A Dhaka Tribune investigation into smuggling syndicates operating in the busy entrepot of Hili, in Dinajpur district, has found that the “manpower” employed to carry goods across the border actually involves very few men.
If the idea of an equal opportunity den of thieves seems comical, be assured that it is based on entirely matter-of-fact considerations of business interest.
Smuggling syndicates working on the India-Bangladesh border have embraced women, transgender people and the disabled in their efforts to stay one step ahead of the police.
Read More: A railway station run by smugglers
Those being wooed into the smuggling trade as carriers belong to groups that many old-fashioned law enforcers are not likely to suspect – or even notice – increasing their chances of getting the goods delivered without hassle.
Even if they are noticed, a lack of women staff and officers trained to deal with women, sexual minorities and differently-abled people means that law enforcers are ill-equipped to stop, search and question suspects.
Sometimes, a culturally defined sense of pity or sympathy impels law enforcers to let such smugglers go if they are caught red-handed.
The fact that smuggling syndicates prefer to hire those who are not able-bodied men – and are therefore socially invisible – reveals a patriarchal mindset.
Paradoxically, these very hiring practices are altering the mindset by disillusioning law enforcers, and society at large, of their image of what a criminal looks like.
They are also resulting in a sort of affirmative action in the black market, creating livelihoods for groups that previously had little economic opportunity.
Breaking the glass ceiling
Two years ago, poverty and hunger were Rahima and her child’s only companions. Everyone else had deserted them.
Abandoned by her husband Rahmat, she tried desperately to scrape together the Tk800 in rent for the makeshift structure she and her child called home.
Facing down near starvation, Rahima, not her real name, cannot approach her parents for shelter for herself and her two-year-old child. Her now failed marriage was a love match, the price of which has been an enduring estrangement from her parents.
Poverty and hunger seemed the only constants in Rahima’s home. And hopelessness.
“Things were desperate. I was planning to move from Dinajpur. One of my neighbours noticed that I was falling behind with rent and asked if I wanted to make easy money.
“I said ‘yes’ and the journey began,” Rahima told the Dhaka Tribune at her house in Parbatipur, an upazila of Dinajpur.
She was hired as a carrier of smuggled goods being brought in illegally from India through the Hili border crossing.
There are around 200 women in Parbatipur alone who, like Rahima, work as carriers for smuggling syndicates active at the Hili border in Dinajpur.
These women take a two-hour early morning train journey every day from Parbatipur to Hili. They then walk to the house of an Indian mahajan – or merchant – located close to the border between the two nations.
Bangladesh and India share a 4,096-kilometre border, with large stretches unfenced, helping smugglers move contraband goods between the two countries.
Taking advantage of unfenced stretches of the border between the two countries, smugglers transport high-demand items like spices and the addictive codeine-based cough syrup, phensedyl, which is banned in Bangladesh but sold legally in India.
Rahima spends up to six hours a day, including her train commute, on her smuggling runs, netting around Tk500 on average. The amount she makes varies with the size of the consignment she conveys.
“They [the mahajans] prefer women as carriers mainly for two reasons: we can hide anything and we can also provide shelter for the men,” she said.
Syndicate members said women aged between 25 and 35 years were in high demand.
Smuggling in broad daylight has become difficult for men because of the constant threat of getting shot by India’s Border Security Force (BSF), they said.
“Ten years ago, the number of women in this trade was small. I saw 40 to 50 girls working as carriers when I first came here, but now there are more than 300 of them,” said banana vendor Abul Kalam Miah who has worked at the train station since 2005.
Another reason why women are preferred is that police and border guards do not regularly catch female carriers.
“Even if we are caught, we are not sent to jail. But we have to endure abuse and sometimes molestation from the Indian border guards,” said a female carrier, adding that the money was worth the occasional mistreatment.
Hakimpur upazila parishad Chairman M Akram Hossain said most female smugglers come from other areas. “On October 18, on a train ride from Santahar, I saw many women of different ages getting off at Hili station where they quickly dispersed … I think they were smugglers.”
He said BGB had been informed and were alert to the situation.
Lt Col Akther Hossain of BGB (Dinajpur region) told the Dhaka Tribune that not just lone females alone but women with children were found smuggling goods.
“Smugglers use women because they know the number of female law enforcement staff is limited making it difficult to check suspicious looking travellers,” he said.
Transgendered and trusted
Many people in Bangladesh are embarrassed by Hijras, transgender people recognised by law as the third gender.
This variation on homophobia has become a unique sales point for the Hijra community who are getting work with smuggling syndicates operating in Dinajpur.
But Hijras are regarded as more trustworthy than other groups by smuggling syndicate bosses.
“Although they are few in number compared to regular carriers, they play a crucial role. Around 30 Hijras from Parbatipur upazila work in the trade, while Hijras from Panchbibi, Joypurhat, Santahar and Akkelpur also come to work for the syndicates,” said A Kuddus, a drug trader from Parbatipur.
They are hired to convey valuable items including jewellery, medicine and expensive cosmetics because of their trustworthiness.
The famed boisterousness of the Hijra community and enduring stereotypes that cause law enforcers to privilege a sense of embarrassment over a sense of duty has been an effective deterrent to conducting body searches, locals said.
A Border Guard Bangladesh official, asking not to be named, said Hijras are often let go if they “scream and make a scene.”
Another trader, seeking anonymity, said: “They play another role as well – escorting other male and female carriers. If a carrier is caught, the Hijras create a diversion with their rowdiness to allow them to flee.”
Disability is a job qualification
Physically disabled people are also in high demand by smugglers because the police and Border Guard Bangladesh officials let them go even if they are caught illegally transporting smuggled goods.
Although not a very well-paid job, smuggling enables disabled people to earn money quickly.
“Being disabled is their qualification. People have sympathy for them, so they can do illegal work easily,” a Railway staff at Hili station said.
A legless man weighed down by a heavy load grinned as he made his way through Hili station. Despite the difficulty he was having, he had what one might call a bounce in his step.
When asked what was in the bags, he replied: “Household products.” He did not offer any more of an explanation.
A nearby BGB Havildar who overheard the exchange offered more detail: the bag contained mainly Indian spices.
“He is a regular carrier here. He lost his leg in this railway station last year. Now he works as a carrier,” he said, asking not to be identified.
When asked why he was not being arrested, the BGB man said: “This man is making some money. If we arrest him, his family will have to suffer.
“We are law enforcers but we have a heart.”