Bangladeshi Phones for Indian Peoples

“Welcome to Bangladesh! Grameen Phone wishes you a pleasant stay” or “Dear Beeline subscriber, Grameen Phone welcomes you to Bangladesh” … et cetera. This Short-Message-Service (SMS) message flashes on ‘Mobile Phones’ (MP) not on landing at the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, but anywhere near an Indian International Border Village (IBV) in Indian Northeastern States, specially, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, West Bengal and Mizoram.

Even, if anyone talks up to the ‘Zero Line’ of the aforesaid international border with a mobile phone, he or she is likely to receive the signal from Bangladesh Grameen Mobile Company Limited (BGMCL). In fact, Bangladesh Grameen Phone (BGP) or BGMCL’s signal or network is very active and stronger than the Indian Cellular Phone Service (ICPS)s in most of the Indo-Bangla international border areas. The network of the BGMCL or Bangladesh Cellular Phone Service (BCPS) that spreads up to Indian territory is also causing significant loss of revenue to the Indian phone providers.

According to the Indian Land Port Development Committee, BCPS is very strong in most of the international export and import points between the said two nations and brokers often run BCPS Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards for traders easily. Sometimes, brokers place a different or duplicate name or hide their real name and quickly obtain a connection.

Not only is “Bangladesh Mobile Phone (BMP) a lower rate and better connection than the Indian service provider (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited – BSNL). Though the BSNL service is available, it’s feeble signaling, makes BMP much more popular with the brokers, traders and the IBV people on both sides”, conceded Nelson Sangma. Sangma is a local inhabitant-cum-businessman from Baghmara village in the South Garo Hills District of Indian State, Meghalya, situated near the India-Bangladesh International Border.

“It is a fact that the international boundary is fully porous and as a result of this, organizations in Northeast India and pan-Islamic religious fundamental extremists regularly use cell phone services from Bangladeshi companies in the international border areas in Indian States Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya sector. Seeing this, the Indian Union Home Ministry (IUHM) has restricted use of cell phone services within the 10-kilometres radius of those particular international border areas.

Even after the serial extremist attacks and bomb blast incidents happened (apart from 26th November, 2008) in Mumbai, capital of the Indian State of Maharashtra as well as Guwahati, the capital of the Indian State of Assam, the IUHM has added restrictions once again. They fear misuse of the cell-phone-service by extremists and terrorists inside and outside the international border areas, which is a ‘safe-corridor’ for the extremists.

Recently, the IUHM relaxed regulations and erected powerful BSNL towers to beat the BGP prepaid service, but maintained a blackout within three kilometres of the international border areas, according to Indian Meghalaya State administrative department officials.

“After the recovery of multiple BGMCL SIMs, from cadres of one of the Indian Manipur State based militant groups – United National Liberation Front (UNLF) on 27th September, 2006 at Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, another Eastern Indian State, on their way to the India-Bangladesh international border, the Government of India has been taking the matter seriously”, pointed out A. K. Gupta, former chief general manager of BSNL of Northeast Telecom Circle that comprising the other Northeast Indian States – Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya.

Further, Indian Security Agency (ISA)s are refusing to reconsider the ‘ban’ for ‘prepaid cell phone subscriber’ of the Northern Indian state Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and the Eastern Indian States – Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh to enjoy the roaming facilities outside their respective states for security reasons.

Top officials of the agencies however, declared, “No Indian national with the pre-paid connections of mobile phones can enjoy the roaming facilities in any of these aforementioned states, even, if the service providers are same across these states also.

Though, as a result of this, we have come to know that everyone (specially, in the eastern Indian State, Tripura) have used the Bangladeshi mobile phones and the insurgent groups are always using alternative technologies like satellite-phone, skype, google-chat et cetera”.

“We can’t stop or restrict BGMCL signals, which are coming to certain international border areas of the Indian Northeast region with Bangladesh. But, it is true that the Government of India prohibits any kind of (Indian) radio signals for cell-phone services within the 10-kilometres of India-Bangladesh international border areas. Result : no Indian mobile phone service is available in the above international border areas with Bangladesh”, admitted an official of Indian Border Security Force (IBSF).

On the other hand, the IBV populaces claimed, “Look, we can’t deny the real truth that the BGP cell prepaid services and its network has penetrated deep into the Indian side is the main means of communication for the exporters, well-to-do families and extremists in these international border areas. But suddenly, the Indian Union Government has eased its restrictions to some extent, to increase of Indian Mobile Phone Service (IMPS) – BSNL. Seeing this, private or corporate group of cellular-phone-service, AIRTEL has also jumped into this market and immediately extended its services. Because of this, the BGP service has been reduced. But, still, most of the IBV peoples are still using BGP, exclusively. We should not tell a lie in this regard. A Call to India or Bangladesh is as good as any other (BSNL and AIRTEL) services by BGP”.

