History at midnight: India, Bangladesh exchange enclaves

  • Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times, Mashaldanga (Cooch Behar)
  • Updated: Aug 01, 2015 07:33 IST
Children wave the Indian flag to celebrate the exchange of enclaves between India and Bangladesh. The exchange of 162 enclaves is taking place on July 31, 2015, marking the start of implementation of their landmark land boundary agreement. (Photo credit: Subhendu Ghosh)

"Seven...six...five...four...three...two...one...and now...and now we are freeeeeeee!" screamed Anwarul Haque, an 18-year-old high school student.

Carrying a tricolour, he turned with a shriek of delight and sprinted through the moonlit village road towards a chawk on the neighbourhood that till Friday was foreign land to them. But, no longer.

At the stroke of midnight, Mashaldanga, like 50 other Bangladeshi enclaves in Indian territory, turned into Indian land with an Indian pin code. Altogether 14,856 residents of these enclaves became Indian citizens, putting an end to an agony that started in 1947 with the Partition.

So, they danced and screamed and whistled. Some took a few somersaults on the ground that has turned tender after a few spells of rain.

“It’s like being released from jail where you’re born,” Haque's friend, Jelhasur Sheikh, said.

Read: Celebrations in Bangladesh over enclave exchange with India

Late on Friday night, all residents of the village and neighbouring ones emptied their houses and came out to hoist the Indian tricolour at the entrance to Mashaldanga.

“The West Bengal government is laying maximum emphasis on education, healthcare and sanitation. The government will now start development work here,” said Augsutine Lepcha, the additional district magistrate of South Dinajpur district, in a short speech.

Rabi Ghosh, MLA of Natabari in Cooch Behar and the district Trinamool Congress president, said: “Agencies such as PWD, public health engineering and the power utilities have started working on estimates."

As many as 111 Indian enclaves were in Bangladesh, while India housed 51 Bangladeshi enclaves. All the Indian enclaves were in West Bengal's Cooch Behar district.

According to a survey carried out in 2011, as many as 37,369 Indian enclave dwellers live in Bangladesh, while 14,856 people reside in Bangladeshi enclaves in India. On Friday midnight, India transferred 17,158 acres to Bangladesh, and in turn received 7,110 acres.

For the new Indian citizens, it was not just freedom of free movement anywhere in India, it was also about getting a government from which they can demand services an infrastructure.

A ‘stateless’ existence of 68 years had forced these enclave dwellers to utmost deprivation. None of the enclaves had roads and electricity, and suffered from the paucity of drinking water.

A famous quotation from former president APJ Abdul Kalam was put on a banner atop the entrance to the celebration venue along with his picture. The quotation -- “A dream is not what you see when you sleep. A dream is what keeps you awake" -- seemed to sum up the mood of the people at Mashaldanga.

"We have achieved the dream that did not let us sleep all these years," said Diptiman Sengupta, chief coordinator of Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee.

At Mashaldanga, where the main programme on the Indian territory was held, the mood for the historic moment was built up throughout Friday.

Members of the committee recalled various stages of their movement throughout Friday. Among them were victims of police atrocities and those who have suffered due to the lack of basic human rights.

Folklore attributes the birth of the enclaves to the outcome of chess games between the kings of Cooch Behar and Rangpur in the early 18th century, some academics say they could have been a result of a peace treaty between the Mughals and the king of Cooch Behar.

The real problems for the enclave dwellers, however, surfaced after 1947, when Rangpur district became a part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Cooch Behar remained independent before merging with India in 1949. Immediately, the areas held by each in the other’s territory were faced with an identity crisis.

In 1958, some 13 years before Bangladesh was born, then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and ex-Pakistan prime minister Feroz Khan Noon unsuccessfully tried to solve the problems.

Three years after Bangladesh came into being, then India prime minister Indira Gandhi and ex-Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed the Land Boundary Agreement in 1974. The pact could not be implemented due to various reasons, including the lack of necessary amendment to the Indian Constitution.

The final hurdle to the land and population swap was overcome in May 2015 when both houses of the Indian Parliament approved the 119th amendment of the Constitution.

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