By Preety Sahu*
It is a happy beginning to the process of ending an old nightmare. Finally an end to the disputed Enclaves between India and Bangladesh, called the ‘Chitmahal’ that have kept thousands of its residents to live a life of hell for last many decades. Historically, the enclaves have been the result of a series of chess games between two kings of the area in the eighteenth century where villages were simply gambled away. After Independence, boundaries were drawn but the fate of these enclaves was never sorted. The Land Border Agreement (LBA) was signed by India and Bangladesh way back in 1974. While Bangladesh government ratified the deal in 1974, the agreement was not ratified by Indian parliament as it involved cession of territory which required constitution amendment before ratification. Hence they lived in the “no-man’s land” as ill-fated children of Asia’s border- problems in the post-colonial backdrop.
Identity is the most important aspect of our dignity as human beings and no one could have understood it better than the people living in the Indo-Bangladesh border enclaves. In absence of an identity of nationality, there remained a grave lack of access to even the most basic facilities, like sanitation, electricity, water or education. There are numerous untold stories of human suffering in the region. However the lives of approximately 60,000 people living in these 162 enclaves, who were anxiously waiting for the implementation of the deal, has changed. Across the border too, there are Indian enclaves within Bangladesh, where people were as miserable and desperate as those on this side of the border. Ray of hope came to them finally although a tad bit too late!
At the stroke of midnight on 31st of July 2015 – the residents of these enclaves gained a homeland after a ‘stateless’ existence of 68 years. Excited at this momentous development, the enclave dwellers swung into a celebratory mood. The LBA between India and Bangladesh during Prime Minister Modi’s visit has made it happen. As per the provisions of the Bill, India has exchanged 111 enclaves, measuring 17,158.2 acres, with Bangladesh and received 51 enclaves, covering 7,110 acres. There have been strong protests in some of the bordering Indian states opposing the agreement. Approximately 52,000 people have got Indian citizenship now amidst numerous speculations.
These newly-made citizens of India are very excited about their future under the Republic of India. They are hopeful of experiencing many positive and progressive economic, social and political changes in their lives. They hope ‘merger’ with India will also help fill vital infrastructure gaps. They expect their villages to get electricity connections and would no longer have to ‘trespass’ into India to charge their mobile phones. They would also get someone to address their grievances. These people are happy that they would not need fake certificates any longer to study in Indian schools, and that the villagers would finally be entitled to all the schemes of the Indian government. However this transformation from “identity-lessness” to Indian hood of the enclave people is not going to be easy. The uneasiness remains on the issue of Bangladeshi criminals and illegal migrants attempt to enter India, which is perceived as an obvious threat. Apprehensions are there that criminals from Bangladesh will sneak into India, taking advantage of the enclave and population exchange. On the other hand some Indian officials have received several complaints that people who wanted to relocate to India are being intimidated by local goons. Allegations are there that Bangladesh is trying to manipulate the list of people who intend to cross over to India for an Indian citizenship. Besides, there is strong possibility of socio-cultural clashes of the new citizens with their neighbors. Here the question of cultural tolerance and acceptability is likely to arise.
India is a land of diversities, frequent clashes amongst different groups in India is common, despite being under one national umbrella. Therefore, the question of acceptability towards the people of Chitmahal is going to be a crucial issue in near future. News of the clashes among groups from Chitmahal area and their immediate Indian neighbors has been received in the past. However, the current process can fulfill aspirations and take a true path only if the compensation packages offered become commensurate to the requirements of the beneficiaries. After getting independence, everything about the lives of the enclave people will change. So they rightfully deserve adequate compensation. Otherwise, things will be like ‘from fire to frying pan’. Also the legal status quo of these people has been changed through the EPIC cards provided by the Election Commission of India.
Central government has also assured full rehabilitation of the people. For those who will come to India from Bangladesh, the resettlement programme is going to take some time to materialize. While this process will only be resolved with time, the process of relocation is to end by June 20, 2016.
Amidst all kinds of speculations, now it is to be seen in what manner the new citizens of India will be received and how they will adapt themselves to the Indian environment.
*Preety Sahu is a Research Scholar at the School of International Relations, JNU, New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]