Two nations, new citizens

NAT
A year ago, "statelessness" snatched her first baby away from her. Jaimona Biwi, 25, a resident of South Mashaldanga village, a Bangladeshi enclave located in Dinhata sub division in Coochbehar district of West Bengal, was turned away from hospitals because she was not an Indian citizen.

"I was in labour pain. My husband took me to the Dinhata hospital in Coochbehar district but the doctors refused to admit me because I was not an Indian citizen. I was in unbearable pain but lay on the hospital floor for two days. I bled profusely and delivered a stillborn child," says Jaimona Biwi.

Pregnant again, this time she is wiser. She has arranged for her delivery in a hospital in Coochbehar by "hiring" an Indian husband—a tout, who, for money, will admit her in the hospital as his wife. "He has taken Rs 2,000 from our family and has given his name in the hospital register as my husband," says Jaimona.

Another villager, Ayesha Bewa, says her husband Ramzan Ali was diagnosed with cancer but since the hospital in Siliguri would not admit him without citizenship documents, he received no treatment. Ali died in March.

For years, residents of Bangladeshi enclaves in India and Indian enclaves in Bangladesh have been denied access to healthcare, education and other basic amenities. But last week, as India and Bangladesh signed an agreement to exchange 162 adversely held enclaves, it opened a new chapter in the lives of people who live here.

The agreement between the prime ministers of the two countries clears the way for granting Indian citizenship to about 20,000 people living in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (7,000 acres) in Indian territory and Bangladeshi citizenship to about 31,000 living in 111 Indian enclaves (about 17,000 acres) in Bangladesh territory.

Mashaldanga, one of the biggest Bangladeshi enclaves in India, stands between two Indian villages—Nazerhat and Salmara. To connect these two Indian villages, the government had built a road which passes through the enclave. Along this road, electricity posts were installed for Indian villages but Mashaldanga was left out as it did not belong to India. A cluster of 500 mud, tin and bamboo houses, Mashaldanga does not have a pucca road or water supply.

Villagers have got their own tubewells installed. They cultivate their land and often sell their produce in the nearest market in India. Few children from the village go to school and residents live in fear of their children being booked for crossing into Indian territory. A few hundred metres away, Indian and Bangladeshi border guards patrol on either side. In this village of 6,000 people, only four have passed their class X final examinations, getting false identities to study in Indian schools.

Fake Indian voter-identity cards too are on sale in these enclaves. A senior administration official says, "Before elections, we received almost 10,000 applications of voter ID card from Dinhata region in Coochbehar district. But we had to cancel applications of 8,000 people who were residents of enclaves. But there are several other ways to get fake voter ID cards through touts."

Since there's not much work to be found in the enclave, its residents occasionally try to flee to other parts of India. Hassem Shiekh, a 12-year-old, tried to go to Delhi with four of his neighbours but they were arrested a few kilometres away from their village in 2006.

Mashaldanga's residents have another problem—few people from outside their village are willing to marry them. Rasheda Biwi, 35, a midwife, was an Indian citizen before she married Bellal Hussain, a resident of Mashaldanga. "In our area, no resident of an Indian village will marry a man or a woman who is from a chitmahal (enclave). Only if a family is very poor, will they marry their daughter to someone from an enclave in exchange for a bride price," says Rasheda.

In April this year, a census was held for the first time in enclaves in both Bangladesh and India as a prelude to the signing of the exchange treaty in Dhaka last week. Keka Ghosh of the Directorate of Census Operations, West Bengal, is one of the officials who participated in the exercise.

"It was a lifetime experience. We saw the helplessness of the people who had taken up illegal means to survive on disputed land on the Indo-Bangladesh border," says Ghosh.

But all that is set to change now with the agreement that was reached last week between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Diptiman Sengupta, secretary of Indo-Bangladesh Enclaves Co-ordination Committee, says, "We have always demanded that the two governments should take responsibility of people living on these lands. But no villager should be forced to accept the citizenship of a country to which he does not want to belong."

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Abu Bakkar Siddiqui, 60, lives in Panishala, an Indian enclave under the Patgram police station in Bangladesh. But when Siddiqui wanted to file a police complaint after his land was captured by villagers of a Bangladeshi village near Panishala, he had to cross the border to the Mekhliganj police station in Coochbehar in India.

"Last year in December, some villagers forcibly captured our land and evicted us. The Patgram police station did not accept our complaints as we live in Indian enclaves. We had to cross over to India with permission from the BSF camp and lodge a complaint with the Mekhliganj police station. However, after we lodged a police complaint, the Bangladeshi people filed a counter-case against us at the Patgram police station. We were served notices. After we proved that Bangladeshis cannot have any right on land in Indian enclaves, at least 450-500 people attacked our village in July this year," he says.

