Locked, unlocked and locked again

  • Debjyoti Chakraborty, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 16, 2015 14:14 IST
The Changrabandha border between India and Bangladesh in Mekliganj Block in Cooch Behar District of West Bengal. India and Bangladesh exchanged enclaves in this block on July 31. (Samir Jana/ HT photo)

Our SUV stopped in front of a small green mosque, the only brick-and-cement structure in Poaturkuthi, a former Bangladeshi enclave in Dinhata block of Cooch Behar district. For, there was only a narrow mud track - not motorable - leading to the village football ground about 1.5 km away, where the villagers were celebrating Poaturkuthi's merger into India on July 31. The village still doesn't have any trace of the 21st century. Nothing has changed here since 1947.

Since the Bangladesh mainland was too far away and India was a foreign country, whatever this village of 3,300 people has - mud huts, ponds, an uneven football ground and a mosque - was created by the villagers themselves with materials smuggled in from India. The stories of the other enclaves are no different.

We started trudging towards the ground where, for the first time, the Indian flag was hoisted in 2007. The flag is now everywhere, marking Poaturkuthi's 'freedom' 68 years after the subcontinent broke free from British rule. But the huts and the paddy fields on both sides of the road looked a little abandoned at about 4.30 pm, since everybody dressed for the occasion in fresh lungis, kurtas and skull caps - a few were seen in trousers, too - was at the celebration ground.

Only a few stray dogs, some grazing cows and goats, occasional motorbike riders with Indian flags and the blaring of 'Vande Mataram' from the ground made it a little eerie. Suddenly, a tiny figure - dressed only in tattered mud-colour shorts - ran past us holding an Indian flag. Face flushed and eyes glowing with excitement, with a hoarse war cry: "Aamra Indiaan (We're Indians)."


Diptiman Sengupta, chief coordinator of Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee.

Six-year-old Tahidul is happy because the village elders are happy for him. He can now go to school as Tahidul Islam of village Poaturkuthi, Cooch Behar. He won't have to fake his father's name either. He is now an 'Indiaan'.

Tahidul's elder brother, Mohidul (13), is a school dropout as Indian schools didn't allow children from Bangladeshi enclaves. Mohidul had to get admission by faking his father's name and address. But he was caught later and expelled.

In fact, the villagers had to fake their identity for everything. So much so that pregnant women had to change their husbands' names - a big issue in a Muslim-dominated village - to get treated in Indian hospitals.

There were other problems, too. There have been allegations that Bijan Burman, a leader of the Chhitmahal Suraksha Committee, was virtually running a government of his own in the Falanpur enclave. He allegedly even collected tax on the sale and purchase of land.

The midnight of July 31 has brought 'freedom' from all this, and more. The villagers were singing, dancing and treating themselves to namkeens and tea at the mela ground. The elders decided to be indulgent for at least one day.

No wonder all the 14,214 residents - counted in 2011 - in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves that came to India have opted for Indian citizenship. But compare this with the fact that of the 40,700-odd residents - 37,369 counted in 2011 - living in former Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, only 979 have opted for Indian citizenship. Why?


Part of the answer is hidden in the story of Rafikul Islam (60), a former resident of Shalbari enclave in the Panchagarh district of Bangladesh, who now lives at Baladanga near Haldibari in Cooch Behar.
Islam claimed that he and his family, along with 15,000 enclave dwellers, left Indian enclaves in phases between 1949 - when the Cooch Behar kingdom became part of India and its landholdings in East Pakistan became Indian enclaves - and 1993, when almost all the villages in the enclave were burnt down.

He said that although the former Indian enclave dwellers had documents to prove their land ownership, they were actually worthless pieces of paper as there had been no rule of law in the enclaves. Hordes of goons, backed by Bangladeshi land sharks from as far away as Noakhali and Mymensigh in Bangladesh used to descend on the enclaves at night for crops, cattle and women.

Take the case of Sabitree Barman of Dahala Khagrabari. She said women were not safe in the Indian enclaves. And since the village was surrounded by Bangladeshi territory, they went to the Bangladesh police, which flatly refused to accept their complaints.

Another significant example is that of Satish Chandra Roy and Sarat Chandra Roy of Nazirganj, an Indian enclave. The Roys, who owned 300 acres of land, were driven out in 1993. Satish and Sarat's uncle, Mahendra, was murdered. The Roys have now become daily wage labourers and live in shanties at Uchhilpukhuri in Cooch Behar's Mekhliganj block.

In 1993 alone, about 70 people were murdered before even the most stubborn of them left for the mainland. And who replaced them as the new land owners? Islam said most of the landowners in the Indian enclaves are people from different parts of Bangladesh. They have no reason to opt for Indian citizenship.

Diptiman Sengupta, chief coordinator of Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC), which worked with both the governments and enclave dwellers, said only those who had lodged police complaints after being driven out of the enclaves, might get compensation.

But what about the majority who didn't even know where to go to lodge complaints? The answer is a meaningful silence.

What's more, D Haokip, DIG, intelligence wing of the BSF in north Bengal, admitted - albeit hesitatingly - that cleansing the Indian enclaves for land sharks looked like a planned operation first by the East Pakistani and then the Bangladeshi authorities. There's no evidence to prove that, though.
Even now, reports are pouring in that some government agencies and men from the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami stopped people from registering their names for Indian citizenship. The reason: Since all the Bangladeshi enclave dwellers opted for India, Indian enclave dwellers should be 'convinced' to stay back in Bangladesh.

The doors have been closed again.

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