India seals self off from Bangladesh

SUJATPUR, Bangladesh

Everyone knew it was out there somewhere, an invisible line that cut through a cow pasture and, at least in theory, divided one nation from another.

But no one saw it as a border. It was just a lumpy field of grass, uneven from the hooves of generations of cattle, and villagers crossed back and forth without even thinking about it.

Today, no one can ignore the line.

In a construction project that will eventually reach across 2,050 miles, hundreds of rivers and long stretches of forests and fields, India has been quietly sealing itself off from Bangladesh, its much poorer neighbor. Sections totaling about 1,550 miles have been built in the past seven years.

In Sujatpur, a poor farming village, the frontier is defined by two rows of 10-foot-high barbed-wire barriers, the posts studded with ugly spikes the size of a toddler’s fingers. A smaller fence, and miles of barbed wire coils, fill the space in between. The expanse of steel, set into concrete, spills off toward the horizon in both directions.

“Before, it was like we were one country,” said Mohammed Iqbal, a Bangladeshi farmer walking near the border on a windy afternoon. “I used to go over there just to pass the time.”

As he spoke, a cow wandered past, brass bells jangling around its neck. “But now that’s over,” he said.

In the United States, the decision to fence 700 miles of the Mexican border triggered months of political debate ranging across issues from immigration reform to the environmental impact. When Israel announced it would build a 425-mile barrier around the West Bank, an international outcry erupted.

But there has been barely a ripple over India’s far larger project, launched in earnest in 2000 amid growing fears in New Delhi about illegal immigration and cross-border terrorism.

The Bangladesh government made a few complaints — the fence felt like an insult, as if their country was a plague that needed to be quarantined — but soon gave up.

India has become enamored with fences in recent years.

First it started closing off much of its border with Pakistan, trying to stop incursions by Muslim extremists. Then it turned to its other Muslim neighbor, Bangladesh, and has been building the fence intermittently ever since.

There is no firm completion date for the $1.2 billion project, which when finished will nearly encircle Bangladesh — leaving open only its seacoast and its border of about 200 miles with Burma.

India thinks some Indian militant groups are based in Bangladesh, a charge the Bangladeshi government has denied.

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