Divided Bodies Crossing the India-Bangladesh Border

There has been a global proliferation in high
security barriers, xenophobia and the deep suspicion of Muslim migrants.
The overlap of migration, politics, and national security requires us
to shift attention to the actual experiences of migrants if we are not
to be trapped in the prison of ideologies and legalities. It is
especially critical to recognise that the spectrum of everyday mobility,
political violence, and territorialities merit to be investigated in
one analytic frame.

Malini Sur (arimali@nus.edu.sg)
is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Asia Research Institute, National
University of Singapore. Her research interests include the anthropology
of borders, violence and militarisation in south Asia.

In September 2013, a United Nations (UN) population factsheet
reported that Asia hosted the second highest number of international
migrants (after Europe) and the highest number of refugees.1
Derived from population censuses and registers, representative household
surveys and other UN records, the statistics indicated that m­igration
among developing states of the South was higher than migration from such
states to the North. In underscoring that nine out of 10 refugees were
located within a small cohort of developing states such as J­ordan,
Palestine and Pakistan, the r­eport echoed what Aristide Zolberg urged
30 years ago. Zolberg argued that the tensions produced by the
disintegration and decline of imperial states, along with the emergence
of new postcolonial states in the mid-20th century were
refugee-producing processes and explained the high circulation of
refugees among developing regions (1983: 36-37).

Closer to south Asia’s borders, Joya Chatterji in her recent
historiography of the Bengali diaspora affirms Zolberg. She persuasively
shows that the partition of the Indian subcontinent (August 1947) and
the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent Bengali nation state
(1971) led to internal displacements and international migrations within
the r­egion at greater scales than from its devastated borders to
Britain and other advanced economies (2013: 274). The India-­Bangladesh
border, a product of these political cartographies, is also
relevant in the context of the UN international m­igration factsheet.
This enumerated 3.2 million Bangladeshis residing in I­ndia. While
Indian political parties quickly appropriated this number to a­ffirm
India’s worst paranoia of porous borders and “infiltrating”
Bangladeshis, Bangladesh predictably rejected the f­igures. The release
of the UN statistics in September 2013 coincided with strong civil
society protests in Bangladesh over India’s “shoot to kill” policy and
indiscriminate firings at the international boundary. The same month,
Amiya Ghosh, an Indian border force constable who had shot 15-year-old
Felani Khatun at the India-Bangladesh border three years ago, was
acquitted. Felani’s body hung from India’s new border fence with
Bangladesh, a project under construction that slowly and substantially
re-configures the border landscape. The fence also runs through the
heavily militarised north-east India that shares complicated boundaries
with Bangladesh.

Given the global proliferation in high security barriers, xenophobia
and the deep suspicion of Muslim migrants, and the overlap of migration,
politics, and national security, there is an urgent need to shift
attention to migrant empirics. It is especially critical to recognise
that the spectrum of everyday mobility, political violence, and
territorialities merit to be investigated in one analytic frame. Despite
the prolific scholarship on the partition of the Indian subcontinent
(1947) that engage with questions of violence, trauma, and agency (Das
1995; Menon and Bhasin 1998; Butalia 1999; Bagchi and Dasgupta 2003;
Banerjee 2010), the vocabulary for narrating border-crossings as
interweaving spaces of loss and abjection on the one hand and material
and social possibilities on the other remains challenging. How do we
write about people who cross borders without documentation, who
experience state violence but also “work the border”? How do we engage
with violence through the body that moves across borders as much as the
body that is trapped in abjection and inertia? How do we condemn border
violence in one voice in r­egions where maps and migration precariously
divide states and militarise smaller regions, adding to multiple b­order

I suggest that “divided bodies” may be useful as an analytic
concept to engage with the sociopolitical and intellectual possibilities
that derive from unscripted/unofficial border-crossings. Without
neces­sarily denoting causality, it foregrounds that border-crossers
fall back on the structural deficiencies of barriers from which the
possibility of crossings emerge, while simultaneously they are also at
the r­eceiving end of state repression and v­iolence. Divided bodies
enable us to interrogate lumped and fragmented statistics, and
fractured solidarities, even as they make us acknowledge the indelible
grief and loss that structures migrant lives like Felani’s. In what
follows, I will briefly engage with these themes along the border zone
straddling north-east India and Bangladesh, which I research, and whose
old and new maps deeply trouble me. To do so, I will return to F­elani

Missing Bodies, Missing Variables

Felani’s life circumstances were not e­xceptional. Like many
adolescents in south Asia she had dropped out of school and would marry
early. Given the region’s interconnected border zones, her adolescence
in India would lead to early conjugality in Bangladesh. On a cold and
foggy January morning in 2011, Felani was returning to Bangladesh to be
married. She travelled along with her father, Nurul Islam, who resided
in Assam, north-east India. Islam had paid money to border brokers for
the journey (Odhikar 2011). If Indian border guards had not shot her,
she would have added another number to the UN population data on
international migration and to the undifferentiated statistics of
Bangladeshis in India. But in her abrupt and v­iolent killing, she
exposes (inter alia) how the UN’s classification of “international” and
“bilateral” erases differences that shape migratory regimes and their
precarious outcomes.

