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No man's land

Trapped in enclaves, which are neither in India nor in Bangladesh, lakhs are denied basic amenities of life. Subhendu Maiti writes.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2011 15:54 IST
Subhendu Maiti

Jehad Ali is a year old but his mother does not have happy memories of his birth at Dinhata subdivisional hospital, hardly 20 km from Masaldanga, one of the 29 enclaves popularly known as chhitmahal.

The hospital authorities had initially denied admission to Ali's mother since she had no valid documents to prove her nationality - whether she was an Indian or a Bangladeshi.

Her relatives and neighbours of Masaldanga enclave protested and demanded immediate admission. After much persuasion and heated exchange, Asma Ali was admitted and delivered a boy.

Mashaldanga residents have named the boy Jehad (rebel) as a symbol of protest against the reluctance of the two countries to solve the identity crisis in chhitmahal.

About one and a half years ago, five unemployed youths of Masaldanga and adjoining enclaves were picked up by the Border Security Force and sent to Alipore jail after they assembled at Nazirhat bus stand in Dinhata sub-division bordering Bangladeshi enclaves.

They were planning to travel to Delhi in search of jobs. The BSF picked them up as they did not have valid papers.

This is a story of how 1.15 lakh residents of 55 Bangladeshi enclaves in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts are caught between two countries. They are neither Indian nor Bangladeshi.

They have been living in India for the past 62-odd years since 1949 when Cooch Behar chose not to join what was then known as East Pakistan. The wounds are easily visible and come election time, the agony increases.

As the countdown for elections begin, political parties descend, offering packages, including citizenship rights and voters identity cards to woo the enclave residents.

Abul Kazi, 45, a resident of Masaldanga said chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had promised to take up the enclaves issue with the Centre during a rally in Cooch Behar several months ago.

Hundreds of enclave dwellers from Dinhata, Mekhliganj, Sitalkuchi, Sitai and Toofanganj attended the rally.

It seems paradoxical that enclave residents, who do not have the right to vote participate in the polling process - ranging from school committee elections, college unions and even Assembly and parliamentary polls.

"I participated in the school committee election at Nazirhat High School in Dinhata on the Indian side of the border. My son Saddam Hossain is a Class 12 student. I mobilised guardians to cast their votes in the recently held school committee election," said Nauser Ali, a 50-year-old resident.

Mohd Asgar, a 100-year-old resident of Masaldanga enclave, said, "We have been staying here since 1971. Our sons attend the meetings of political parties and work for them during elections. But we are yet to have any ration cards or voters ID cards."

Asgar's experience has made him realise that betrayal by both countries is their fate.

"I have lost my vision. I told my sons not to get involved with election activities when parties fail to give us our basic identity."

"We do not have rights to get ourselves admitted to hospitals in India when we fall ill. We have to cook up relations such as false fathers or fictitious husbands if our women are taken to the government hospital or health centres. The hospital authorities deny admission owing to identity crisis. The birth of Jehad at Dinhata subdivisional hospital is an eye-opener for us," said Md Billal Hossain of Masaldanga (south) enclave.

"I have three sons and one daughter. My sons have completed their graduation in Dinhata and they were admitted after showing fake addresses of a village in India. Now, they are looking for jobs. How can they be employed if they do not get citizenship?" said Abul Hossain of Poatirkuthi enclave.

The youth are easy targets for political parties, says Hossain. Raju Bhattacharjee, a 28-year-old B Ed student of Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, is a resident of south Masaldanga enclave. An SFI supporter, he has managed a voter ID card.

"We take part in meetings and rallies, seeking votes for our party candidates during elections in India," Bhattacharjee said.

Residents of enclaves have for the first time fielded their own candidate - Moymona Khatun - from Dinhata, a bastion of Forward Bloc since 1977 when the Left came to power.

Moymona Khatun will represent about 23,000 residents of the 29 Bangladeshi enclaves in the subdivision. She is an Indian by birth, married to Rahman Miya, a small trader and resident of Poatirkuthi.

"I will highlight the plight of the residents of the enclaves if I become MLA," she said.

She is backed by the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee, a platform formed to create pressure on two countries to solve the enclaves issue.

"The issue of exchanging enclaves between the two countries is a long-standing demand. More than three lakh people reside in the enclaves in India and Bangladesh with no voting rights, minimum healthcare, education and other basic facilities. There has been no development here," said Diptiman Sengupta, convener of the committee.