India & Bangladesh

Stranded no more

Print edition : September 04, 2015

Joy in a Bangladesh enclaves on July 31, a day before its dwellers became Indian citizens. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

Cooch Behar District Magistrate P. Ulaganathan hoisting the Indian flag at Poaturkuthi, which used to be a Bangladesh enclave. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

A woman lights candles on July 31 in celebration at Dashiarchhara in the Kurigram enclave in Bangladesh. At the stroke of midnight, thousands of stateless acquired a meaningful citizenship. Photo: AP

Mansoor Mian (left) of Poaturkuthi enclave makes an Indian flag on July 31. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

Ashgarh Ali of Mashaldanga enclave, and residents claim he is 106 years old. "For long we have been living like primitive people without amenities. Now we can look forward to better days," he says. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

Mansoor Ali Khandehar of Poaturkuthi, a Bangladeshi enclave with 628 families. "It is like being set free for the first time. All our lives we have only had problems. We believe we will be happy as Indians," he says. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

Saddam Haque of Poaturkuthi enclave has worked illegally in many places in India at construction sites. "Now that we are a part of India we won't have the constant fear of being arrested and we can work wherever we want," he says. Photo: SanjoyGhosh

Jabeda Bewa of Madhya Mashaldanga enclave. Her main fear is that she and her family will be forced out of their land and pushed into Bangladesh. "When we finally get to be a part of India and I see my family is not on the list, I feel shattered," she says. Photo: Sanjoy Ghosh

On August 1, more than 51,000 stateless residents in enclaves in India and Bangladesh became citizens of the respective countries after nearly seven decades of isolation, denial of even basic human rights, and no access to development.

FOR 68 years since India’s independence, they were a people who existed in a state of limbo as residents of enclaves lying within India and Bangladesh. They had neither social identity nor political status and lived and died outside the purview of any law or constitution, unnoticed and uncared for. In the past seven decades, when the whole world changed beyond recognition, their lot remained the same. Even the most basic civic amenities such as electricity, running water, medical aid, school education and proper road infrastructure were beyond their reach. They were islands of deprivation looking on as history glided past them.

Since an enclave is a small pocket of land belonging to a particular country but completely surrounded by a foreign territory, these residents had de jure rights—being Bangladeshi or Indian citizens on paper— but were stateless people in reality as they were surrounded by land belonging to a foreign country with its own laws, rules, procedures and services that did not apply to them. The chimes midnight of July 31 this year ushered in a new phase in the existence of the enclave-dwellers. On August 1, as the Land Boundary Agreement (1974) and the subsequent Protocol (2011) between India and Bangladesh came into force, more than 51,000 people (37,334 in 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 14,215 in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within India), for the first time in their lives became citizens of the countries they had been living in without any rights or even identities.

While all the residents of the 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within India (all located in Cooch Behar district in West Bengal) chose to become Indian citizens, around 980 people from Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted to cross the border to be a part of India. Following the enclave exchange, 7,000 acres (1 acre = 0.4 hectare) of what used to be Bangladeshi enclaves are now officially a part of India, while 17,000 acres of erstwhile Indian land now belong to Bangladesh.

“It is like being set free for the first time. We feel like we have been in a prison for so long, looking at the world outside. We believe we will be happy as Indians. All our lives we have only had problems. Finally, I believe, it is over,” said 65-year-old Mansur Ali Khandehar of Poaturkuthi, a Bangladeshi enclave in India with 628 families. Recently, his son was arrested when he went to “India” and had to spend two-and–a-half months in a Cooch Behar jail before he was handed over to the Bangladeshi authorities. “We have been a stranded people, with no one to turn to,” Khandehar said.

No protection of law

For close to 70 years these enclave-dwellers were helpless in the face of injustice, oppression and natural disasters. They were outside the purview of any legal system and thus without protection under the law. They had no health care, no education system, nothing to shelter them from the vicissitudes of nature, and no social safeguards to cushion them in times of personal disaster.

Seventy-five-year-old Mansoor Mian of a Bangladeshi enclave recalls an ordeal when in 1966 his father was shot by dacoits who had come to rob his house. “We rushed him to the hospital in Cooch Behar town in India. The hospital asked where he lived, and when my father said chitmahal (Bengali for enclave), he was immediately arrested. After recovering in the hospital, he was put in jail, tried, and fined Rs.5 for entering India without a passport,” Mansoor Mian told Frontline.

He remembers his early childhood as a resident of Rangpur district (now in Bangladesh) and studying in a primary school in nearby Cooch Behar. “After Independence, I was asked to leave the school as I had become a foreigner. We saw India’s independence in 1947, and Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and in 2015 we are finally celebrating our own independence,” said Mansoor Mian, sitting outside his house on the evening of July 31 and preparing an Indian flag that he would proudly hoist at the stroke of midnight.


Education was one of the biggest challenges in the lives of the people of the enclaves. To get enrolled in a school, the children had to acquire Indian parents and new residential addresses. Usually it would be either relatives or friends of the family officially living in India who would have to pose as the child’s parents at the time of school admission. Several generations of schoolchildren have thus enrolled for an education they would ultimately not be able to put to use while seeking employment. Most dropped out early, but a few persisted in the hope of better days to come.

