By Ankita Nawalakha:
One of the biggest issue between India and Bangladesh is the land boundary dispute. Even after six decades of independence, the work is unfinished. There are small patches of Bangladesh land on Indian side of the border and patches of Indian land on Bangladeshi side of the border. These islands are called enclaves or Chitmahals (in Bengali). Life of these enclave dwellers is miserable; they are practically men of nowhere land. They live a life of misery, devoid of basic necessities and without national identity. Ever since Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, issues of land and illicit migration have affected its relations with India. Both countries have not been able reach an agreement to swap enclave territories. As a result, the life of enclave dweller is suffering. There are no physical lines, no demarcation that separates enclave dwellers from people living in the mainland of Bengal and Bangladesh. The communities have the same culture and language. The only difference is the realization- that they stay in a ‘foreign land.’
Problems of the enclave dwellers
Many people in these enclaves are going through an identity crisis as they were originally from Bangladesh but celebrate occasions like independence and republic day of India. Life is often dangerous for these enclave dwellers. Each time they step out of enclaves they can be arrested by Indian Border Security Force who consider them Bangladeshis even though Bangladesh doesn’t recognize them as their own citizens. They remain aloof from main stream society. The enclaves have no basic amenities, parents send children to school on the Indian side. That too is only possible when their Indian friends agree to pose as their guardians on paper. Enclaves don’t have hospitals. Pregnant women face problems as doctors on the Indian side of the border refuse to admit mothers in labour. Even if they somehow persuade the doctors, the children are not provided with birth certificates. The enclaves are inhabited mostly by Muslims who are left bereft of a proper place of worship. Accountability, jurisdiction and administration are completely missing thus giving rise to serious law and order issues. The biggest testimony is that marijuana plants which are considered narcotics are openly blooming in these enclaves. Law authorities cannot enter any chitmahals thus making them free land for underground world- one can find cannabis cultivation in backyards of people’s houses. These enclaves remain till date an enigma. Cartographers have listed them on the official map of both the countries. Yet enclave dwellers are segregated and separated- away from political, economic and social boundary. Currently there are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh boundary and 51 Bangladesh enclaves in Indian boundary. There are around 1.5 lakhs residents in these enclaves who are citizens of neither country. Recognition as citizens of respective countries, with proper identities and access to public distribution system are major demands of enclave dwellers.
Enclaves- A historical perspective
According to Indira Gandhi- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman treaty of 1974, India and Bangladesh were to hand over the sovereignty of the Tim Bigha corridor and south Berubari to each other. Bangladesh immediately handed over South Berubari; however India refused to hand over the Tin Bigha corridor to Bangladesh. After much protest by the Bangladeshi government, India agreed to ‘lease’ the corridor for certain time. Even this leasing business was not easy. The scale of the uneasiness it caused went out of proportion. Opposition became quite aggressive. Most of this bluster was thanks to the Tin Bigha Sangram Kamiti, the left front, the BJP members and other hardliners.
The current political actions on enclaves
However, the real turn around for this dispute came with Land Boundary Agreement between Bangladesh and India in 2011. This agreement signed by Manmohan Singh during his Bangladesh visit has gone a long way in building a strong relationship between New Delhi and Dhaka. India signed the agreement and promised to implement it only after the bill is ratified by Indian parliament. According to this, both nations are supposed to exchange small parcels of land and demarcate the land boundaries. If it happens it will affect borders of Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura. But this agreement has not been implemented so far. It has met stiff opposition from regional parties who claim that the proposed exchange of land will be a national loss of 10,000 acres and will also contribute to fuelling secessionist tendencies in other parts of India.UPA Government did propose the bill in Rajya Sabha, raising hope of an end to a bitter dispute, but there was scepticism within other parties. Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh has gone out of their way to strengthen ties with New Delhi and has always been keen on getting the agreement ratified by the Indian Parliament.
Bangladesh has recently gone to polls where Sheikh Hasina has not been able to convince her electorate of demonstrative actions by India. Indian government was supposed to engage all political parties but has been not able to do so because of the compulsions of domestic politics. Trinamool Congress has out rightly refused to accept the bill. But the question is-what purpose will this refusal solve? — It will do thorough injustice to people living on both sides. Asom Gana Parishad and the BJP have raised questions about this agreement. They worry about illegal migration. Also central to the apprehensions is that India will be giving away a huge chunk of land while in return will get far less. This is a complete misreading of the situation because in effect when you have enclaves then neither India is in control of its land in Bangladesh or vice versa.
What next for enclave dwellers?
While the new government in Dhaka will pursue its efforts towards bringing the Land Boundary Agreement to fruition, India is having the general election and a lot will depend on new government for taking the matter forward. Till this time the enclave dwellers or people of nowhere land are living in hope that another series of political wagers do not prolong their sad state of affairs. Both the governments have not been able to come to agreement as to where the borders should be. Representatives of both countries should sit together and discuss this issue extensively because it affects lives of so many people. This long overdue exchange will certainly harmonize India’s land boundaries and will also improve the lives of these enclave dwellers. One should hope for amicable solution between two countries.