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Bangladesh@50: How love blossomed across borders and is witness to a couple’s fears about NRC

Even after 26 years, nothing has changed for a man from a river island in Bangladesh and a woman from a border village in India

Written by Santanu Chowdhury |
Updated: January 4, 2022 12:56:58 pm
sunday eyeLove knows no boundaries. (Credit: Partha Paul)

I will only marry him, Afsana Bibi* said. She was only 14 then. Today, with Sheikh Rafiqul*, she completes 26 years of married life. In the border village of Lalgola, Murshidabad district, West Bengal, she recalls, “Both our parents were against our marriage as we belonged to two different countries.”

Sitting in their one-storey house, in the distance are fresh, sunny yellow mustard fields and dim memories of opposition and disapproval. Rafiqul, 50, had left his family and country (Bangladesh) nearly 31 years ago to be with Afsana in India. “It was love at first sight. Marrying her was the most important decision of my life. I do not regret it for a single day,” he says.

Their house barely two kilometres away from the India-Bangladesh border, has been home to the couple and their four children. Just across the barbed-wire fences was where Rafiqul grew up, on a river island on Padma, a natural border between the two countries.

“Back then, in the ’90s, it was a porous border. There was no fence and movement of people on both sides was common,” recalls Rafiqul. He was conned into leaving for Lalgola, in the hope of getting a job, but he landed in Kolkata. He had to work as a labourer in Sealdah Railway Station to make money so he could return home.

Sunday eye The India-Bangladesh international border at Murshidabad district in West Bengal. (Credit: Partha Paul)

But soon, with barely any job opportunities on the island, Rafiqul returned to Murshidabad and worked there for five years. He was friends with Afsana’s brothers, and it’s at their home that he first met her. But, the journey from courtship to marriage was far from easy. “His father did not approve of our marriage. My parents and brothers were against this as well, as they feared what will happen once fences come up along the border,” says Afsana, 40.

But they got married anyway and Rafiqul took the most audacious decision to settle with Afsana in India. “My in-laws were generous to accommodate us in their home and helped us buy a small land,” says Rafiqul.

While his thoughts have been with his parents and four sisters in Bangladesh, Rafiqul could only go home once over the last two decades. That was only for a day. “About 10 years ago, I got news that my mother is no more. Back then the Border Security Force used to allow Indians to visit Bangladesh for a day, after submitting relevant documents,” he says.

Life goes on for the couple, whose older son works as a labourer in Chennai while one daughter has been married off. Two of their daughters are studying in school.

But, uncertainty looms for Rafiqul, with the implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Rafiqul now worries about his future. “I don’t know what will happen. I have all Indian documents and papers. But there can be no better document that ties me to this country than my wife and children. They are my most important documents,” says Rafiqul. Afsana is quick to say, “I will never allow him to leave. He has a duty towards me and my children. I have built my life with him in India. There is no way anyone is taking him away from us.”

(*Names have been changed on request)

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