Why you should care
Because this is a glimpse into the new India — and how it treats its neighbors.
Cows obstruct the way as you drive along the road that leads to the place where India ends. They are regal, as Indian cows are: arrogant, casting supercilious glances at the Jeeps, motorbikes and pedestrians trying to make their way through the streets. As in most parts of this country, cattle live well. They roam freely, and we are mere annoyances, encountered during the course of their holy peregrinations.
But somewhere along this road, as you pass into the eastern city of Bongaon, bordering Bangladesh, the cows will cease to be in charge of their own destinies. Instead of ignoring them or allowing some tacit respect, those who cross them may instead be thinking of numbers. About $150 for the scrawny one chomping idly on some plastic. Some $250 for the huge, fat beast squatting on its haunches on the side of the street. As much as $300 for the giant creature that looks us in the eyes with its wide-pooled stare. Perhaps this one is oblivious as to what might be coming to it: It is like a sheep among wolves here in Bongaon, as it would be in many of the border towns between India and Bangladesh. This border, one known for its permeability, is grazing territory for smugglers — smugglers who can get you almost anything you want: cough syrup, sex, illegal arms, Indian counterfeit bills or tortoises. And, most offensively to many Indians, cows.
In October, a supreme court report found that around 17,000 heads of cattle had already been smuggled in 2015 — over five times as many as the year prior and, in total, worth around $2 million. Those numbers fall far under what many experts and reports say: The Bangladeshi government, whose security forces could not be reached for comment, has previously told reporters that over two million cows pass across the border each year. Shubhendu Bhardwaj, public relations officer for the Border Security Forces (BSF), said he would not comment for this story, referring us instead to the larger Ministry of External Affairs — which did not reply to multiple requests for comment. In May, Home Minister Rajnath Singh claimed to the press that the BSF had reduced the number of cattle smuggled each year from 2.3 million to around 300,000 since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. In the same breath, he called for even more attention to be turned toward the problem.
Every figure shared in this policy debate is simultaneously murky and politically weighted — but the shape of the trend is clear: Under the governance of prime minister Narendra Modi, India has become more protective of many elements of traditional Hinduism, including violence against cows. Here, in the nation that has historically been the second-largest exporter of beef and the country with the largest cattle inventory in the world (according to the industry site Beef2Live), Hindu preservationist ideas have taken hold. Cow slaughter is banned in most of the country, and in some states you can receive a sentence of 10 years for killing the creatures. Last year, a few states decided to make eating beef verboten as well — though Maharashtra, in a major decision, just undid parts of that ban. That awareness about cattle has spilled over to the border forces: “They are very alert about smuggling these days, especially about cows,” says Sanjay Bhardwaj, professor of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, who is an expert on Indo-Bangladesh border relations. “But this is a porous border.”
And these are incontrovertibly dangerous times. Last year, a BSF officer was hacked to death by a gang of more than 100 smugglers in the witching hours, and the BSF told the press that, in 2014, 78 BSF officers were injured by smugglers. It’s even terrifying for those not mixed up in the business: In May, newspapers reported that a college student visiting his hometown in West Bengal was beaten to death by vigilante cow-protecting mobs who believed him to be a member of a smuggling ring.
Here, along this border, some of the ghosts of the carving up of the subcontinent 70 years ago are still haunting policymakers. These forgettable border towns are the sites where modern India, one with Hinduism and its values forefront in its mind, is running up against the messy legacy of partition. They are where you can find glimpses into the troubles of developing nations, where much of the growth is taking place in cities, leaving some villagers feeling as though they have little option but to take to illegal trades. Irony pervades: After all, even as the measures to protect cattle were increased in the past few years, India contributed to the global beef market in record numbers — exporting around $4.4 billion worth of the meat in 2014, according to the country’s Agricultural and Processed Foods Development Authority. Now, those contributing to that market are restricted to killing buffalo, which are not considered sacred by Hindus; as The New York Times reported last summer, this has set some traditional butcher-caste Muslims reeling.
Forget the culture wars between Hindus and Muslims in India: The beef wars, if you ask the Bangladeshis, look like a minor synecdoche of economic sanctions.
The illegal cattle trade is a sprawling industry, stretching from these border towns across the northeast to cattle markets and tanneries in Bangladesh, and all the way southeast to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, where many cows begin their long march with their captors. The money means something different to each person along the supply chain. The middle-age Indian man who gathers the cows may pocket his rupees — between 500 and 2,000, or $7.50 to $30, depending on the size and number of his cattle — to supplement another job. This in a state where the per-capita income hung between $750 and $1,600 a year in 2012 and 2013, according to government data. He — almost certainly he, according to those who know the smugglers’ situations well — may be Hindu himself.
