We've finally seen light: Crowds cheer India-Bangladesh land swap

  • HT Correspondent and Agencies, Dashiar Chhara, Bangladesh
  • Updated: Aug 01, 2015 12:45 IST

Jubilant crowds celebrated on Saturday as Bangladesh and India exchanged enclaves ending nearly four decades old deadlock.

As the clock struck one minute past midnight, thousands of people erupted in cheers of celebration for their new citizenship.

"We have been in dark for 68 years," said Russel Khandaker, 20, as he danced with friends in the Dashiar Chhara enclave, which belonged to India but has now became part of Bangladesh.

"We've finally seen the light," he told AFP.

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.

In Dashiar Chhara, thousands of people defied monsoon rains to celebrate, marching through rain-soaked muddy roads singing the Bangladeshi national anthem and shouting: "My country, your country. Bangladesh! Bangladesh!"

Others lit 68 candles to mark the end of "68 years of endless pain and indignity".

Sharifa Akter, 20, held a candle in her hand and smiled. "I can now fulfil my dream to be a top government bureaucrat," she told AFP.

Maidul Islam, 18, said the handover meant "we're now human beings with full human rights".

Officials from Bangladesh and India are set to hoist their respective national flags over their new territories on Saturday morning in formal ceremonies.

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.

'Oh what a joy!'

In the final hours before the handover, villagers held special feasts and joined prayers in mosques and temples to usher in the new era.

Prodeep Kumar Barman sang a devotional song praising Lord Krishna as he led his troupe near a temple at the main bazaar in Dashiar Chhara, singing: "Oh what a joy, what a joy!"

"This is the biggest celebration of my life. I can't describe how I feel today," said Parul Khatun, 35, a resident of the Indian enclave of Kot Bajni.

Both India and Bangladesh conducted surveys this month asking enclave residents to choose a nation.

The overwhelming majority of people living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted for Bangladeshi citizenship, but nearly 1,000 people on the Bangladesh side opted to keep their Indian nationalities.

They now have to leave their homes by November for India where they will be resettled in the state of West Bengal.

The decision has split some families along generational lines, with ambitious young people moving to India and leaving behind parents who are either afraid to move or just want to stay where they grew up.

(With inputs from AFP)

Read:Celebrations in Bangladesh over enclave exchange with India

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