“We are compelled and need to make International Subscriber Dialling (ISD) calls from Bangladesh to contact friends and families on both sides and this is why, we have to cross and re-cross the international border and nothing else”, disclosed Kashem Ali, a resident of Borsora village of West Khashi Hills district of Meghalaya State, who routinely crosses over to the Bangladesh side to make ISD phone calls to his friends and relatives in different parts of India and Bangladesh respectively.

However, International Border Merchants’ Association justified, “To run our export and import business with Bangladesh, we are forced to take the connection of BGMCL, while the BSNL either fails to meet the requirements and their very weak service or stop providing connection to the Indian subscriber or customer in fear of militant and terrorist activities”.

However, IIB argued, “The BGMCL connection is also seen as a potential security hazard, though more BGMCL connection means more loss of revenue for the Indian Government. Apart from this, BSNL and the other Indian private telecom organizations (like Reliance, Bharti Airtel and Hutchison)’s connection are also active within Bangladesh territory for a particular distance, this is why, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (IMHA) has come down heavily on telecom operators, including the Indian State-owned BSNL, who are violating the conditions for obtaining a license.

In this context, IMHA has identified 103-numbers of Base Terminal Station (BTS)s across Indian States, Punjab, West Bengal, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Nagaland, where the Government and Non Government Companies have installed their cell sites uncomfortably close to the international boundary with Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively.

Indian militants, international terrorist groups, anti-national forces, religious fundamental groups and unscrupulous elements-cum-anti-social activists are misusing the Indian signals, networks and frequencies along the porous international borders.

Indo-Bangla international boundary village areas are famous for anti-Indian activities such as illegal smuggling, infiltration and religious-fundamental activities, including militancy and terrorism, which is nothing new. Recently the international border areas are also becoming heavens of illegal trade, when groups of smugglers conduct and control this kind of clandestine trade by cell-phone. It is by means of this chief source of communication that the illegal traders operate and regulate this unofficial business between India-Bangladesh and India-China in the eastern Indian region.

In the beginning, when mobile phones were not available, the smugglers used ‘Walkie-Talkies’. But when Bangladesh Defence Rifles (BDR) and IBSF extended their patrolling duties, these smugglers began to receive prior information through mobile phones.

“In Bangladesh, presently, the use of mobile phones have been increasing as days pass by and there are more than 1.5 million to 1.7 million mobile phones are in use and of them more than 1 million to 1.2 million ‘Village-Telephone’ (VT). Not only that even, every year approximately 400,000 to 500,000 are connected by mobile phones and the Government of Bangladesh earns about 250 to 300 crore rupees from various non-governmental organizations”, stated BDR officials.

A most interesting fact is that the inhabitants of Borsora, Nong-Kulang, Nonghylum, Rajaju, Ranikar, gumaghat, Cherragoan of West Khashi Hills District (which are famous for the ‘coal export corridor’), Nongjri, Shella, Dawki, Ichamati, Hatmawdon of East Khashi Hills District, Jaliakhola, Balat, Muktapur, Huroi, Nongtalang, Leijri of Jayantia Hills District, Baghmara, Rongra, Mahesh Khola, Gasupara of South Garo Hills District and Mahendraganj, Bagmara, Dalu, Sibbari, Dimapara, Purakhashia of West Garo Hills District of the eastern Indian state, Meghalaya have to cross daily the international border between India and Bangladesh and keep their foot to the soil of Bangladesh to make a simple phone call to any part of India, which is no matter for them. Although, these villagers buy their essential commodities from the nearest Indian towns, unfortunately, to ‘contact’ to their relatives and others (even, to call Indian Police personnel), they are compelled to cross over to Bangladesh to dial the phone from the Bangladeshi Public Call Office (PCO)s.

“In Bangladesh (a foreign country), all calls (general or local call or Standard Trunk Dialing-STD) to any place in India are rated on the ISD scale, but we are helpless. It is a common practice here to maintain ‘relations’ with our relatives and others, including making a phone-call to any nearest Police Station, we have no alternative way other than to cross over to Bangladesh. Sometimes, we not only face the wrath of the Indian frontier guard, BSFI in this matter, but also for a simple phone-call, we pay the ISD charge, which is Rs. 25 to Rs. 30 per minute (in Bangladesh)”, revealed a local villager, J. C. Diengan.

In response to this, the local Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) of the Indian Meghalaya State Assembly, Martin Danngo replied, “The Indian Meghalaya State Government has taken the matter seriously and in this context, the Government has already provided a section of village peoples (specially, elders) of Wireless in Local Loop (WILL) phone connections”.

References :

Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman & The Telegraph Contributor-cum-Correspondent from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of South Asia, specially, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar.