India and Bangladesh shared a peculiar history and geography of enclaves. It is a long twisted tale of certain areas finding themselves in trans-territorial setting. Enclaves are fragments of one country totally surrounded by another. The trans-territorial setting means an area being geographically located in one country but politically and legally belonging to another. While there are a few enclaves in countries like Norway and Belgium, there were 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India.
The situation within the enclaves has always been grim. Being surrounded by the territory of another country, to travel to their home state, people have to cross international borders and take necessary permission for doing so. Along with this, due to the absence of access to the home country the people have been systematically denied of basic amenities. They are practically prisoners in these enclaves as they cannot procure documents required for travelling to their so-called motherland.
The problem of enclave dwellers began with the introduction of passports and visas in 1952. They lost their limited mobility and were allowed to pass through only designated check points. They ran the risk of being arrested for not carrying passport while crossing the international border. As the enclave dwellers had no voting rights, both India and Bangladesh lost interest in their cause.
The life of the enclave dweller is subject to law but is unprotected by the law. They are left invisible in the eyes of the state. State machinery is present as a punitive force in these enclaves but never as an agent of development. During the bird flu epidemic of 2009, poultry owners whose chickens were destroyed were compensated. But this benefit was not extended to the enclaves. However border guards often enter these enclaves to catch anti-social elements who use this area as a hideout.
The enclave situation simmered for a long time. Political compulsions often pushed this problem to the backburner. Bangladesh had more Indian enclaves. Any talk of land swap meant India and Bangladesh would give up their claims on the area of enclaves within their territories. This meant India would have to give up claim on more land. This did not go down well with states like Assam and West Bengal. Another aspect of the Land Swap Deal was to give option to the enclave dwellers on choosing their country. They could accept the citizenship of the host country or move to their home country. Hence the residents of Indian enclaves could travel to mainland India and be given Indian citizenship. Many showed concern that this would pave way for illegal immigrants to move into India. This was accentuated by the fact that the question of illegal immigration continues to be an important one in the political discourse of northeast.
While a bill to address the problems of the enclave dwellers was formulated as back as in 1974, political compulsions and opportunism put it on the backburner. Another concrete step was taken by the UPA government in 2011, but BJP then in opposition played up the sub nationalist feelings of people from Assam and Bengal and thwarted the bill. It was only after BJP came to power in 2014, they decided to go ahead with the Land Swap Deal. While the passage of the bill and the signing of the treaty have a potential to address the problems of enclave dwellers after all these years, the unnecessary delay showed how political parties undermined the problems of enclave dwellers in front of electoral compulsions.
At a time when the first step towards solving the problem of enclaves has been taken, there is another peculiar problem of an Indian ‘exclave’ facing the country. A village called Bhokdanga in Golokganj of Dhubri district is a narrow strip of land barely 50 metres in breadth protruding in Bangladesh. Bhogdanga and Fauskarkuti are two villages which fall outside the fence. They are surrounded by Bangladesh and the inhabitants enter Indian land through a BSF check gate which is closed at 4 p.m sharp. These villages are surrounded by Kacher Kuti, Shaber Kuti, Kanur gaon, Shiver Haat, Balabari and Angler Kuti of district Kurigram of Bangladesh.
A visit to the village which has around 125 families with a population of around 750 brought to the forefront a case of serious absence of basic amenities. Residents are mostly Koch Rajbongshis with a few Muslim families. They have one mosque with two makeshift temples in a close proximity to each other. For small things the villagers have to cross the check gate, register there and then go to the market in Nalia which is at a distance of 4-5 km. The two villages are connected by a wooden bridge which was constructed after much delay. Even then the bridge is not very high and gets inundated during floods. There is no primary health centres. There are two schools but one school is yet to have a proper shed for students.
The residents spoke with much caution with military personnel around. Dependent on the military’s goodwill for all kind of emergencies, they kept quiet about whether they had to face any harassment from the military. The residents are issued a gate-pass by the BSF. While talking about the law and order situation, an elderly resident Haleswar Roy recalls that some years back people from across the border used to come and loot. Cases of robbery were common. Around five years back some robbers came and tied him up and stole his four cows. When BSF intervened, three cows were returned.
With nothing to mark the border except some pillars, animals often crossover to the other country. This leads to skirmishes also. Mayuri Bala Barman, a local resident tells us that few days back her ducks crossed over and were captured by people there. The BSF again had to intervene to ensure they were returned. Birkanta Roy, who is a school teacher and teaches in one of the primary schools says that he has moved to Golokganj town with family although he originally is from Fauskarkuti. Upward social mobility led to people moving out of this border village.
People were mainly engaged in agriculture, fishing with very few in government jobs. Haleswar Roy further lamented that yearly floods are devastating and the villagers have to live in terrible conditions during those times with no help from the authorities. Keen to witness the exchange between the people of the two country, me and my fellow researcher wanted to stay overnight. But we were strictly told that permission will not be granted and leaving us on our own might be a threat to our safety. We could see people from the neighbouring country keenly observing us from a few metres distance.
In the few hours that we spent in the two villages made us realize that these people lived in equally precarious conditions like the enclave dwellers. After 4 p.m they are at the mercy of the neighbouring village people of Bangladesh. The location beyond the fence have denied them basic civic amenities and pushed them to a position between a well and a deep sea. Turned into prisoners in their own homes, their mobility is strictly regulated. To go over to India they have to cross a check gate and they cannot go to markets within a walking distance because it happens to be in a different country. However interference from the other side is frequent. BDR personnel and Bangladeshi people protested against the installation of pillars with solar flood lights in the villages. They also did not want the bridge to be constructed on the pretence that no construction should be carried out within 200 metres of the border on either side.
The villagers are caught between the devil and the deep sea. The distance from Indian land and the proximity to Bangladesh have worked against their interests. Bound to their land for livelihood, villagers can give up their claims only if compensated properly. Looking at the condition of the people, one is forced to wonder that if the problem of enclaves took more than six decades to be solved, the possibility of the villagers being shifted and rehabilitated seems distant.
(Parvin Sultana is working as an Assistant Professor in Pramathesh Barua College in Gauripur, Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, Development and the Northeast, Gender etc.)