The men who finish the job along the border are, BSF guards say, often adolescents as young as 12, probably receiving a couple of hundred rupees (a few dollars) for their nights spent guiding the cows through rice paddies and across the water. Working with young men helps protect the smugglers, since police will not use force against minors, says West Bengal BJP spokesperson Krishanu Mitra, who is also a member of the Hindu nationalist group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The smugglers themselves are quite a sight, Mitra adds, explaining that constituents have told him they often cross through villages carrying open arms, not bothering to conceal themselves, occasionally even striding along naked so that villagers will be too embarrassed to interfere. “It’s a kind of mental pressure they create,” Mitra says.
And on the other side? The some 60 takas, or 75 cents — the going rate for a leg of beef in Bangladesh, according to Numbeo.com, a food-price tracker — stings. As the country recovers from the food-price inflation that hit its peak two years ago, beef prices soared. The $500 to $2,000 required to buy a full cow is unthinkable for most Bangladeshis. Last year, Bangladesh’s top beef exporter told Reuters he had slashed international orders by 75 percent. Forget the culture wars between Hindus and Muslims in India: The beef wars, if you ask the Bangladeshis, look like a minor synecdoche of economic sanctions. Newspapers, including the Indian Express, reported the beef ban caused a tiff between a meeting of senior diplomats from the two countries last winter, chiefly over the spike in prices, which experts say have risen some 40 to 50 percent in the last year.
As for the smugglers, “What choice do they have?” asks Mohammad Jalal Uddin Sikder, professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, where he is an expert in informal trade across the border. He describes the border towns this way: no industry, no opportunity. Restrictions prevent Bangladesh from creating heavy industry or manufacturing plants in those areas, he says, so for those who don’t flee to garment factories in Dhaka, money is a daily scrap fight. “The state has the responsibility to have the basic necessities for life,” Sikder says. “The state cannot provide the basic necessities. These poor people, then, what will they do? So-called smuggling.”
Night is setting on the village of Patgram, 10 hours north of Bongaon. Here, everyone knows a smuggler. Like the lanky twentysomething man wearing a banyan T-shirt, whose friends are in the game. The cows they bring in are worth six times as much here in Bangladesh as they are across the border, he says; he tells us his friends make around 5,000 rupees, or $75, per animal. We are talking in the home of his neighbor, a middle-age woman wearing a sari with the achal pulled up over her head. She uses a Bangla slang word to explain that the cows get here illegally. They speak of this as an open secret. “Sometimes they’re taken to the police station,” she says of the smugglers. But why should jail stand in the way? A bit of money gets them out and back to work.
On a map, Patgram and Bongaon are cousins, separated by what looks like a noncommittal border, something sloppily thrown together. The language is the same — Bangla, or Bengali — and indeed it was the same state until this area was twice renamed, first as East Pakistan in 1947 and then as Bangladesh in 1971. So shabbily assembled was the border that it was not until last May that the two nations’ prime ministers finally decided to settle the matter of over a hundred “enclaves” housing Bangladeshis in Indian territory, and vice versa. JNU’s Bhardwaj, the border expert, says the multiple phases of fencing along the border have been largely unsuccessful. “This border was not demarcated on the ground — it was demarcated far away, sitting in some library or drawing room,” he says, reiterating a criticism of India’s partition that is now so common it has become cliché. “It did not take into account people’s basic requirements or background realities.”
Around 5 p.m. one evening, on the Indian side of the border, the guards from both nations have just performed a ceremony of sorts, dressed up in their finery and parading along the dividing area, meant to inspire or reflect whatever goodwill there is between the countries. A few tourists hang about. Perhaps a hundred people are waiting to cross the border on foot, looking too tired to care about the pomp and circumstance. A customs officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to reporters, tells us he’s seen around 15,000 people and 500 trucks pass across this border today.
At first, the officer is dismissive about the cattle. “That’s over; it’s just something here and there,” he says, echoing the government line that can be heard from Singh to Mitra. But then the officer grows resigned, suggesting that for those on the inside, the battle seems far from won. “It’s just such a long stretch of area,” he says. And yes, he confirms when we ask, he has heard stories about “lower people” in customs and the security forces taking bribes to ease the passage of the smugglers.
As the border zips itself up for the night, the daytime trade shuts down. A couple of BSF guards, chatty young men in their late 20s, are stepping off duty. They’ve been at it since 6 a.m.; it’s around 8 p.m. now. They will go to their barracks, rest three or four hours and then be back out for the night shift soon. Just before picking up the guards to give them a lift to their sleeping quarters, we pass a stretch of land in between the guards’ outposts and the official political border. In this area, some people are permitted to farm during the day, under the watchful eyes of the BSF. While teenagers skip along the dirt path next to the fence, taking selfies and vaguely annoying the guards on duty, a few women in colorful saris are packing up their baskets and emerging from the lush, green farming area. One woman steps out of the gate, offering the guard some identification and signing out before heading home. The guard is oblivious as she leaves the wired gate open just a bit too long. On the other side of the road, tied up, blinking their thoughtful eyes out at the fence, is a line of plump, squatting cows.