Hilary Cunningham and Josiah Heyman have convincingly brought these
distinctions to bear upon migration studies. The authors argue that
since movement stands at the crossroads of power and resources, it
shapes both m­obility and enclosures. They further remind us that the
opening and the shutting of border gates testify to questions of
differential privileges and rights (2004: 293). While it hardly needs
­reinforcing that the life circumstances of Bangladeshis and Indians
with advan­ced degrees stand apart from their lesser-­privileged
counterparts, it is clear that the outcomes of their border-crossings
find different labels as “knowledge” and “labour” migrants. But in the
UN’s computing of “international” and “bilateral” migrant stock on the
basis of where p­eople were born and have come to reside, we are left
speculating about their affluence, deprivation and injuries.
Furthermore, since the intellectual division of labour of computing
migrants is premised on the living versus dead, inter­national migrants
like Felani Khatun who are tortured to death while crossing borders
inform another set of statistics gathered by human rights organisations.

Though borders that divide states such as Bangladesh and India are
legacies of shared pasts, migration figures and questions of legality
lead explosive political debates. Bangladesh questioned the UN’s
enumeration on grounds that it merely reproduced biased official Indian
projections. But Indian estimates of unauthorised Bangladeshis are far
higher, ranging from 10 to 20 million and lacking empirical basis.2
Tellingly, apart from Indians imprisoned in Bangladesh, there is no
discussion on unauthorised border-crossings from India to Bangladesh,
despite the substantial numbers who travel for trade, shopping and
maintaining kinship ties. On the one hand, the complexity of migration
and everyday to and fro movement draws from and cements a deeply
communal border and cross-border religious solidarities. On the other,
the relative fluidity of this border zone ensures that those escaping
political persecution and natural disasters or migrating for work (travelling without legal documentation) collapse in predicament and statistics.

India’s new border fence with Bangladesh is inserted in this unstable
landscape. The fence effortlessly shape-shifts from a matrix of wires
and metal pillars through which Indians and Bangladeshis enquire about
divided families and g­ossip into a site of closure and suffering (Sur
2013: 81-82). An infrastructure of violence, the fence shapes migrant
bodies, and reinstates Hastings Donnan and Thomas Wilson’s compelling
formulation that in national cartographies impinging upon bodies,
“border maps” are also “body maps” (1999: 129). Mutilated and dead
bodies are disturbingly found along the fence, bodies that are
increasingly photographed and digitally circulated.

New Images and Old Maps

Several images of Felani’s tortured body reached my email in 2011.
Words that supported the images described in differing ways Felani’s
journey from India to Bangladesh, cross-border firing, her injuries,
post-mortem and burial. As digital images disrupted sequence and
temporality, Felani surfaced in various frames:

A bleeding upside down female body on a fence; a body
with hands and legs tied to bamboo poles; a horizontal body with a
bullet to the chest; a dangling body and a ladder next to it; a partly
stitched swollen body covered with a plastic sheet; a border guard
looking away from the hanging body.

While Felani dried the ink on my pen for months, also because the
location was my disturbingly familiar fieldwork site, it supported a
Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that lay on my desk in early 2011.
Released just a month before Felani’s journey and aptly entitled Trigger H­appy,
the report is an important contribution that underscores the excessive
militarisation of the India-Bangladesh border. It highlights India’s
indiscriminate use of force, torture and cross-border shootings. The
estimate of Indian border guards shooting dead at least 1,000
undocumented travellers in the past decade was alarming.3
Felani’s post-mortem which revealed a bullet to her chest is condemnable
and very unsettling, given the large number of two-way crossings at the
India-Bangladesh border.4

The HRW figures were also distressing as they were partial. The study
excluded approximately 1,880 km of the almost 4,096 km international
boundary that cuts across north-east India and the foothills and plains
of Bangladesh. Furthermore, in a very critical empirical oversight, it
failed to investigate human rights abuses committed by Bangladeshi
border guards. Precisely because political violence is extensive, and
that both I­ndian and Bangladeshi border guards are known to use
excessive force, W­illem van Schendel named the India-Bangladesh border a
“killer border” long before ­Felani’s gruesome end. Advancing that
borders between “friendly states” generate extreme violence, the author
calculated 2,428 cases of injury, abduction and killings within a short
span of five years (1998-2002). This figure also included 92 cases of
injury and deaths of Indian and Bangladeshi border guards at the hands
of civilians (van Schendel 2005: 300-02).

