The border fence has become to the Bharatiya Janata Party what the wall must be to the Trump administration in the United States: a physical barrier with almost talismanic properties that will keep all unwanted immigrants out.

Both target populations defined implicitly in racial or communal terms, though they are invested with criminal attributes and national security is cited as the reason for keeping them out. United States President Donald Trump objects to Mexican immigrants he has described as rapists, criminals and drug lords. The BJP wants to ward off Bangladeshi Muslims who are “infiltrators”, encroaching on land, smuggling cattle and becoming potential terror threats. Bangladeshi Hindus, however, are “refugees” fleeing religious persecution and the Centre’s new citizenship bill tries to ease the terms for their entry and stay in the country.

This week, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to discuss border issues. The state is currently updating its National Register of Citizens for the first time since 1951, a counting exercise that is meant to detect “illegal migrants”. Indeed, the demand for a border fence stemmed from the anti-foreigners movement that raged in Assam in the 1980s seeking the identification and expulsion of all illegal immigrants. As he emerged from the meeting, Sonowal announced that the fence would be completed by December. In the regional media, these claims were greeted with some scepticism.

So let us set aside the troubling ideas encoded in the building of the fence for a moment. Let us focus, instead, on the physical fact of the fence. The idea of a neat boundary separating one country from the other is defied by several factors.

Walls on water

While the American media has made some fantastic projections for the scale and size of Trump’s wall, if it were to have the desired effect, India’s mammoth fencing project is well advanced. The border India shares with Bangladesh is 4,097 km long, running through forests, hills, paddy fields and riverine areas.

The fence, about eight feet high and electrified in some places, is said to run through roughly 70% of this fluid borderland. The first phase, sanctioned in 1989, saw about 854 km of land barricaded. Phase 2 sanctioned the fencing of 2,502 km, of which at least 1,930 km have been completed, according to a report by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Over 1,100 km of the border is riverine, including 48 km along the Brahmaputra in Lower Assam’s Dhubri district and 300 km through the Sundarbans, the mangrove-cloaked delta of the Ganga in West Bengal. Since an actual physical fence is impossible, these areas are to be barricaded with infra ray pillars and smart censors. But problems remain.

First, the costs are high. For every lasered kilometre in the Sunderbans, the government will have to pay Rs 25 lakhs to Rs 30 lakhs. Three to four kilometres have been fitted with such technology and the electronic fence in the Sundarbans was to go permanent this January. So far, there is no word on whether this has happened.

Second, water borders are nebulous and constantly changing: in the tumultuous Brahmaputra, which tears away at its banks and has shifting sand bars that are inhabited, and in the Sundarbans, where land is continually merging into water. India follows the Thalweg principle, which says the middle point of the deepest navigable channel of a river should be the border. But rivers constantly shift shape in these regions, so the middle point is not fixed.

Besides, residents may move from one sand bar to the other in Assam, as the Brahmaputra claims the land on which they built their homes, throws up a tongue of land elsewhere. Who is to determine whether they are crossing the border as they do so? Will the laser fencing be able to enforce the logic of borders in these areas, where the distinction between land and water is never quite clear?

Along the Brahmaputra in Assam, residents move from one sand bar to the other as the river claims the land they built their homes on and throws up a tongue of land elsewhere. (Credit: Furquan Ameen Siddiqui / HT)

Human settlements

As the Dutch historian Willem van Schendel has argued, Partition cut through a closely meshed borderland, creating “the categories of citizen and foreigner” overnight. The logic of the border did not always follow the logic of human settlements in the region.

So it created international enclaves, or pockets of Indian territory surrounded by Bangladesh, and vice versa. It cut through hundreds of villages. It separated farmers from the fields they cultivated, the markets where they sold their goods. Some of these wrinkles have been smoothed out. The Land Boundary Agreement concluded by India and Bangladesh in 2015 merged the territory of the enclaves with the surrounding country and maintained status quo on adverse possessions, that is, land owned across the border by citizens of the neighbouring country.

But some wrinkles remain. Very often, the intricate curls of the border could not be fenced, leaving loops of land outside it. In Assam, for instance, there are entire villages that are cut off from the rest of the country after dark as they fall outside the fence and the border gates are locked. Besides, it has made the lives of people living in these areas more precarious: those going to visit their family on the other side of the border risk the bullets of the border forces, labourers going across for temporary work are forced to stay longer.

The government is increasingly pouring in more men, throwing more money and installing more surveillance at the India-Bangladesh border. (Credit: IANS)

All the king’s men

In aid of the fence, there are floodlights to rake through the surrounding countryside and massive security deployment. The government sanctioned Rs 1,327 crores for floodlighting alone. And as India’s defence budget ballooned, substantial amounts were set aside for border infrastructure: Rs 2,600 crores in 2017-2018, though this would include both eastern and western frontiers.

On the India-Bangladesh border, the security deployment meant heavy casualties – 900 Bangladeshi nationals were killed by security forces between 2001 and 2010, according to one Human Rights Watch report. Even these dangers could not always contain crime, and reports abound of Border Security Force officials colluding with smugglers and residents paying bribes to get through to the other side.

The government’s response to these continuing transgressions is to order more security. To the existing 802 border outposts here, it ordered the addition of 383 more and proposed to reduce the distance between two posts to 3.5 km. In 2017-2018, it allocated Rs 15,569.11 crores to the Border Security Force, which mans both the eastern and western frontiers. It ordered more troops and surveillance in 140 spots that it termed vulnerable along the Bangladesh border.

The border seems to reveal the paranoias of the state rather than sealing off populations from each other. Researchers have argued that physical barriers such as border walls and fences do not really stanch migration or stop crime, though they project the appearance of a tough state policy.

The BJP, too, has made the completion of the fence a test of its strength. Yet, increasingly, it seems to be at war with the border itself, pouring in more men and money, installing more surveillance to bring order and definition to a region that is fluid and will not be defined.