The nowhere people

Published : Jun 08, 2002 00:00 IST

The people evicted from Chitmahals, slivers of land in the India-Bangladesh border areas, lead a miserable life in India as their plea for recognition as Indian citizens fall on deaf ears.

NAUNIDHI KAUR in North Bengal border areas

FOR all intents and purposes, they are the nowhere people. They are not citizens of any country. They have no voting rights. The official statistical agencies or census personnel have never contacted them. In fact, some of them have been displaced from their homes for over two decades now. Yet, they have not been classified as internally displaced people or refugees. The question of formulating a rehabilitation package for them has not arisen ever.

They are the residents of Chitmahals - pieces of land along the India-Bangladesh border. In West Bengal, the word Chitmahal is commonly used to define land settlements which preceded the State government's land reforms programme. Chitmahal is also defined as an enclave. In this sense, chit means a fragment and mahal means land. Chitmahals are enclaves that are geographically separated from the mainland but paying revenue to it.

Originally, Chitmahals formed a part of the Cooch Behar estate. W.W. Hunter, who was Director-General of Statistics to the Government of India, undertook a census of Bengal. He described Cooch Behar as "a well-cultivated plain, of a triangular shape intersected by numerous rivers". Writing these introductory lines in 1918 in the census report, Statistical Account of Bengal, Hunter aptly summed up the topographical features that led to the emergence of Chitmahals as a problem area in independent India.

These topographical features combined with historical features explain how Chitmahals came to be known as "nowhere land". The criss-crossing of rivers in Cooch Behar meant that it was easy to divide the area into enclaves. Historically, the indifference of the liberal political tradition to territoriality is explained in the actions of Cyril Radcliffe who demarcated the India-Pakistan border in straight lines cutting across territories. This resulted in some fragments of Cooch Behar State remaining in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and vice-versa.

The fact that the two States of Cooch Behar and Rangpur chose not to join India and Pakistan at the time of Independence also played a role in the Chitmahals falling in both India and Bangladesh. In 1952, Cooch Behar joined India and Rangpur Pakistan. What posed a problem was the fact that over time they had been conquering each other's territories. The result was that there were enclaves of India in Bangladesh and vice-versa. The governments of India and Bangladesh had to decide which portion belonged to which country. As the two governments still have not taken a decision on the issue, the residents of Chitmahals wait to be included in either of the two countries.

Currently, there are 130 Indian Chitmahals in Bangladesh (covering an area of about 20,957.07 acres). On the other hand, there are 95 Bangladesh Chitmahals in Indian territory (covering an area of about 12,289.37 acres, or 4,973.4 hectares). Informal figures tabulated by the non-governmental organisation Oxfam, put the figure of Indian Chitmahal residents at 1.5 lakh people who are citizens of neither country.

There are about 50,000 people living in India as those evicted from Chitmahals. Mainly scattered over eastern India and the border regions of northeastern India, they recall torture by Bangladeshi elements, which forced them out of their land. Their horror stories remain undocumented and unheard. Sushil Rai, 57, was driven out of his Chit number 34, Behuladanga, in 1973. Rai said: "Elements from Bangladesh would come and take away my crop. They would steal my cattle too. Nobody would come forward to help us as the Bangladeshi police also participated in the looting. In such a situation we were left with no option but to leave." Sushil Rai now collects boulders from the dry bed of the Teesta river in the summer months. This fetches him an average income of Rs.600 a month to feed a family of 12. He said: "After coming to the Indian mainland nobody has come to help us. The government thinks that we are from Bangladesh. This is not true. But nobody has cared to verify the facts. My children don't go to school and I have no access to ration shops as I don't have proof that I am a resident of India."

Romesh Rai, 88, was forced to leave his Chit number 1, Daharla Khagrabari, under similar circumstances in the 1980s. Romesh Rai said: "The police of Debiganj station which falls in Bangladesh would lead them. They would rob my house and if I failed to escape, they would torture me. The same people have now divided up my 60 acres of land. I don't want to go back. I only want to be recognised as an Indian citizen."

