It had been raining for the past three days, so the kutcha road that leads to the Poatur Kuthi village, around 50 km south of Cooch Behar, was impassable. Wading through waist-high water, Rahman Ali, in his forties, is busy harvesting jute from his fields next to this road. Roads have reached the neighbouring villages, but this village had been an island of neglect for decades, he says. “There is no difference in the roads we had in pre-independence India and the road that we walk on now in Bangladesh,” says 76-year-old Asgar Ali, another villager. Asgar has been living in a no man’s land for a good part of his life. The land he tills is part of an archipelago of villages that are technically in Bangladesh but trapped inside Indian territory in enclaves or Chhitmahals.
Legend has it that a Maharaja of Cooch Behar in a series of chess games with a Mughal faujdar, had gambled away villages. Another account by academic Brendan R Whyte, states that the enclaves were the result of peace treaties between the Maharaja and the Mughal empire. The list of enclaves also include around two dozen counter enclaves (an enclave within an enclave) as well as the world’s only countercounter enclave (an enclave within an enclave which in itself is in an enclave).
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But the fate of people living in the 51 enclaves of Bangladesh inside India and the 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh stands to change with India signing the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last week and the passing of the Land Boundary Agreement Bill in parliament last month. It can be months, however, before enclave dwellers get identity cards and a survey to gauge the economic condition in the enclaves. In the enclave on the eastern border of Cooch Behar district, Madhya Masaldanga, there’s a counter-enclave. The Indian enclave inside the Bangladeshi enclave has just one house and a few acres of farmland. Chitra Das, the owner, has a voter ID, ration card, access to government hospitals and schools in India. Even electricity. But right across a narrow patch of land from Das’s house, Asma Bibi, living in the Bangladesh part, has a different story to narrate.
In 2010, 30-year-old Asma, pregnant with her third child, went to the local hospital but was refused admission unless she fabricated her husband’s name and her address. With a Bangladeshi address, she was clearly on the ‘wrong side’. She was eventually admitted after an agitation and the baby was named Jihad Hossain Obama. Jihad means struggle. The name of the US president, one assumes, was thrown in for good measure.
With citizenship, many things will change. Access to healthcare and schools for example. The lack of identity has forced generations to live without education. Those who were admitted to school, did so by renting an Indian father. Documents such as a voter ID, bank passbook and ration card are registered using false identity. “We have relatives in the India, so we look for people who have the same name as the father or anyone who is ready to say they are our parents. Still we have to bribe officials to get the card,” says Bokul Mia, a 35-year-old resident of Madankura Chhit who has been working in Delhi since childhood. He managed to get his documents made in Delhi. An ‘official document’ costs Rs 5,000-6,000. Sometimes, more.
For equal rights
Poverty is rampant in the Chhits. Most of the people own a small portion of land apart from their tin-shed houses which they use to grow rice and jute. An enclave resident is forced to sell the produce at a price lower than the market rate. “Earlier, Indians would take away our produce at will,” says 26-year-old Jamal Sheikh of Madhya Masaldanga Chhit. “Now with equal rights, we can approach the police.” Often, however, villagers say the authorities are exploitative too. Border Security Force soldiers have, at times, picked them up if they ventured out of their enclaves and demanded a cow or a goat or even a bag of salt to release them, they say. Poatur Kuthi Chhit resident, Azad Ali’s sister Mayful Bibi, 28, was married to an Indian just outside their enclave. One day the police held the couple, along with their child, claims Ali. “They charged my brotherin-law of trafficking a Bangladeshi girl but released him few days later. My sister was, however, released at the Bangladesh border after three months. We smuggled her back to India,” says the 23-year-old Ali.