In projecting border violence and mili­tarisation as recent,
escalating, and limited to the Indian side, we forget that what is today
the India-Bangladesh border sits uncomfortably on a troubled zone. For
over centuries, this region has been armed in various ways, even as
those suspected as traitors and dissidents were disarmed. Here, rebels
and militias have sought refuge, smaller territories have been
coercively appended and heavily armed border guards and peasants have
raided granaries and c­attle. Village elders, as much as the a­rchives,
remind us that militias, police, dissidents, and border residents have
enacted everyday territoriality along these political margins, even as
they collaborated and made border vigilance as intensely a social as a
political function (Sur 2012a: 72-80). One illustration of many
territorial disputes and contradictions, the conflict of Boroibari
(2011) makes it evident how old cartographies of movement,
fortification, and violence shape aggressive postcolonial margins.
Located very near to where Felani’s journey ended, Boroibari is a
disputed territory that borders Bangladesh’s Kurigram district and
Assam. In 2001, Indian and Bangladeshi border guards clashed over this
territory in what border villagers still recount as the “war” that broke
out, and in the same breath express gratitude for the rations that the
soldiers left behind (Sur 2012a: 218-19).

Furthermore, the zone straddling north-east India and the foothills
and plains of Bangladesh, that the HRW (2010) report excludes, is
central to the overlap of state repression with border porosity. This
convergence explains why in the same year and very close to where Felani
Khatun was shot, India and Bangladesh officially sanctioned the first
experimental border market.5 A legacy of old trade routes, in these weekly markets known as border haats
bordering Meghalaya (India) and Kurigram (Bangladesh), transborder
traders legally ­conduct business up to a maximum of $50 and officially
travel without passports (Sur 2012b: 135-36). But again, along the same
Kurigram district that also borders Assam, peasant migration and land
settlement date back to contentious provincial colonial borders. Many
like N­urul Islam have made Assam their home, even long after India and
Bangladesh mutually consented to a legal cut-off date to end
unauthorised migration (25 March 1971). For older settlers in this
region and immigrants who have acquired Indian citizenship in Assam,
frenzied drives for surveying and judicially trying “suspected
Bangladeshis” add layers of ambiguities rather than fixing the
boundaries between citizens and foreigners. Migration, land alienation
and settlement quarrels unfortunately recur through gruesome violence
such as in Nellie (1983) and Kokrajhar (2012) in Assam. These issues
further complicate Assam’s external and internal borders; especially its
political location as a state that has been under prolonged military
scrutiny, and whose interests are marginalised in India (Baruah 1999).

Divided Citizens

Incidents of state repression at the India-Bangladesh border have
brought about new forms of virtual protest, similar to the social media
led anti-regime protests in Africa and west Asia. As India’s
cross-border shootings featured in conventional diplomatic platforms,
cyber warfare raged over Felani’s death. Bangladeshi and Indian digital
activists posted and counter-posted on the internet. ­Appearing in early
2011 in “Yahoo Answers” under the label of “Government and Politics”
and subcategory of “Military” the pseudonymous “Amak” protested about
Felani’s killing as an illustration of Indian atrocities against
Bangladeshis. While responses confirmed such atrocities, one
counter-held that Bangladeshis entered India without legal
­authorisation. Meanwhile, Yahoo presented a summary of relevant
questions which included “how does it feel to kill someone?”.

But cyber activism also included critical deletions, which do not
preclude state surveillance. For instance, “Ajay1694” fleetingly
surfaced in Wikipedia’s India Border Security Forces (BSFs) page in
2012. He requested the deletion of the section on Felani’s image and
killing on grounds that it was non-verifiable. In his assertion that
this image impaired friendly ties between neighbours, he unknowingly
echoed Bangladesh’s initial disinclination to recognise Felani as a
Bangladeshi citizen and official responses that asserted isolated cases should not impair Bangladesh-India relations.6
As “Ajay1694” disappeared so did Felani’s photograph. Images of Indian
border guards and officers, and ammunitions, took precedence on the Wiki
page. In January 2013, on the same day that Felani was shot, two groups
known as “Bangladesh Grey Hat Hackers” and “Bangladesh Cyber Army”
attacked 1,400 Indian websites (including intelligence websites) to
protest her killing. In September 2013, with the acquittal of the BSF
constable who fired at Felani, a new Wiki­pedia page entitled “Killing
of Felani” surfaced and along with it new writings on virtual walls.

