom Khukuli was a role-model, is in Class VII and also attends the CPU. But she feels nothing but dread to walk the 2 km to her classes now, and her teachers have to work hard to persuade her not to drop out. (As we sat in the courtyard of their mud hut, I could see armed BSF men constantly patrolling the road in front of their home. The BSF camp was a few paces away.) There are two brothers. The older works in a dhaba outside Mumbai, but was visiting home after her sister’s death. The younger boy, barely in his teens, is crippled with polio. Their father’s growing feebleness is getting him less work each day, and the mother, who hardly ever leaves home, still looked blanked out by what I gradually understood to be shock and fear.

So, in the family as well as in the village, Khukuli was an exception. She was the only girl who had made it to Class X in the local high school against the usual odds. She and her teachers had managed to persuade her father not to marry her off before she completed her Madhyamik. With girls frequently getting trafficked, raped or forced into sex-work in the border villages, the pressure on parents to get their daughters married early is particularly severe. Her mother told me that Khukuli would insist, beating her foot on the ground (pa thuke thuke), that she would never allow her parents to give in to demands for dowry when she got married. At the CPU, she was learning about the various kinds of trafficking and smuggling in her immediate area, about HIV/AIDS, polio, child marriage and sanitation. Her tutors and peers told me how she had changed from a pathologically shy girl, who never looked up to talk to anybody directly, into a self-confident extrovert who could hold her own even with her teachers.

She had a school test the day she got shot, and her father had gone to another village to talk to a prospective groom whose family had agreed to let her finish her Madhyamik before he married her. I was told that while they were both away that day, the BSF had suddenly stepped up their search for smugglers, and had even stormed into their home to see if they were hiding somebody who had been seen throwing contraband bundles across the fence into Bangladesh (a ‘thrower’, in border parlance). The jawans messed up their things, threatened the women and allegedly harassed them physically. Khukuli had just returned from school when she heard her younger sister getting into an altercation over this with two jawans outside. She rushed out, started arguing with the men — and then the gun went off. Crowds had gathered around the girls, but were not allowed to come anywhere near them, even after Khukuli started screaming for water. The jawans kept threatening to shoot until they backed off into the camp.

Sitting with the family, I was struck by what seemed to be an unbridgeable gulf between the family’s sense of Khukuli’s rare spirit, which, they kept saying, would never have settled for anything less than justice (“bichar”), and a paralysing mix of gut-level terror and utter cluelessness about exactly how this bichar was going to be realized. Who were they fighting against? What machinery of justice were they going to use? And what were they going to ‘get’ at the end of that process? Nothing that they possessed, comprehended or had access to in their immediate sphere of life seemed to provide them the answers to these questions. They referred to the BSF as the ‘police’, and could not differentiate between them and the real police, for the thana was impossibly far away, and the BSF camp was the only place from which any visible policing seemed to emanate.

The FIR had only nominally been done by Khukuli’s mother, who had no idea what such a document might stand for. The Congress panchayat member I talked to later said that the FIR was framed by his CPI(M) colleagues (insinuating that they were in league with both the police and the BSF), who had fudged the BSF’s agency in her death. He kept referring to it as an “incident” rather than an “encounter” — two words that have polarized the discourse on Khukuli’s death in the area. The ‘encounter’ people want justice, while the ‘incident’ people want status quo. Khukuli’s eldest sister kept telling us that her mother would die of fear (“heart-phel hoye jabe”) if she found herself among the “police” again. The father wondered if he could go to a panchayat member for help, but kept asking whether his appeal would be any more effective than the word that had already been put in on his behalf by the more activist of Khukuli’s teachers.

Sometimes, in such cases, the BSF tries to buy the villagers out. And as we sat with the family, I felt the air becoming leaden with our unspoken sense of this being perhaps the only form of bichar that they could be made to imagine and feel entitled to. Some of her teachers had been talking about their battle for justice as a “movement”. But watching Khukuli’s people huddled together in the courtyard in the sinking light, I wondered what efforts of mobilization would make them the agents of such a “movement”, and how “just” the fruit of such efforts would be.

