India is 30 times the size of Bangladesh and the two nations share South Asia’s longest border. But despite India’s help during Bangladesh’s War of Independence in 1971 against what was then West Pakistan, relations between the two countries have deteriorated in recent years.
While the world’s attention has been focused on the Israeli security barrier sealing off the West Bank, India has been building a far longer fence to keep out Islamic militants, thwart cross-border smuggling and stop human trafficking.
More than 1,300 miles of the barrier has been erected in the six years since building began. Snaking through jungles, rivers and the villages of five states, Delhi’s floodlit, 12ft double fence packed with razor wire will render India a fortress against her neighbour.
The problem India faces is that 100,000 of its citizens live and farm on a 150-yard patch of land hugging the international border known officially as “the zero line”, and they live on the wrong side of the fence’s designated path.
The Indian villagers fear that once the fence is built they will be harassed by Bangladesh’s security guards. They say that locked away from Indian guards their fields and homes could be looted with impunity by Bangladeshi farmers.
Officials say that the fence has already stemmed the flow of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants attempting to cross into India from about 65,000 annually a decade ago to just 10,000 this year.
Shivajee Singh, a border security force inspector-general, said: “When the fence was put up the numbers came down.”
But Delhi is increasingly concerned about infiltration by militants from a country with a large, poor Muslim population that was scooped from India by partition. It accuses Bangladesh of harbouring insurgent groups fighting for accession from India from its northeastern states of Assam, Tripura and Manipur.
There are also concerns about the rise of radical Islam after the spate of bombs and violence in Bangladesh. “Militancy is a new dimension,” Mr Singh said. “Earlier people came for employment. Now we’re getting reports that they’re coming for terrorist activities.”
In a move to bring the small villagers inside the barrier, India has asked Dhaka to permit it to build the fence within the zero line, an area that both countries promised to keep free from defence structures in an agreement made 30 years ago.
Delhi claims that its request has so far been refused. However, a senior official of the Bangladeshi Embassy in Delhi said that talks between the two nations were continuing. “We’re always open to discussion with friends and neighbours,” he said. “But the agreement can’t just be changed by wishful thinking.”