Seventy Years Without A Country

by Jayant Chowdhury - May 8, 2015 03:55 PM +05:30 IST
Seventy Years Without A Country

For nearly 70 years, the residents of Bangladeshi enclaves in India and Indian enclaves in Bangladesh have been suffering neglect, harassment, lack of acess to a rule of law. Finally, Narendra Modi has stated that he will pass a bill in Parliament to exchange the enclaves and correct this historical injustice.

Asghar Ali clings on to one hope: that of being able to raise the Indian tricolour in his courtyard before he dies. He says he doesn’t have much time—he’s 102 years old—and has suffered his hopes being dashed at least five times in the past. But this time, he is optimistic that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will deliver on his promise of enacting a bill that will facilitate the long-awaited exchange of enclaves between India and Bangladesh.

Once that happens, Madhya Mashaldanga, a Bangladeshi enclave in the Cooch Behar district of the northern part of West Bengal, will become part of India and Asghar Ali can fulfil his long cherished dream. He hopes to be able to do it on January 26, 2015, and also sing the Indian national anthem that he has learnt by heart long ago.

Asghar Ali, 102, of Madhya Mashaldanga
Asghar Ali, 102, of Madhya Mashaldanga

The Enclaves

There are 93 Bangladeshi enclaves in India and 129 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh with a combined population of nearly two lakh. How they came into being makes for fascinating reading. Successive Maharajas of Cooch Behar–a kingdom that once encompassed entire undivided Bengal (now West Bengal and Bangladesh), Assam and major parts of what is now North East India—indulged in the royal pastime of daaba (a form of chess) with their counterparts, the Nawabs of Rangpur (now in Bangladesh).

They used to wage prosperous villages in their own fiefs as pawns in their gambles. Thus, villages in Cooch Behar became the properties of Rangpur while villages within Rangpur came to be owned by the Cooch Behar Maharajas.

This peculiarity did not pose any problems till Independence. An informal arrangement between the two rulers allowed collection of revenues and administering of the respective ‘enclaves’ by officials of the two rulers.

But everything changed in 1947—Rangpur became part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) while Cooch Behar became part of India when its Maharaja Jitendra Narayan acceded his princely state to India in August 1949.

The first agreement for exchange of enclaves was signed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with his Pakistani counterpart Feroz Khan Noon in 1958; the second between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1974, the third between Rajiv Gandhi and Gen H.M.Ershad (then Bangladesh’s martial law administrator) in 1986, and the fourth between P.V.Narasimha Rao and Begum Khaleda Zia in 1992.

The fifth was to have been inked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina in 2011, but was aborted after objections from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

The residents of the enclaves are hopeful this time because Prime Minister Narendra Modi has firmly stated his determination to enact a bill to pave way for this exchange in Parliament, and Mamata Banerjee has dropped her opposition and is now supporting this exchange.

Decades of Neglect

These enclaves—Indian ones within East Pakistan (subsequently Bangladesh) and Bangladeshi ones in India—became impossible to administer by their respective countries because they were located within another country. For instance, Bangladeshi officials cannot even visit Madhya Mashaldanga, leave aside implement development projects there. The same has been the case with Indian enclaves within Bangladesh.

As a result, time has stood still at these enclaves for decades. They don’t have roads, power, schools, colleges and healthcare facilities. No Bangladeshi official has ever visited that country’s enclaves in India and no Indian official has ever visited Indian enclaves in Bangladesh.

The unfortunate residents have been left to fend for themselves. Abul Hussain, 56, a resident of Poantharkuti, another Bangladeshi enclave in India, says:

“We are victims of history. No one has ever bothered to even enquire about us. Our village has not witnessed a single development project, nor have any of us benefitted from any welfare scheme, all these decades.”

These enclaves are islands of backwardness and stand out in stark contrast to their neighbouring Indian areas. Simulaberia village, for instance, is right next to Poantharkuti. Falling within India, it has concrete roads, a high school, a primary health centre, power, irrigation, piped drinking water and all that is required to sustain life and livelihood. Poantharkuti doesn’t have any of these.

What’s interesting is that all these enclaves are very fertile and contain water bodies. “While gambling, it is natural for a gambler to pawn his prized possessions. Thus, the rulers of Cooch Behar and Rangpur would pawn their most prosperous villages,” explains Diptiman Sengupta, chief coordinator of the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC), a body which has been leading a movement for exchange of enclaves between the two countries for the past two decades.

Naushar Ali Mian, 50, nephew of 102-year-old Asghar Ali of Madhya Mashaldanga, says that one bigha (1333 square metre) of farmland yields 20 mon (800 kilos) of rice. The average yield in other villages around the enclave is 12 mon (480 kilos) per bigha. That’s because, he explains, Madhya Mashaldanga’s farmlands are very fertile and it has ponds and a canal flowing through it.

Persecution and Arrests

But Naushar Ali and his fellow-residents of Madhya Mashaldanga cannot confine themselves to the physical limits of their enclave. They have to sell their farm produce and buy other essentials from markets that fall in Indian territory. “We have to step out of our enclaves every day,” he says. And that is where trouble used to begin.

Once out of their enclaves, they would become easy targets for the Border Security Force (BSF) and the local police who would extort money and their produce like foodgrains from them or, worse still, arrest them under the Foreigners’ Act for trespassing into Indian territory. That meant two years and two months in prison.

A BSF trooper keeps watch on Madhya Mashaldanga.
A BSF trooper keeps watch on Madhya Mashaldanga.