Siddiqui says people in his village are not ready to accept Bangladeshi citizenship. "We want Indian citizenship if the enclaves are exchanged. We will die but not accept Bangladeshi citizenship," he says.

Siddiqui's son Tobarak says, "We do not have any right to education here. There are no touts here who can help us get admission in Bangladeshi schools or take us to hospitals. Ninety per cent of the people in our enclave are illiterate."

According to Siddiqui, before 2001, they would cross the border and go to Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri districts for healthcare or if they had to get administrative work done, but not anymore. "We are intercepted by the BSF and the BDR while entering our country. We want free movement to India as we are Indian people forced to stay in a foreign land," he says.

Debashish Karmakar, SDO, Mekhliganj, says, "Earlier, people from Indian enclaves would come to us to register their complaints after taking permission from Bangladeshi officials. But now, things have changed and they are not granted that permission. This is an international border and we have to comply with the orders we are given. We used to intervene on their behalf with the administration in Bangladesh, but eventually gave up. We are helpless."

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Even with the borders set to be demarcated and defined after the exchange of enclaves, residents of Kuchlibari, an Indian border village in Coochbehar, are anxious. They are worried over the Indian government's decision to give 24-hour access to Bangladeshis through the Teen Bigha corridor in Coochbehar district to cross over to Dahagram and Angarpota—two villages that are separated from the Bangladeshi mainland by the corridor. The villages are surrounded on all sides by Indian territory and can be accessed from Bangladesh only through the Teen Bigha corridor. Earlier, the access was for 12 hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but the treaty has thrown open this corridor.

An official of the Kuchlibari village panchayat says, "It is a very strategic location for Bangladesh. Even if BSF people are posted at Teen Bigha, there is no border between Dahagram and India. After entering into Dahagram through the Teen Bigha corridor, many Bangladeshi people do not return to Bangladesh. Moreover, the Teesta river has changed its course and now flows down Dahagram. This has made it easier for Bangladeshis to enter India."

The BJP, which is a political force in Coochbehar, has spearheaded a movement against the 24-hour opening of the Teen Bigha corridor and a proposed overbridge connecting Mekhliganj and Kuchlibari.

Rahul Sinha, state president of the BJP who visited the area a couple of days ago, said, "We have taken stock of the area and the proposed schemes. We have evidence to show that 20 per cent of the people who enter Dahagram through Teen Bigha do not return to Bangladesh every day. Where do these people go?"

Residents of Dahagram, which was handed over to Bangladesh in 1992, too want Indian citizenship. Mujibar Rahaman, a resident of Dahagram, says, "We want Indian citizenship. We use Indian resources to survive and if a fencing is put up to demarcate Dahagram from India, we will be left in utter darkness and despair."

Land at Stake

Chitmahals are enclaves along the border between India and Bangladesh. There are 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves inside India with a combined population of 51,000. Centuries ago, the enclaves were put at stake when two regional kings, the Raja of Coochbehar and the Nawab of Rangpur, played card games or chess. The two rulers of the two minor kingdoms who faced each other near the Teesta River, played chess with plots of land as stake. To settle their debts, they passed chits—pieces of paper representing the territory won or lost—back and forth.

When Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew India's borders in 1947, Coochbehar went to India and Rangpur to Bangladesh—including the people who lived on the two kings' 162 chitmahals or paper palaces. But these villages simply refused to accept the lines drawn by Radcliffe's pen. So New Delhi backed those villages that wanted to be part of India, despite the legal claim of Bangladesh, and Dhaka does likewise.

There are 1,696 acres of these 'adverse possessions' where India and Bangladesh effectively occupy each other's territory. That means 34.5 km of border that cannot be fenced, cannot be floodlit or gated and, in many cases, villages that are not policed at all.

In 1974, both countries agreed to exchange the enclaves or at least provide easy access to the enclaves. In the Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Agreement of 1974, the two countries resolved to exchange enclaves "expeditiously", and India agreed to forgo compensation for the additional area going to Bangladesh. Bangladesh's parliament ratified the treaty; India's never did.

For years, nothing much happened on that front. Talks between the two countries on the issue resumed in 2001, but the lack of a concrete time frame relegated it to the backburner. With India and Bangladesh reaching a new agreement last week, the transfer of enclaves will simplify the messy boundary issue even though it will mean a 40-square-kilometre net loss for India.

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