It is afternoon and I am sitting on a small embankment by the river Bhagirathi – a branch of the mighty Ganges that flows through South West Bengal. The location is Shaikhpara, a small village in the Raninagar-I Block of Murshidabad, a district in South-Central Bengal. It’s winter, the river bed is almost dry and only a narrow stream flows through the middle. On the sandbanks in the distance I can see few farmers tending their vegetable fields. The atmosphere is serene. The silence is broken only by the shrill chirping of a lonely white dahook bird. As the dusk falls I notice a strong glow of light on the eastern horizon on the opposite bank. “What’s that?” I ask Sk. Kirmani, the young NGO volunteer, my guide and local contact. “Oh! Those are the lights of Pabna, a town in Bangladesh. It’s just 5kms across the river,” he replies casually. I am curious and take a look around. About 150 yards away I notice a watchtower of the Border Security Force (BSF) and also see a couple of jawans carrying their automatic rifles patrolling the river bank. “Have you ever been to Pabna?” “I go there once or twice a month,” Kirmani replies with a smile, “My elder brother’s in-laws live near Pabna and one of my cousins has married a guy from Pabna.” “But they are Bangladeshis…and what about the BSF?” I ask incredulously. “But the people over there are absolutely like us and we speak the same dialect. Cross-border marriages are common in this region. And the BSF does not bother us. The local commander and the Panchayat have come to an agreement – the locals are permitted to cross over.”
On my way back from Shaikhpara, I notice large herds of cows and buffaloes being driven towards the border by small groups of herders. Most of the animals look sick and exhausted but they are made to walk fast goaded by the heavy beatings of the cowherds. “Where are the cows heading to?” I ask. “Bangladesh! Where else? There is a huge demand for meat and hides for export to the Middle East!” Kirmani replies. “Bangladesh? But isn’t it illegal?” “Who cares? The BSF knows about this smuggling very well. Their palms are greased and so they look the other way. In our area these crossings take place in the winter as the river is calm and shallow. But in monsoons when the river is full this route becomes dangerous because of numerous eddies. So most of the crossings take place about 60-70kms upstream from the Jangipur and Samsergunje areas.” “From where do these cattle come from?” “All over India, I guess. The cattle fairs are in Birbhum, the neighboring district. The herders collect the cow from these markets and drive them towards the border. They cross the border at night; hand them over to the agents on the other side; collect the money and return. They hand over the money to the kingpins of this racket and collect their hefty commissions. This trade has been on for years.”
“We walk 30-35 kms per day with our cows. It’s a three day journey from Ilambazaar in Birbhum district to the Bangladesh border in Murshidabad”, Salimbhai tells me while we drink tea at a roadside stall. Tall and wiry, his huge feet are full of hard calluses. Salimbhai is the leader of his band of 4 hyakantes – the herders who drive the cattle from the bazaars to the Bangladesh border. There they hand them over to the paraniyas, men who are responsible for crossing the border along the river route. “The cattle comes mostly from UP, Bihar, Gujarat and Rajasthan. It’s uneconomic to keep old cows, extra bullocks and male calves. Their owners are too happy to sell them off to traders who bring them to these bazaars in West Bengal by road. The cattle smugglers buy them at the bazaars and hand them over to us for taking them to the border. I get about 5000 rupees each trip and in the winter months when the trade is at its peak I make 4 or 5 journeys a month.” “Good income!” I comment. “Yeah! But the work is physically very demanding and there are a few risks also,” Salimbhai’s voice trails off. “Risks?” “Yes, sir! Not from the cops though. Did you notice the markings on the cattle? They indicate to which gang they belong. The cops in the 3 police stations that fall on our way keep a count on the numbers each gang is smuggling. They are paid hafta per head of cattle. Then there are dacoits on the way who snatch the cattle but now these incidents are on the decline.” “Why is that?” I ask. “Our bosses have come to an understanding with the dacoit gangs. They now provide us and our cattle food and shelter at night and get paid for it. Some of the more enterprising ones arrange women for us and get extra money,” Salimbhai answers with a sly and shy grin… I take out my camera, Salimbhai gently stops me. “Why stir up a hornet’s nest? Just, let it be…”
An apocrypha about the hyakantes:
A few cows which a hyakante was taking to the border were absolutely exhausted and were finding it difficult to walk. The hyakante gave them a good thrashing but still they refused to budge. Then he told them lovingly, “Baba! Please cover these last few miles. Once you cross the border, your passports and visas are ready and you all shall fly to Paradise in a huge aircraft!” Legend has it the cattle were convinced and made the crossing with enthusiasm!
