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Cattle Smuggling at India-Bangladesh Border: Age-old problem, few solutions in sight

Bullets may not fly across the Eastern theatre, yet it is the most difficult border to manage today, writes Jayanta Bhattacharya

By Jayanta Bhattacharya
New Update

Cattle smuggling arrest On 9 August 2022 , the BSF, Mizoram and Cachar Frontier intercepted two trucks, apprehended 3 cattle carriers and rescued 32 cattle on NH-6 near Digarkhal in Assam | Photo courtesy: BSF

Cattle smuggling along the Bangladesh border was a cash cow that no one wanted to take by its horns. Instead, they all feared waving the red flag considering the political and criminal muscle smuggling kingpins flexed. After all, the illegal trade’s worth was estimated at hundreds of crores of rupees. And ongoing investigations have pointed to the involvement of the high and mighty.

The recent arrest of Anubrata Mondal, the Birbhum district president of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), further highlights political involvement in this illicit trade. As per the CBI, Mondal, along with corrupt BSF and customs officials, was allegedly running a cattle smuggling racket. The TMC strongman, often called the ‘uncrowned king of Birbhum’, had been evading CBI summons for some time. He even sought medical attention at SSKM Hospital. However, the doctors advised Mondal to continue medication, and that hospitalisation was not necessary. The Probe had earlier reported how the SSKM hospital was embroiled in a controversy over ‘medical asylum’.

Samir Kumar Mitra, former DIG, BSF, says, “Illegal trade at the Bangladesh border has been going on for many years. Despite facing several odds, the BSF’s grit and determination have helped contain these crimes to a great extent”. Mitra had a long and distinguished career at both the Eastern and Western borders. He was an executive committee member to design and initiate the first fencing work to check cattle smuggling on the Assam border about 25 years ago.

Modus Operandi

For about two and a half years, the BSF – hit by bribery allegations – made a determined effort to arrest people involved in cattle smuggling at the Eastern border. The animals are transported from various parts of the country like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand and other states. The smugglers travel almost 1,500 to 2,000 km – mainly on the sly and with fake documents – usually on trucks and pickup vans. However, these are seldom intercepted or seized en route, claim authorities at the border.

In a report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs agreed that “mass movement of cattle occurs from all the states towards West Bengal and Assam, and once it reaches the border areas, it becomes extremely difficult to stop their movement across the border”. It added, “The Committee feels that Police forces of various States have failed to stop this mass movement of cattle to border states and West Bengal Police has failed to intercept or stop the movement of the cattle”. The report, titled “Border Security: Capacity Building and Institutions,” which focused on cattle smuggling along the India-Bangladesh Border, was tabled in April 2017 and noted that “no authentic figures were available about the numbers of cattle being smuggled out of India”. Five years have passed since the report, and India is still grappling with the lack of accurate data.

Data on cattle smuggling Data related to cattle smuggling | Source: MHA

In March 2021, the Home Ministry added to the above list while answering a query in the Rajya Sabha.

Data on cattle smuggling Data related to cattle smuggling | Source: Rajya Sabha

Some guesstimates put the number of animals smuggled at ten times those seized at the border. According to BSF South Bengal Deputy IG (Intelligence) S.S. Guleria, effective border guarding has decreased cattle smuggling. Earlier, smugglers would counter the authorities with new tricks each time the enforcement agencies drew up a plan to curb cattle smuggling. When challenged, armed bandits have opened fire on BSF jawans on many occasions in the past.

“The smugglers tie socket bombs to the neck of the cows. When someone tries to rescue the animal, an explosion is triggered, which can maim or even kill a person. They also make use of the riverine parts of the border. In some places, the rivers and rivulets have tiny islands – called ‘chars’. The smugglers exploit these,” says Biswajit Bhattacharya, a journalist covering the region for a quarter of a century.

The India-Bangladesh border runs through rivers, ponds, and agricultural fields, dividing hamlets and villages. In some places, even houses may have an entrance to India, and the exit may exist on the Bangladesh side of the border. It is perhaps the most complex border anywhere in the world. Bullets may not fly across the Eastern theatre, yet it is the most difficult border to manage today. 

Bhattacharya says he was shocked while covering the smugglers’ modus operandi. Once, he witnessed cows flowing with the river current across the border, and many cows have died this way. “However, this usually happens at night. Smugglers tie a bundle of logs or bamboo to an animal’s neck to keep it from drowning. A silenced mobile handset is wrapped in a polythene packet and plastered on the raft. The smuggler’s partner at the other end keeps giving missed calls at intervals. In the dark of the night, the glow on the handset identifies the cows’ position.”

Border Fencing

India and Bangladesh share a 4,095 km (including 1,116 km of riverine) border, and half of this is along West Bengal. In other parts, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura encircle Bangladesh. The porous border helps unscrupulous elements illegally supply cattle to Bangladesh, where both the meat and the hide are in great demand, and this skyrockets during festivals like Bakrid. On both sides of the border are cattle markets where auctions are held. In Bangladesh, the animals are taken to slaughterhouses, bone-crushing industries and tanneries. 

Indo-Bangladesh border Indo-Bangladesh border | Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

“When I was Principal Staff Officer of the Eastern Command in BSF, in the run-up to and during Bakrid, we used to deploy all the troops at the border. We told the boys to make sure not a single animal was allowed to be smuggled, and it was specifically conveyed that in case of a report of a single smuggling incident, the company commander and the post commander will be held accountable,” reminisces Mitra. However, other officers say that in such circumstances, they receive calls from their counterparts across the border to “allow” the entry of cattle when demands peak.

Proper fencing to keep off intruders as in the country’s Western border has not been possible in this sector. Here, border fencing has been slow and inadequate. Earlier, the Home Ministry had told the Parliament that the land acquisition process on the Indo-Bangladesh Border is “time-consuming and cumbersome”. That apart, limited working seasons due to heavy rainfall, extended rainy season in the North-Eastern parts of the country, and the rugged terrain conditions have also been affecting the pace of the work.

“The riverine border cannot be fenced because the mid-stream of the river is considered the boundary,” notes Mitra. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, in its report, had observed that the fence should be shifted “in as many areas as possible to prevent any inconvenience to the people. Wherever the houses are located right on the International Boundary line, the Ministry will have to shift them to the hinterland and rehabilitate the affected households”. However, the agencies concerned have not been able to make much progress in its relocation or rehabilitation efforts. 


Jayanta Bhattacharya is a journalist with over three decades of experience with many national and international media organisations. He writes on politics, conflict and agriculture. He has extensively covered Afghanistan and many Southeast Asian countries.