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Tempers rise faster than fences on Indian border with Bangladesh

On the Bangladesh border with India's state of Assam, people are digging in. And Indian and Bangladeshi security officials are facing each other in the appearance of a near state of war.

For the past two weeks, since Indian Premier Indira Gandhi instructed engineers to drop the first pillar for a controversial border fence, Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, Bangladesh's military ruler, has charged India with trying to fence his tiny nation in.

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In three exchanges of gunfire between security forces on both sides, at least a dozen people have been injured, and at least two have died.

The controversy centers on an Indian project to build a 2,145-mile, $500 -million fence to prevent impoverished Bangladeshis from fleeing illegally across the Indian border. The question of the illegal immigrants throughout India's northeastern states is what touched off the mayhem in oil-rich Assam last winter, costing 3,000 lives.

Assamese Hindu students, leading a four-year agitation in their sensitive border state, demand the expulsion of tens of thousands of Bengali ''foreigners'' and the construction of a fence. It will be hard for Mrs. Gandhi to reverse her decision in this crucial election year.

So, too, will it be difficult for General Ershad to appear to yield to what he calls ''blatant Indian interference'' in his country's domestic affairs. The Bangladeshi general is involved in sensitive negotiations with his country's political leaders to return to a controlled democracy later this year.

Thus, paramilitary reinforcements have been rushed to both sides of the border and have hastily thrown up bunkers and, here and there, a trench. Such is the buildup that even border smugglers have summarily fled.

Some 1,000 Bangladeshi civilians, under the watchful, armed protection of their border police, have begun digging a two-meter-deep

trench on their side of the border. With the coming of the summer monsoon, this trench will fill with water that could erode the concrete pillars, causing the fence to collapse.

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While they are not digging trenches, the Bangladeshis are heaving immense lassos across the border, attached to bamboo poles, to pull down the barbed-wire-topped pillars. They have had extraordinary success.

Such has been the bedlam that stopped India from working on the project temporarily last week, although the home minister assured Parliament that it would continue once tempers have cooled. The chiefs of the two border security forces are scheduled to meet on Monday.

''It is of no concern to a foreign government what India does on its own soil ,'' an undaunted Mrs. Gandhi said at week's end.

Yes, it is her soil, Ershad conceded to the Monitor in a February interview, ''but we feel it is totally unnecessary, and it hurts our feelings as well. We're poor, but our people don't want to flee. . . . If she had done it without fanfare . . . . But to announce to the world that she's building a fence to keep the Bangladeshis out . . . no one can accept this. And no one will.''

Bangladesh's argument - that the fence violates a 1975 treaty between the two countries, which bars the erection of defensive structures - is not taken seriously. A barbed-wire fence is hardly a defense installation, the Indians respond rather hautily.

Derisively dubbed the subcontinent's ''Berlin Wall,'' the fence has been criticized even by some of the prime minister's supporters as being totally impractical. Even without the Bangladeshi trenches, the terrain along the border , crisscrossed by streams and rivers which frequently change course during the monsoon floods, is unsuited for erecting a permanent wall.

It could wash out and have to be rebuilt each year, as would an eight-foot-wide tar road, which the Indians are also constructing to enable them to police the fence.

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