“You know, I can hold my breath for more than 7 minutes at a time!” Mukul tells me with a proud smile as he dabs Vaseline over his rippling muscles. “Occasionally the BSF jawans fire at us. Then we let go of the cows and swim underwater. Luckily they fire very rarely but when they do the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) also open up a barrage. It’s pretty dangerous and a few paraniyas like us get killed. But the ‘business’ goes on. The monsoons are a peak period for us as the strong downstream current in the Ganges in our area makes reaching Rajshahi district Bangladesh an easy job. You just have to float along the currents and in an hour you are on the other side.” Mukul is a paraniya – folks who take the cattle from India to Bangladesh by the river route. Its evening and we are chatting sitting on the eroded riverbank of Dhuliyan, a small town in the Jangipur constituency of Murshidabad – the constituency which has the venerable and powerful Pranab Mukherjee as its MP. The river is a pitch dark hollow, the cool monsoon breeze and the constant sound of the lapping waves are the only indicators of its mighty presence. Every 5-6 minutes the darkness is pierced by the big rotating searchlights of the BSF patrol boats. “I get 3000 rupees for every two cows I take over to the other side,” Mukul tells me as he hands over his Nokia 5320 to his younger brother Ashis for safekeeping. “We also carry small packages from the other side when we return and they pay us more than 2000 rupees.” “What do you carry back?” I enquire. “Oh! I don’t care as long as they pay me in advance. On our side Billubabu, is the boss and he never screws up on payments.” “Billubabu? Isn’t he the guy who holds court near the jetty every evening with his henchmen clad in his spotless white designer kurta-pyjamas?” I ask. “Yes. He is three time municipal councilor from this area. He is a really good man and helps the poor a lot. Last year when my sister fell ill, Billubabu arranged for one of his Tata Sumos to pick her up and take her to Berhampore for treatment. He even paid for the operation.” As we talk, the electricity goes off and the whole area is plunged into darkness. Mukul tells me that every evening at nine the power goes off at Dhuliyan for 3 hours. This is the time for crossings. “But what about the BSF patrols on the river?” “During this period the frequency of BSF patrols go down to one in every 20-25 minutes. Billubabu and other bosses have a deal with them and its generally smooth sailing for us.” “But…?” “No ifs and buts, it’s a job and the business has to go on. Billubabu is a big man, cattle is only a part of his business. He has shares in rice, paddy, salt, and even in the business of bringing over girls from the other side…” “So why do the BSF men open fire sometime?” “Guess they have to show they are doing their jobs,” Mukul answers with a shrug.
Mukul checks his two cows, their front legs are tied together so they are forced to swim together. “These cows are damn good swimmers. We float along the current by holding on to their tails. We poke them with big steel needles when they misbehave or when there is a need to change directions mid-river.” Mukul warmly embraces his younger brother, recites a small prayer with deep conviction and then goads his two charges down the embankment slope. I look around and see hundreds of eyes of cattle blinking like green fireflies in the darkness. The air is full of fetid cow piss and dung smell. Every other minute there is splash in the river water, another paraniya is on is way to the other side…
PS: Two days later, back home in Kolkata, I open my favorite vernacular newspaper. The headlines scream: 10 kg of RDX has been found in a widow’s cattle shed in Pardianapur, the river island bang on the other side of the Ganges at Dhuliyan! A man has been arrested near Jangipur town on the suspicions of providing shelter to some of the terrorists who had crossed over from Bangladesh and had been involved in the recent bomb blasts in Jaipur.
Tall and handsome, Colonel Rathore, the commandant of the BSF battalion based in Nimtita, North Murshidabad, is a perfect embodiment of army men who defend our borders with courage and sincerity. Nimtita, by the way, is famous for its crumbling zamindari palace, the location where Satyajit Ray shot his magical film Jalsaghar. Colonel Rathore grumbles about the difficulties of his thankless task bemoaning the shortage of men, money, equipments and the lack of a proper intelligence network. But the biggest problem he sighs in frustration is the undefined and ever changing nature of this border. “In some areas the border passes right through the ancestral farm lands. The rivers too change their courses regularly. Today what seems to be in India can very well go into Bangladeshi territory and vice-versa as the rivers change course and cause huge erosions overnight. It takes a lot of time and discussions to chalk out new boundaries. Sadly rivers don’t wait for bureaucrats and protocol procedures! The smugglers take full advantage of our shortcomings.” “But some of your own men are hand in glove with the mafia?” “Sad but true,” the Colonel replies, “We try our best to root out the errant. But you must appreciate that for many of these poor jawans bribes over a lakh of rupees annually is a very big temptation indeed!” “What about the cattle business? Will it not lessen your burden if it is legalized as the BDR has recently suggested? This trade is solely fuelled by the huge demand for cow meat and hides on the Bangladeshi side; by legalizing it India can earn some revenue and more importantly curb the mafia that conducts the trade.” “Are you mad?” the colonel is pretty indignant, “India is a Hindu state! It is our sacred duty to honor and protect the Holy Go Mataa!”… …