‘Have you seen Jyoti Basu’s bathroom?’ That question was my leitmotif on a visit to the chhitmahals of Teen Bigha 20 years ago. Everyone wanted to know — Indian villagers, Bangladeshi villagers, BSF officers, RAW spooks, cooks, drivers and Naxalites. “No, I’ve come to see the enclaves,” I said. “Yes,” they replied impatiently, “but you must see Jyoti Basu’s bathroom.”
Jyoti Basu was to visit this area along the India-Bangladesh border where the unity and integrity of India is a joke. Here, India has more holes than a pepperpot. There are 92 Bangladeshi and 106 Indian cross-border enclaves — 30,000 acres of displaced land harbouring disgruntled people.
But Jyotibabu’s visit was cancelled. That unused bathroom with its glittering porcelain pot became a place of pilgrimage for the nowhere people of the chhitmahals, who lived without any services from the governments on either side of the border. This weekend, P Chidambaram is in Dhaka to grapple with the weird issue of chhitmahals and discuss an exchange of territories.
Chhitmahals are the fruit of gaming. Intriguingly, I find that the story behind them has changed over the last two decades. Now it is said that the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Nawab of Rangpur played chess and high-stake card games. They handed over chits bearing the names of villages they owned as wagers were won and lost. When Cyril Radcliffe drew a line dividing the subcontinent in 1947, Cooch Behar went to India and Rangpur to East Bengal, and their chhitmahals — ‘paper territories’ — were marooned in foreign soil. Sounds credible enough.
But 20 years ago, the royals were said to have played a rather different game: football. And the villages they won and lost were called chhitmahals — ‘scattered territories’. Sounds equally credible. The Raj used football as a confidence-building measure during the Anglo-Burmese Wars, teaching the Burmese to play and organising regular matches with British soldiers. Maybe they popularised football in rural east India, too, for similar purposes.
Which is the true story? Does it matter? Creation myths evolve constantly, spinning off new histories, new cults and religions, new explanations for the universe. Never mind chhitmahals theories, I wouldn’t be surprised even if the Big Bang Theory is supplanted by the Celestial Cyclotron Hypothesis.
In the region of the chhitmahals, the truth is especially elusive because every move you make is constrained by borders, borders and more borders, policed by armed men. I remember stopping at a border to photograph memorials to villagers who had got tired of asking for permission to cross a border to go to the market, to their fields, to the loo. They had just stepped over and been shot.
We had stopped the car on a long stretch of empty road. Not a soul in sight for miles around. Except for a BSF jawan who came up huffing and puffing and announced that there was a red alert on the radio: someone was about to be kidnapped precisely where we stood, so scoot! An absurd story, but an armed man usually has his way. He became quite friendly when we came quietly. “Forget all this border maar-kaat, sir,” he said. “Have you seen Jyoti Basu’s bathroom?”
( Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine )
The views expressed by the author are personal