Around 200 Indian citizens in Bangladesh who were supposed to cross over as part of a historic boundary agreement have applied to stay back, saying they were too attached to their local villages and unsure of economic prospects in a new country.
The two nations kicked off on August 1 a process of exchanging 162 landlocked islets, or enclaves, with over 50,000 virtually-stateless residents, marking the culmination of a border dispute that has lingered since Independence.
But the landmark initiative has now hit a roadblock in the form of the dissenting Indian citizens. The people hail mostly from lower-middle class background and are Hindus, who are allegedly persecuted in Bangladesh, but feel a better future awaits them in their “home” country.
“My family applied for Indian citizenship under my pressure. But now my wife and children are in tears. They do not want to leave Bangladesh. They are deeply attached to this land and the people,” said 39-year-old Manmohan Burman, a resident of the erstwhile Indian enclave of Dasiar Chhara in northern Bangladesh.
But they may be out of time. With the November 30 deadline for the swap fast approaching, Bangladeshi authorities may be forced to deport them if India turns down their request to stay back as all of them are valid Indian citizens. But the enclave residents say they’re not ready to go back at any cost.
“We are not blaming India. But we are firm on our decision to stay back. Should the authorities try to deport us forcefully, we would die. Our bodies may be handed over to India,” said 26-year-old Liton Burman, Manmohan’s neighbour and the head of a family of 10 who changed their mind.
“We are too attached to Bangladesh to leave the land.”
The change of heart may have been triggered by a September trip made by a group of 40 who stayed in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district for a few days to assess the prospects of enclave dwellers if they returned to India.
Only 987 of the around 37,000 residents of erstwhile enclaves in Bangladesh had opted for Indian citizenships while none of the nearly 14,000 dwellers of land pockets in West Bengal opted for Bangladeshi citizenship.
“About 200 people who earlier opted for Indian citizenship have changed their minds. Since they are already Indian citizens set to be deported, their fate is in the hands of Indian authorities,” Abraham Lincoln, a Bangladesh-based lawyer and human rights activist, told HT.
“Religion is no factor behind their decision. It is economic. These people are uncertain about their prospect in India,” Lincoln added.
The residents are also worried about immediate facilities.
“There is lack of clarity about the package offered to people who wanted to cross over. Many do not find the package attractive enough. For example, we have heard those who cross over will get Rs 20 per head per day as food allowance,” said Diptiman Sengupta, the most prominent leader of the erstwhile enclave residents in India.
The first batch of enclave dwellers -- comprising about 40 people -- is slated to reach Mekhliganj in Cooch Behar on November 19. These new Indian citizens will be accommodated in makeshift residences at Mekhliganj, Dinhata and Haldibari until permanent structures are ready.