Both Romesh Rai and Sushil Rai live in the settlement in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal which lies along the Teesta canal in Phulbari. They were agriculturists in Chitmahals. But, after moving to Phulbari, they have been reduced to the status of labourers.

Recognition as Indians, which will get them voting rights and access to the public distribution system (PDS), is the primary demand of the Chitmahal people. According to Oxfam, currently 77 per cent of them have no access to the PDS.

Kadamonijote, located in the southern part of Darjeeling district on the banks of the Mechi river, is another habitation where the Chitmahal people live. Nepal is just across the river and a few kilometers away to the east is the West Bengal-Bihar border. The population of Kadamonijote includes around 85 families of tribal people ousted from Indian Chitmahals. Besides working as seasonal agriculturists, they work as labourers. They also cross the Nepal border to work in the rice mills of Bhadarpur town. These people, who belong to the Santhal and Oron tribes, were among the first group to be driven away from their Chitmahals. Johra Baske, a resident of Kadamonijote, said: "I moved in in 1953. I was a part of a 2 km-long line of people who crossed over to the Indian side from the Chitmahal. We were forced to do so as the situation had become terrible. Our women were raped, crops were destroyed and valuables looted. Some of my tribesmen went to Orissa and some others chose Assam. When we came to Kadamonijote, it was all jungle. We cleared the forests and started cultivation. After so many years we are still not recognised as Indians." Sukhi Baske, another resident of the area, said: "Now there is a threat that we will be evacuated from the land that we have been cultivating. We have already moved so many times. We don't want to move again." Suren Baske, another resident of the area, said: "We continue to live under suspicion that we are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. We have lived in India for more than 30 years, but our names do not figure in the electoral lists. We have no ration card as the land tenure certificate from Cooch Behar, which is a proof that we are residents of Chitmahals, is not recognised here."

THEY are now fighting for their rights. They have formed an organisation, Association for the Protection of Citizen's Rights for Indian Chitmahal Residents and Oustees (Apcricro). They have since then approached various political parties and Central and State government officials with their demands.

In June 2001, India and Bangladesh set up a Working Group to demarcate the borders and resolve the adverse possession issue and other pending problems. At that time, Apcricro wrote to Chokila Iyer, the Foreign Secretary, appealing that the Working Group look into the Chitmahal issue as well. However, the Ministry did not get back to them.

Why has the Chitmahal problem remained unresolved? Arindam K. Sen, Apcricro chairperson, said: "What started as a problem of demarcation of the border at the time of Independence has remained unresolved with the Governments of India and Bangladesh not being able to come to an agreement as to where the border should be. We have had no reply to our numerous representations to the Government of India." Apcricro has also been demanding that Chitmahals be connected to the Indian mainland by providing corridors. Till date official meetings between India and Bangladesh have not touched on the issue. A milestone in resolving the India-Bangladesh border issue was the India-Bangladesh Accord of 1974. This document has been taken up in all the meetings of the Working Groups held to resolve border problems. Although it made headway in the matter of the exchange of enclaves, it remained silent on Chitmahals. Clearly, the government needs to find solutions on its own.

Dr. Mahendra P. Lama, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: "The government has two options. If the Chitmahal oustees are recognised as forced migrants, they will have to be recognised as refugees and given all the benefits due to them. If they are recognised as Indian citizens the government will have to classify them as internally displaced people and provide a rehabilitation package."

Regulated border policies and unwillingness to find an early solution to border problems do not augur well for the residents of Chitmahals. More people migrate out of Chitmahals when relations between India and Bangladesh become tense. The first major round of migration from Chitmahals after Cooch Behar merged with India took place in 1965-67 at the time of the India-Pakistan war. Bangladesh was then part of Pakistan. Relations between India and Bangladesh improved after Bangladesh's war of liberation. The number of displaced people also came down to a record low. Just after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the installation of the military regime, which was known for its anti-India rhetoric, India-Bangladesh relations deteriorated, increasing the number of migrants from Indian Chitmahals. "After the installation of Khaleda Zia's regime last year, India-Bangladesh relations have not improved. This has led to tensions in Chitmahals, thanks to which we expect an increase in migrations," said Sen.

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