Stories of loss and struggle are peppered with hopes for the future. Parimal Barman’s grandfather exchanged his piece of land in Bangladesh’s Rangpur district with a Poatur Kuthi resident in the hope of being closer to India. The hundred-year-old, will now hopefully find what he came looking for. The success of the movement, villagers say, is owing to the efforts of Diptiman Sengupta, 44, the son of Dipak Sengupta, a Forward Bloc MLA of West Bengal who founded the Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC) in 1994. Since then, the organisation has been working to unite people of both the Indian and Bangladesh enclaves, in a joint struggle. “The focus should now be on how the process is implemented on the ground and eventually the policies that need to be rolled out for people who have missed out on so many things for over six decades,” says Sengupta.
The absence of law in the enclaves, however, has turned the area into a haven for criminals.
There are claims of cannabis and opium cultivation. Recently, an arson in Masaldanga resulted in a visit by the local Sub-Divisional Officer, probably the first time an official visited the place. Enclave residents are also concerned about how the implementation of the agreement will impact land ownership.
But there are reasons for optimism. “I’ll have lived in four different countries, if this goes through well. I was born in British India, grew up in East Pakistan and Bangladesh, and hopefully will spend my old age in India,” says a happy Asgar Ali.
‘Lots of changes after elections’
Maimuna (left), an Indian, is married to a resident of a Bangladeshi enclave. She contested the West Bengal assembly polls in 2011 to highlight the problems of the Chhitmahals (Popup caption)An Indian by birth, Maimuna (36) was married to Abdul Rahman, a small-time trader of Poatur Kuthi in 1997. The couple faced and overcame the problems of the Chhits in their own way. When Maimuna needed to show a doctor, she would visit an Indian healthcentre. If Rahman needed a check-up, he had to go through a private clinic or bribe his way. (If a Bangladeshi male from the enclaves needs to visit a Indian doctor, the common way out is to pay a bribe.)
Rahman’s business in jute — he has a partnership with two Indians — so far, has not been on paper. “Now, it will be legal,” he says with a smile.
In 2011, Maimuna contested the West Bengal assembly elections after the committee convinced her that it would highlight the Chhitmahal issue. It was about demanding the right to have a legal identity. She fought on an independent ticket. Even though she lost the election, people living in the enclaves were able to show the administration that a woman from the enclaves could voice her demand by putting up an electoral fight.
“We saw a lot of changes soon after the elections,” says Maimuna. “People who didn’t know about the Chhitmahals, were made aware of their existence. Politicians and the government started acknowledging the problem people have been facing here for decades,” she says.Asked if she would like to contest again after the land agreement is implemented, she says now that their demand has been met, there is no need for her to fight elections.
Talking to the world
Four days ago, a house was burnt down by alleged Indian miscreants in the Madhya Masaldanga Chhit. Within hours, the Whatsapp and Facebook groups of the BBEECC was flooded with messages and videos. Good news and bad ones are responded to equally here. Similarly, a flurry of messages in Bengali and English took over the page when the Land Boundary Agreement was signed on June 6. Congratulatory posts went up soon after, followed by photographs of celebrations in the enclaves.
Behind the page and groups, is an army of social media contributors from enclaves on both sides of the border. Since 2013, when the BBEECC’s Facebook group page went online, these young reporters — mostly school or college students — have been active. Saddam Mia, an MA student, who teaches the use of social media to young contributors, says, “At least one reporter is present in each Chhit updating the events in their area. I have the responsibility to coordinate and teach the new recruits.” From births to deaths to celebratory events — all is newsworthy for the group, says Alamgir Hossain Mandal, 18, of Madhya Masaldanga.
Reporters from the local media and from the mainstream, are associated with the initiative. “Despite the lack of electricity here, we have managed to be constantly online. We charge our phones in the nearest shop on the Indian side at a cost of ` 2-5,” says Jaynal Abedin, a political science graduate, holding on to a power bank for backup."I bought it on Flipkart," he says. "We buy phones, power banks, shoes from websites like Snapdeal, Flipkart and Amazon from our phone. But to pick up the delivery, we have to go to the nearest Indian town."