Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

June 20, 2011

“Fortress India,” things that make you go “hhhmmm”

Filed under: Bangladesh,India,Politics,Wall — Razib Khan @ 9:29 pm

I always consider Foreign Policy to be a shallower version of Foreign Affairs, but there are so many weird issues with this piece, Fortress India – Why is Delhi building a new Berlin Wall to keep out its Bangladeshi neighbors?

First, the subhead. The uniqueness of the Berlin Wall is that it wasn’t meant to keep out outsiders, it was meant to keep in citizens of the Communist East German regime. Whatever the merits of demerits of the India wall, the analogy is just stupid because of this basic inversion of the structure.


Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old’s father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani’s wedding, arranged for a week later in her family’s ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.

Yes, the story is about the India-Bangladesh border, but it starts out with a story about a 15-year old child bride who was the subject of an arranged marriage! Cultures differ, and economic realities are what they are. But the very fact that the girl was having to cross a border at this age to get married to someone she had probably never met is problematic in and of itself.

Then, stuff about natural disasters and climate:

. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh’s rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country’s fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy.

Saline desert? Perhaps. But from what I gather, and what past history tells us, is that a hotter heart of Asia should increase the power of the monsoonal “pump.” There might be less snow which melts in the Himalayas, but there might be more water overall. This argues for better cooperation in hydraulic electric power across the trans-Himalayan region.


And it’s no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

The reason that Bangladeshis choose India is because there are already many Bengalis across the border, many Bengali Muslims, and even Bangaldeshi Muslims. In Burma Bangladeshis would stand out, and look like Rohingya. Democracy or dictatorship is less important than the cultural affinities, which the article already references.

The New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses estimates that there are already 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. (By comparison, there are an estimated 11.2 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.)

Yes, but there are three times as many Indians as Americans! Additionally, the cultural difference between Bangladeshis and Indians, Islam aside, is probably far less than between Mexicans and Americans. The income gap between Bangaldesh and neighboring regions of India is also not nearly as great. There are so may differences between the two cases that the analogy isn’t telling us much useful.


But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable

“Cattle trader.” To an American this might sound innocuous, but the cultural context here is important. What was this cattle trader up to? It is an open secret that Bangladeshis engage in a brisk trade of Indian cows which they capture and transport across the border to kill and consume. I don’t personally have a problem with this on a deep moral level. I’ve seen cows being slaughtered as a very small child in the streets of Dhaka itself, but obviously a lot of Indian Hindus find this a very objectionable practice. Bangladeshi Muslims view the wandering cows of India as a literal “movable feast,” and they help themselves to free protein whenever possible. This is just how the market equilibrium works, but it doesn’t mean that Indian Hindus don’t get very made about this.

Overall I think the reality is that Bangladesh’s fertility is dropping, and it’s economy isn’t such a basket-case anymore. In 10-15 years this might not be a big issue, insofar as the poor rural migrants who are moving to India might find better and easier opportunities in Dhaka and Chittagong. But unless Indin develops a biometric system so it can track who is, and isn’t, an Indian citizen I can see clearly why they want to control their border. If the Bangladeshis want to work in India they should lead a movement for reunification with India. As it is, they don’t want that. What they want is their independence as a distinctive nation with its own folkways. But such independence comes with a cost. It really sucks for Bangladesh that India is such a bully quite often. But it could be worse. Bangladesh could make a show of fighting back, and then be knee deep in the geopolitical mass which is Pakistan’s self-imposed lot.

Powered by WordPress