Later, I met the 30-odd girls who were Khukuli’s friends at the CPU, ranging from Classes IV to VIII; most of them shared her surname. They sat under her garlanded photograph and again used that word, bichar — especially the girl who was with her when she was shot. Who would ensure this justice? I asked them. The sarkar, they said. Who is the sarkar? The police. And the BSF and the panchayat — were they also the sarkar? No, they answered, the real sarkar was in Calcutta, and the most powerful one in Delhi. What should the punishment be? “Phanshi (hanging)!” they piped out unanimously. Then another girl volunteered to explain to me that there is a place called adalat, where there is something called a kathgora, from inside which an ashami weeps and shouts until he is hanged by the sarkar. How did they know about this? “From films!” came the answer, with some mirth. Was there an adalat in their village? No, but there might be one in Calcutta or, better still, in Delhi, where the rashtrapati, who was a woman called Pratibha Patil, lived. They had never been to Calcutta, or to a police station, panchayat meeting (although they knew some individual “members”), the district magistrate’s office or even the post office. I asked them whom they thought of when they imagined being beaten up. “Mashtaar and BSF!” Someone also said, “Father.” Whom does Father beat up? Me and Mother (in a chillingly normal voice). And does Mother beat Father up too? There was prolonged, outraged, helpless laughter from everyone at this point, as if I had said something quite mad.

In a zone where the voter’s ID card is a crucial document, it is children like these who are often in peril because they won’t be issued a card before they are 18. Sometimes, their school or panchayat issues a card. So the drop-outs feel most frightened. Very often, children stray beyond the borders into the fields on the other side where their parents have gone out to work. This is when they make themselves most vulnerable to violence. If they have to pass through the heavily policed gates because their school happens to be on the other side, they are made to wait for hours, quite arbitrarily, even when they are rushing to their examinations. The older girls (and sometimes boys) are often harassed when they come to bathe in the ponds; they are all used to the BSF walking into their homes, ransacking their most private spaces and abusing or molesting them or the women. BSF men also take away fuel, bamboo, paat sticks, poultry and foodstuff with a natural sense of entitlement, without bothering to pay for anything. When passing the BSF camp on a rickshaw-van, everybody has to get off the van, including the driver (who is thrashed if he doesn’t), to show respect for the national flag flying in the camp.

The physical isolation of some of these border villages is caused by the lack of proper roads leading to the towns, thana or hospitals. So, doing business with heavy goods or building a house becomes difficult, and makes villagers dependent on the mercy of the BSF or panchayat members, who have control over the border road, which is most often the only usable road in the village. Here, too, there are the curfew and complete darkness between 5.30 pm (when the border gates also shut) and 6 am. So, those who go to work in the fields on the other side must somehow get back home before curfew begins. Afterwards, even a stroll outside becomes dangerous, or even impossible. This is compounded by most of these villages lacking electricity and adequate water supply. Many of the North 24 Parganas border villages have a high level of arsenic in their groundwater. As I was leaving one village, which had gathered in the chandi mandap to tell me about their feelings of isolation and terror, a group of young boys made me promise that I would mention in my piece that young men and women from border villages find it very difficult to get married. The boys can’t find wives because their village is perceived as dangerous for women, and they are seen as corrupted by the smuggling and trafficking that seem to be the only way to keep their heads above the water of backwardness. And the girls can’t find husbands because it is taken for granted that they have all lost their virtue to the BSF.

In Khukuli’s borderland, phrases like “no man’s land” and “zero point” make human beings interchangeable with a nothingness that could make their actual disappearances seem oddly natural. I noticed how quickly that huddle of villages began to recede from my sense of the normal and the real, as I drove away from the border and began to be surrounded by the neon-lit, small-town hubbub of Krishnanagar or Bashirhat. Those other villages, with their barbed wire, camps, guns, camouflage, flags and ID cards, began to darken quickly into something like a necessary oblivion — a nightmare kingdom in the grip of some surreal military or totalitarian rule that the daylight of democracy must will itself to forget.