At home yet not at home

Citizens of Bangladesh, India live a life of refugee at enclaves, exclaves
“You will never know the pain of being stateless,” said Abdur Rashid of Dashiarchhara, one of the 111 Indian exclaves in Kurigram, as he drew out a piece of paper from his pocket.
“I had to beg the Bangladeshi chairman for this certificate to get my child admitted to a school there,” Rashid, a self-taught land surveyor, said in frustration.
Rashid is an Indian national on paper, living in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. He resides within a 16 kilometre radius of the Indian exclave surrounded entirely by Bangladesh and totally abandoned by India.
He has no right to vote or facilities for education, healthcare, justice or access to his own country. For this predominantly Muslim population of nearly 10,000 people in Dashiarchhara village, access to sanitation, water or electricity remains a far cry. Even non-governmental organisations are barred from working here.
The 2.5metre high and 4,100km long barbed wire fence to be put up by India along the Bangladesh border, does not include any of the 111 Indian exclaves.
Indian exclaves are surrounded Bangladesh land while Bangladeshi enclaves are encircled by Indian territory.
Bangladesh has to support about 150,000 Indian nationals in the 111 exclaves to meet their basic needs like food, education, healthcare, and so on. Bangladesh government recently extended its immunisation programme for the people there fearing germination of various diseases in these alien land pockets.
About 70 square kilometres of Indian lands lie inside Bangladesh, spreading across Panchagarh, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat and Kurigram. All 111 Indian exclaves are under the jurisdiction of one single Indian district of Cooch Behar.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, has 55 exclaves with 28 square kilometres of land surrounded by India.
Nearly 100,000 Bangladeshis living in Bangladeshi exclaves are not as lucky as the Indian counterparts in Bangladesh. Unlike the Indians, who enjoy freedom of movement inside Bangladesh, residents of Bangladeshi exclaves are in almost complete isolation.
Hundreds of them languish in Indian prisons, as they tried to enter their country of origin through Indian territory.
Moinul Haque, former Fulbari union parishad chairman and leader of local coordination committee for India-Bangladesh enclave exchange movement, said the Indian authorities have stopped issuing passes to the destitute population.
“The moment these people try to come out of the exclaves, they get arrested and are put in prison under the Indian Passport Act,” he said.
Interestingly, in the middle of Dashiarchhara lies Chandrakhana, a 77-acre Bangladeshi exclave about the size of 22 football fields, which accommodates 182 Bangladeshi voters.
Ashraful Alam, a Bangladeshi youth living in Chandrakhana, said, “The place has no road, school, hospital or any sign of governance. But we have national identity cards.
Our children have to walk four kilometres through the Indian territory to attend school.”
Fortunately for Ashraful and others in Chandrakhana, there is no restriction on movement to the mainland as the Indians have abandoned Dashiarchhara.
Legend has it that the 162 Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves were a result of a series of chess games between the maharaja of Cooch Behar and the faujdar of Rangpur. The noblemen wagered on their games, using villages as currency.
The other piece of information on enclaves comes from historian Brendan R Whyte. He says the enclaves are the result of peace treaties between the kingdom of Cooch Behar and the Mughal Empire in 1711 and 1713. The treaties ended several long wars in which the Mughals wrested several districts from Cooch Behar.
The sufferings of these isolated people may end soon as the two countries have agreed to settle the issue.
Bangladesh home ministry said a significant progress had been made in the recent meetings of the Joint Boundary Working Group towards a solution to the outstanding issues.
There have been speculations that an agreement to swap land might be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh this year. If the deal is inked, it will not only relieve those people of sufferings but also help reduce border conflict. Bangladesh may get around 10,000 acres of land in the process.
The residents of these enclaves will be given an option of choosing between the two countries to live in. For the people in the 111 Indian exclaves, Bangladesh is a popular choice. Parents like Abdur Rashid will no longer have to obtain a certificate covertly to get their children admitted to a school.

-With The Daily Star input

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