Felani’s so graphically photographed hanging body came to exemplify
the geo-body of Bangladesh and its unequal relationship with India. This
was made explicit in a poster pasted on the walls of Dhaka since 2011.
The English title “Stop Border Killings” on the upper outer margin of
the poster frames Felani’s hanging image. Two subtexts are scripted
along the lower margins. While the first emphatically states “Felani
does not hang Bangladesh hangs”, the second subtext ambiguously confers
the authorship of the poster to the “public of Bangladesh” (both
translated from Bengali). Bangladeshi activists ranging from cyber
hackers and human rights organisations to religious and political
interest groups ensured that Felani was recognised as a Bangladeshi
citizen. Unlike digital images and texts that created and deleted
evidence and left uneven trails, the poster condemning Felani’s killing
took a concrete shape and form. However, its textual preciseness eroded
Felani’s trans-border identity and ironically disrupted the momentum that her body gained in photographs.

No Impact on India

Wide-ranging protests in Bangladesh failed to have any durable impact
in I­ndia. After a Bengali newspaper in Kolkata first published her
hanging i­mage, Felani significantly disappeared from I­ndian mainstream
media.7 While Felani’s proximity to the international
boundary encouraged Bangladeshi acti­vists representing diverse
interests to ­appropriate her as a Bangladeshi subject and refugee, it
is precisely this closeness to what in India is largely considered as a
site of national security and “Islamic terrorism” rather than a zone of
cohabitation that has obliterated any claims to Felani as an Indian
Muslim subject or even a Bangladeshi migrant whose killing merits
protest. Furthermore, the in-between space that she occupied as neither
an adult nor a child and neither a victim of human and sexual
trafficking nor an innocent Bangladeshi “juvenile” who crossed borders
by mistake meant that she slipped from Indian interventions that
privilege recovery and repatriation. She was invisible to Indian child
rights and women’s rights activists for whom violence is critical but
nationally circumscribed engagements. If protests in Bangladesh took on
bilateral colours as opposed to humanitarian ones, India’s silence
affirmed the inequality of its relationship with Bangladesh and a lack
of commitment to zero border killings promised earlier. Above all, it
conveyed smug superiority and denial of Indian Felanis who cross borders
without authorisation and labour under disconcerting conditions.

Unfortunately digital images and c­yber activism assumed the same
connotations as problematic statistics; they c­emented old rivalries and
denials. They shifted attention away from urgent issues of livelihood
and “working the border”, even as they made us forget that even t­oday,
many angry teenagers march across the border for no other reason than
angst against parents. Acts of claiming Felani Khatun as a Bangladeshi
victim of Indian atrocities, and ignoring her as an Indian failed to
account for her predicament as a shared and divided citizen of India and
Bangladesh. They failed to reckon the conflicted narratives that border
societies such as Indian and Bangladeshi enclave dwellers use to give
meaning to their territorialities, life circumstances and dilemmas, even
as they partake in paralegal activities (Cons 2013); predicaments and
dilemmas of the kind that structure the lives of Nurul Islam and Felani
Khatun. Even if India’s promised retrial of the Felani’s case leads to a
conviction, it may not resolve questions of everyday travel and
livelihood of border residents, trans-border and mobile communities such
as fisher folk and coal miners (Samaddar 1999; Jones 2009; Gupta and
Sharma 2008; Hussain 2013). Border residents’ depen­dence on predatory
brokers and guards will persist till issues like decentralised
passports, transborder cards and work permits for labour migrants,
proposed long ago are tabled again.8


Felani Khatun’s tortured form connects many dots across geographies
of violence. It links short and hurried walks through rice fields and
forests that truncate India and Bangladesh with migrant burial grounds
in scalding deserts that constitute significant parts of the US-Mexico
border or the rough w­aters of the Mediterranean. Felani r­eminds us
that the figures of those migrating under precarious conditions rises
alongside legally protected travellers and compels us to recognise that
scholarship and protests must engage with complicated and transnational
lives that link home, workstations and trading hubs straddling border
fences. Since the term “international migration” obscures critical
distinctions and profiles migrants on the basis of living, dead,
refugees and others, scholars and activists must read across distinct
statistical slots to enable at least a superior compiling and reading of
migration data. Added, rather than subtracted, they will inform us
about the diversity of moving, settling, dying and grieving that shape
m­igratory regimes.

Felani narrates south Asia’s complex games of territoriality and
links Bangladesh’s troubled geography with Assam’s postcolonial history.
As India and Bangladesh orchestrate joint parades (á la Wagah) along a
border that was never a conventional war theatre (ironically to the tune
of a rebel Bengali poet) we are reminded once again that this border
rests on uneasy friendships. Sadly we are also compelled to acknowledge
that activism often fails to cross constituencies and borders in south
Asia. Till we expand our dissenting horizons and prevent more spectacles
of old disputed maps, the eerie momentum that Felani’s body gains in
singular photographs and posters will continue to sporadically haunt our
collective conscience.

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