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OPED | Monday, October 5, 2009 | Email | Print |

Smuggling of cattle must stop

Richard L Benkin

Investigations have shown that cattle-smugglers are facilitating anti-India activities. Sadly, security forces turn a blind eye to crimes committed along the border with Bangladesh

The Pioneer recently ran a piece by Anuradha Dutt (“Criminal Slaughter,” September 23) about smuggling of cows from India into Bangladesh. Anuradha Dutt has questioned how it could be done so easily, since “these bulky animals are difficult to overlook in the course of their journey.” One answer: “The laissez faire attitude of the Congress, socialist and Communist parties to the vital issue of protecting these gentle creatures.” Her argument is compelling, and having just completed an investigation into this criminal enterprise, I would add two more: Corruption and jihad, South Asia’s two great scourges.

Early this year, two men contacted Bikash Halder, my Indian representative who works with me to stop Bangladesh’s ethnic cleansing of Hindus. They said they had important information, so we arranged a late-night clandestine meeting in Kolkata with the two, ‘Rahul’ and ‘Samir’. Rahul began by saying how he previously did unspecified work for intelligence agencies that involved frequent trips between India and Bangladesh. Whatever it was, however, it did not bear fruit, and the agencies dispensed with his services; but he stayed in the area and like Samir bought a house near the Bangladesh border. “After 10 pm you can see everything,” they said; specifically, cattle going out of India in exchange for arms and Islamists coming in, and members of the West Bengal Police involved in the transactions.

In fact, Rahul said that the smugglers were jihadis (something he claimed to know from his earlier forays) whose success depended on corrupt Indian officials. Both men were so insistent that they invited us to spend the night with them and see for ourselves. While I had commitments outside West Bengal and eventually had to return to the United States, Halder took them up on their offer this summer.

He travelled to the Bongaon and Basirhat sub-divisions of North 24 Parganas where he met our informants. Since Samir told us in Kolkata that he could see the illicit activity from the back of his house, Halder went to their homes and waited with them for nightfall. Shortly after 10 pm, he confirmed what they reported in Kolkata: Cattle being taken brazenly from India to Bangladesh. It was not Halder’s first encounter with cattle-smuggling.

“It is a usual matter in the India-Bangladesh border area,” he said, adding that the proceeds from “cattle-smuggling are the main support for jihadi activities.” He also uncovered evidence of what he termed “an industry” that floods India with Islamists, arms, and other contraband. “Smugglers are linked to militias on both sides of the border,” Halder said. These arrangements make the police, who are supposed to enforce the law, nothing more than paid armed escorts for those who are breaking it.

He already knew that the West Bengal Police were involved in cattle-smuggling, but his observations from the back of Samir’s house and subsequent investigations showed more extensive complicity. “I have seen the following scenario. Top to bottom, security personnel take bribes. Some agents of both Indian and Bangladeshi agencies are involved with smuggling, and both of them shelter jihadis coming into India.”

He also uncovered evidence of financial ties between higher level authorities in the West Bengal Police. “I know it personally,” he insisted. “Every local police station in West Bengal has a person called a ‘Dak Master’, who collects the bribes.” Much of that, he said, comes from brokers who bring in Bangladeshis illegally, often with the help of BSF personnel. “Frequently, I have faced those incidents,” he said.

In 2008, we observed the same BSF complicity in the tiny town of Panitanki on the India-Nepal border. A bridge over the Mechi River allows people and vehicles to cross freely. As a steady stream of trucks, covered wagons, and men carrying large packages entered India, my Bengali colleagues would point to one and say ‘arms’; to another and say ‘drugs.’ “That one has counterfeit bank notes,” one said, “a big smuggling business.

The illegal activity was so open that even I became adept at identifying the contraband. No one seemed concerned even though the area is notorious for smuggling and a known entry point for Islamist and Maoist terrorists into India. No one checked any packages or stopped a single individual — until I pulled out my camera. As we passed a pile of sandbags, two soldiers emerged and brandished their rifles and demanded I put away my camera. I protested vehemently until they threatened to confiscate it.

In exchange for putting it away, I asked them to let me cross the bridge into Nepal. They demurred, insisting that as an American I needed a Nepalese visa to cross, even though third country nationals frequently take rickshaws or other conveyances into Nepal. But they let me walk to the border in the centre of the bridge where it became clear why the soldiers did not want me taking pictures. The flow of contraband was heavy, continuous, and open. We also saw people running across the dried river bed on either side of the bridge, many carrying large parcels.

While our enemies do this for a principle, these officials do it for nothing more than money: Changing the demographics along the border, compromising India’s security, and throwing away one of its greatest legacies in its reverence for life.

-- The writer campaigns for minority rights in Bangladesh.

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