Diptiman Sengupta, whose father Dipak was the first to take up the cause of the enclave dwellers during his stint as MLA of Dinhata, a sub-division in Cooch Behar district, says that more than 75% of the enclave dwellers have spent time in Indian prisons.“They have to go out of their enclaves on essential work and even to earn their livelihood. To be arrested for this is atrocious,” he adds.

“I was arrested by the BSF in 2003 after I refused to part with two of the six hens I had taken to sell in a weekly market about 500 metres from our enclave. I spent more than two years in prison,” said Rezzak Mian, 57, a resident of Korolla (a small Bangladeshi enclave spread over one square mile and home to 1,200-odd people).

Korolla’s Rezzak Mian, who spent more than two years in Indian prison.
Korolla’s Rezzak Mian, who spent more than two years in Indian prison.


Poantharkuti’s Mohammad Mansoor Ali Mian, 74, recalls a terrible incident from his childhood:

“Armed dacoits from a neighbouring Indian village raided our house in April 1966 and shot my father. He was bleeding and we rushed him to a hospital in Cooch Behar town. But when doctors there got to know we were from a Bangladeshi enclave, they informed the police. My father was arrested in the hospital and had to spend two years behind bars after he recovered.”

Mohammad Amir Hussain, 43, of Dakshin Mashaldanga and five others from the same enclave were the last ones to be arrested and incarcerated in 2006. “We were on our way to Delhi in search of livelihood but were arrested by the BSF from Najerhat (an Indian village near Madhya Mashaldanga). We got bail after 26 days and the case went on for more than two years, after which we were sentenced to 26 months on prison,” he recalls.

Diptiman Sengupta said the BBEECC made this a big issue and the Indian authorities finally stopped arresting or harassing the enclave dwellers ever since Hussain and the five others were released in August 2011.

Dwellers of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh also had to undergo similar travails. And in the past, Bangladesh Rifles (as the border guards of that country were known earlier) troopers would raid the Indian enclaves, carry away valuables, poultry and foodgrains and molest the womenfolk. The hapless dwellers of the Indian enclaves had no one to protect them.

Administrative Vacuum

Since India and Bangladesh cannot administer their respective enclaves, a strange administrative vacuum prevails in these enclaves. “In the past, criminals from India used to come and commit crimes here, but Indian police would not come here since this is Bangladesh territory. And Bangladesh police would not be able to come since they would have to cross Indian territory to do so. Utter lawlessness used to prevail here before the BBEECC was formed in 1994 and we became united under its banner,” said Zahiruddin Mian, 72, of Poantharkuti.

Diptiman Sengupta says the enclaves have become hubs of criminal activities. “Smugglers use the enclaves as distribution points since police or security forces cannot enter the enclaves. Drug smuggling is rampant,” he says.

In fact, hemp (that yields cannabis) is openly cultivated by a section of the dwellers of these enclaves. In Poantharkuti, for instance, Monoranjan Burman and his family cultivate hemp in a two-bigha plot beside their house.

He, understandably, refused to speak but fellow-residents say Monoranjan earns a lot from cannabis that he processes from the hemp. People like Monoranjan, though in a minority, are vehemently opposed to the exchange of enclaves since that will put an end to his flourishing business.

Identity Crisis and Subterfuge for Survival

What the dwellers of these enclaves suffer the most from is a crisis of identity. They are not citizens of either country. Officially, they do not possess any documents like voters’ identity cards, birth certificates, or land documents. Thus, they cannot gain admission to schools or colleges, or to hospitals, and cannot procure rations.

But they have to survive and access medical treatment, educate themselves and earn their livelihoods. Subterfuge, thus, has been their only option. Most of them have managed to get Indian citizenship documents. Nearly all have false identities.

“We have to educate our children. But Indian schools will not admit them if we reveal we’re from Bangladeshi enclaves. So we are forced to give the names and addresses of Indians we know as our children’s parents,” said Dakshin Mashaldanga’s Phanibhushan Bhattacharjee. His son, Raju, holds a master’s degree from Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University, but not as a resident of Dakshin Mashaldanga or as Phanibhushan’s son.

“The name of another person in a neighbouring Indian village was given as that of my father during my admission to a primary school. That continued right till my past-graduation,” said Raju.

Children at Poatharkuti; all go to school under false idenities.
Children at Poatharkuti; all go to school under false idenities.

Madhya Mashaldanga’s Tozzamil Sheikh says that when his pregnant wife was admitted to a government hospital in Dinhata before childbirth in 1998, the name of an Indian was given as that of her husband. “This is the practice we follow, or else our womenfolk will not be admitted to hospitals. Crossing the international border to get admitted to a hospital in Bangladesh is not an option because we (officially) don’t have citizenship documents,” he says.

Once an Indian is shown as the father of a child born to enclave dwellers, it becomes easy to get citizenship documents for the child based on the birth certificate issued by the Indian hospital. “We all lead double lives out of sheer necessity, but don’t like doing so. We want this to end. That is why we look forward to the day when Madhya Mashaldanga will become part of India and we will officially become Indian citizens and lead our lives with dignity, with our heads held high,” said Madhya Mashaldanga’s Naushar Ali Mian.

A survey carried out by the BBEECC two years ago revealed that while no resident of a Bangladeshi enclave in India wants to migrate to Bangladesh after the formal exchange between the two countries, 149 families (734 persons) from the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh want to migrate to India.

Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.
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