Border dwellers between India and Bangladesh: ‘Now we can live and die with dignity’

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They live in no man’s land, people without a country or government. But now the residents of border enclaves between Bangladesh and India have reason to hope for an identityMohammad Mansoor Ali Mian’s greatest regret in life has been his inability to undertake Haj.

The 74-year-old from Poanturkuti in north Bengal’s Cooch Behar district bordering Bangladesh had the means to travel but he never possessed a passport. The reason: he was not a citizen of any country. “But soon, Inshallah, I shall be able to fulfill my dream,” he says.

This hope springs from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance of a Bill that would pave the way for exchange of enclaves between India and Bangladesh.

It is a hope that has been further boosted by chief minister Mamata Banerjee doing a U-turn and pledging to support the Bill after having opposed a similar move by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two years ago.

Mansoor Ali Mian is one of the 1 lakhodd people residing in 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India who will become Indian citizens once the Bill becomes an Act and the proposed land boundary agreement for exchange of enclaves between India and Bangladesh comes into effect. Similarly, nearly 2 lakh residents of 130 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh will become Bangladeshi citizens. There will be no exchange of territories and, according to the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC) that has been fighting for the exchange of these enclaves and citizenship rights for their residents, while no one from the Bangladeshi enclaves in India wants to go to Bangladesh, only 734 persons belonging to 149 families residing in Indian enclaves there want to migrate to India.

Of the 130 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, 111 are ‘exchangeable’ and so are 51 of the 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India.

“The rest are enclaves within enclaves and, hence, will automatically become part of the two countries after the exchange. For instance, there are Indian enclaves within Bangladeshi enclaves in India and once these Bangladeshi enclaves become part of Indian territory, the Indian enclaves within them also become part of India,” says Diptiman Sengupta, BBEECC chief coordinator.

The total area of the ‘exchangeable’ Indian enclaves in Bangladesh is 17,178.2 acres and the area of ‘exchangeable’ Bangladeshi enclaves in India is 7110 acres. Mamata Banerjee’s earlier argument had been that India would lose more territory than it would gain. But this ‘loss’ is only notional.

While all the Bangladeshi enclaves in India are in the Cooch Behar district of north Bengal, the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh are spread over Panchagarh, Nilfamari, Lalmonirhat and Kurigram districts of that country. The Bangladeshi enclaves on this side of the border being surrounded on all sides by Indian territory, Bangladesh could never exercise any administrative control over them. This meant no assistance or development aid from that country. India never bothered to build roads, provide water or power, healthcare, education or any other facility to the residents of these Bangladeshi enclaves either.

 Worse, residents faced persecution from Indian authorities whenever they stepped out of their enclaves into Indian territory. This they needed to do often to sell their agricultural produce, buy essentials, access healthcare or even earn a livelihood. More than 75% of the residents of the Bangladeshi enclaves have spent time in prisons after being arrested for violating the Foreigners’ Act for entering Indian territory without valid travel documents. Residents of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh suffered similarly.
Abul Hussain, 56, another resident of Poanturkuti, says that they have led lives full of lies. “To get admissions in schools in India (there are no schools inside the enclaves), we had to give false Indian addresses and even name some Indian citizen as our fathers. Our womenfolk name Indian citizens with Indian addresses as their husbands to be admitted to Indian hospitals for childbirth. All this agony and humiliation will end now,” he says.
Mansoor Ali Mian recalls that in April 1966, some dacoits from India entered Poantarkuti and raided his house. “My father sustained bullet injuries and we rushed him to a hospital in Cooch Behar town. When the doctors got to know he was from a Bangladeshi enclave, they informed the police who went to the hospital and arrested him. He spent a couple of months in jail,” said Mian. Asgar Ali, 102, a resident of Madhya Mashaldanga, another Bangladeshi enclave, says he had lost all hope of dying as a proud citizen of a country. “But now I can live and die with dignity ,” he says.

 However, most of the residents of Bangladeshi enclaves in India have managed to get Indian documents, including voter ID cards, using subterfuge. Only 14,215 of them, says the BBEECC, are ‘stateless’. Of the nearly 2 lakh people in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, only 37, 369 don’t possess any citizenship or other documents.These figures came up during a joint survey of their respective enclaves by India and Bangladesh in 2011.

Source: Times of India