Residents of the erstwhile Bangladeshi enclaves in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar will now be able to vote in the assembly elections underway in the state.
Enclave-dwellers were given their EPIC (Electoral Photo Identity Card) on Friday which will enable them to participate in the electoral process for the first time since Independence after living a state-less existence for 68 years.
“It’s a moment of great joy,” said Joynal Abedin, 22, a resident of Madhya Mashaldanga in Dinhata. Three generations of his family – grandfather Asgar Ali, 104, father Belal Hosain, 45, and Abedin himself – got their EPICs on the same day.
For Belal Hosain, the identity card means nothing less than Independence. “Think of a person who has no identity card. It is difficult for him to travel, get his children admitted in schools and apply for jobs. You live under constant fear,” Hosain, who was one of the leaders of the enclave dwellers’ movement demanding citizenship and basic rights, told HT.
In all, 15,786 persons from former Bangladeshi enclaves in India and Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and Indian enclaves in Bangladesh became Indian citizens eight months ago when India and Bangladesh swapped territories. Of them, 9,776 are voters and the EPIC is their proof of an Indian citizenship. These first-time voters will cast votes at 41 polling stations spread across four Assembly constituencies of Dinhata, Sitalkuchi, Mekhligunj and Sitai on May 5.
Apart from giving them voting rights, these cards will be useful in other ways, too.
“We could not even be admitted to hospitals earlier,” said Rousan Sarkar, a resident of Dinhata.
Sarkar could get admission in a college because his father had used the address and photo of his namesake living in a neighbouring Indian village to forge a birth certificate for Rousan. Getting fake birth certificates with names and addresses of father’s namesake was a common practice among enclave dwellers to avail health and education services.
“Now, no one can call us Bangladeshis and deprive us of our fundamental rights,” Abid Ali of Tin Bigha said.
Another recipient of the EPIC card is Usman Gani.
“It feels great to be a voter. It gives a sense of empowerment,” said Usman Gani, who moved to Cooch Behar from an Indian enclave in Bangladesh last November.