Joynal Abedin (23) was one of the few who did not give up his education. He is currently in his third year in college, studying political science at Dewanhat College in Cooch Behar.

“We all knew that there was no future for us at the end of our education as we would not be getting any work. I continued my studies mainly so I could teach the youngsters and also because it is important to have a proper education to carry on a sustained movement. From now on, it will be different. Our children will not have to present other people as parents to get into a school. The pregnant women from our villages will not have to pretend to be someone else’s wife to get admitted to a hospital. We now have a country,” Joynal told Frontline on the day the land agreement came into effect.

Joynal Abedin has been involved since he was 16 with the movement for the rights of the enclave-dwellers, spearheaded by the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee.

Though the struggle for enclave-dwellers has ended, a new movement is taking shape, he said. It is about bringing development to the region.

Situations that might have been commonplace in the lives of enclave-dwellers often appear bizarre to outsiders.

If the concept of an enclave itself seems unreal in this day and age, the fact that there existed enclaves within enclaves seems downright absurd. Yet this was the reality.

Within the Bangladeshi enclave of Madhya Mashaldanga, there was eight bighas of land (one bigha being 0.33 acres in West Bengal) that belonged to India and not Bangladesh, on which stood the house of Badal Das.

Around one-and–a-half years ago, this house was the only establishment in the region that was given an electricity connection. The Bangladeshi neighbours of the owner would come and get their mobile phones charged at his house.

Fellow feeling

In spite of the backwardness and adversities, one thing that prevailed over everything else was humanity and fellow feeling among enclave residents. They were all outsiders together, and now they are all finally free. It has been a long and arduous struggle for them to arrive at this point in their existence, which they have been preparing for decades to embrace.

At the stroke of midnight on July 31, every house in the 51 Bangladeshi enclaves that became a part of India was lit up by 68 candles (for the past 68 years) and flaming torches. The next morning, when the Indian flag was hoisted by Cooch Behar District Magistrate P. Ulaganathan at Poaturkuthi, which until the previous day was a Bangladeshi enclave, a spontaneous applause burst forth among the residents, and they all lent their voices to their new national anthem. “I am glad that I have lived to see this day. For so long we have been living like primitive people without any amenities; now we can look forward to better days,” said Ashgarh Ali of Mashaldanga enclave, who the residents claim is 106 years old.

The predicament of the people of the region apparently predates the existence of these modern enclaves. Legend has it that the king of Cooch Behar and the Nawab of Rangpur would often challenge each other on the chessboard. The winner would be given parts of the loser’s land; subsequently, the tide would turn and the land would be won back again. This reportedly gave rise to the enclaves—the Cooch Behar king would have a stretch of land deep in Rangpur territory and the same would go for the Nawab of Rangpur. As there are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh against 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India, people from the Cooch Behar side liked to playfully boast that their king was the better chess player.

Almost everyone who opted to stay back in India said it was because the economic prospects were better in India. “There is no future for us in Bangladesh. Even without citizenship it is more advantageous for us to stay in India than in Bangladesh,” said 24-year-old Saddam Haque of Poaturkuthi. He has worked in different parts of the country, including New Delhi, as a construction worker, even though he never possessed any legal documents that allowed him to do so. “It was a risk. If we got caught we would be handed over to Bangladesh. Now that we are a part of India we won’t have the constant fear of being arrested and can work wherever we want to,” he said.

Names not on list

Amid the celebrations, there were some whose joy was tinged with apprehension because their names had not come up on the final list of the headcount even though many of them possessed the token given to them after the 2011 Census in the enclaves. “Having struggled all our lives, when we finally get to be a part of India and I see my family is not on the list, I feel shattered,” said Jabeda Bewa of Madhya Mashaldanga.

Her main fear is that she and her family will be forced out of their land and pushed to Bangladesh. “I am overcome with sorrow when I think about that, but then I also remind myself that this here is my land and I have all the legal documents to prove it, and I feel somewhat reassured,” she told Frontline. Along with her, there are 10 families in Madhya Mashaldanga alone who have been left out. Sahidul Sheikh’s name, too, was not on the list, but that did not deter him from immersing himself in the preparations for the celebrations. He even set up a food stall for the occasion. “We have waited so long for this. How can I not take part in the celebrations even though my mind is full of worry?” he said.

The exchange of enclaves took place with remarkable smoothness, but challenges remain. “There is an enormous amount of work now— mouzas [administrative districts] and plot numbers have to be defined, delimitation of gram panchayats needs to be done, new police stations have to be established. In fact, we have to practically start from zero. We also have to make arrangements for another 980-odd people who have opted to come here from what were earlier Indian enclaves in Bangladesh,” Ulaganathan said.

Besides, there is the task of providing documents to over 14,000 new citizens from the erstwhile Bangladeshi enclaves. Said Ulaganathan: “We will have to ensure that the new citizens get all the facilities and amenities that is their right as Indians, including connectivity, electricity and ration cards. We hope to finish the bulk of this work by October this year.”

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