At the stroke of midnight on 31 July, more than 50,000 India-Bangladesh enclave dwellers finally became free. In this historical land swap between India and Bangladesh 14,214 residents of 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within India became Indian nationals henceforth. Of the 37,000 people from Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, only 979 have opted for Indian nationality. Since Friday midnight, 111 Indian enclaves of an estimated 17,160 acres were turned over to Bangladesh, while 51 Bangladeshi enclaves measuring 7,110 acres became parts of India.
The residents of these enclaves or ‘chhitmahal’s’ finally found an identity after 68 years of wait. Before 1 August, 2015 they had no nationality. They were the residents of nowhere lands. For the first time since 1947, they can “walk outside the enclave without the fear of being apprehended by the BSF”. Many people left the enclaves with fake documents in search of jobs, but now they can enjoy the fundamental rights as Indian citizens.
This complicated situation has come to a successful conclusion with the exchange of 162 enclaves between India and Bangladesh. A statement from External Affairs Ministry has designated July 31 as a historic day for both countries for “it marks the resolution of a complex issue that has lingered since independence” in 1947.
Game of Lands
Local mythos attributes the formation of enclaves to royal games of chess. Maharaja of Cooch Behar and Faujdar of Rangpur district in Mughal Bengal are said to have staked these segments of land in chess, thereby creating a fragmented boundary. However, Brendan R. Whyte, in his book ‘Waiting for the Esquimo: a historical and documentary study of the Cooch Behar enclaves of India and Bangladesh’ provides a more historical reason behind the enclaves. Mr. Whyte writes, “The majority of the Cooch Behar enclaves today were formed by the treaties of 1711 and 1713 by which the Maharaja of Cooch Behar [again] bought his autonomy after a long war with the Mughals.”
During Sir Cyril Radciffe’s partition of Bengal in 1947, these enclaves were left as they were because Cooch Behar, as a Princely State, was not a part of the British Indian Empire. Later, in August 1949 Cooch Behar acceded to the Dominion Government of India by Cooch Behar Merger Agreement, and the enclaves in erstwhile East Pakistan came under Indian rule and trouble began. Despite so many change of hands, for the enclave residents these were merely nominal as they remained in a stateless limbo.
Exchange of Enclaves
In the past, it has been tried many times to come to an understanding regarding these problematic tracts of land. In 1958, then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru and Prime Minister of Pakistan, Feroze Khan Noon, unsuccessfully attempted an exchange of enclaves through Nehru-Noon Agreement. In 1974 Indira Gandhi and then Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed the Land Boundary Agreement commonly called Indira-Mujib Pact.
Due to the complicated situation, the chhitmahal dwellers never received basic amenities from either Indian or Bangladeshi government for the past 68 years. Without schools, hospitals or police stations, these lands became the centre of criminal activities. At last, in May, the parliament unanimously approved the 119th Amendment of the Constitution, ratifying the Land Agreement Bill.
The enclave population is now hopeful that when the swap is over in November the governments would start developing respective territories and provide their citizens with fundamental rights and basic civic amenities. According to Land Boundary Agreement, Indian government has sanctioned Rs 3,048 crore for rehabilitation of those affected by the land swap.