By Saumitra Mohan*
The 1974 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between India and Bangladesh finally came into force on 01 August 2015. With this, the historical hardship faced by the people who live in 51 Bangladeshi and 111 Indian enclaves, eventually came to an end. The enclaves were exchanged on the midnight of 31 July 2015, and Indian flags were hoisted at midnight to mark the historic moment. A total of 111 Indian enclaves with an area of 17158 acres inside Bangladesh became Bangladeshi mainland and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves with an area of 7110 acres within Indian Coochbehar district of West Bengal officially became Indian Territory. In practical terms, it meant that the boundaries around these little pockets of foreign land disappeared as they merged with the host countries.
Against expectations of approximately 13,000 people in 111 Indian enclaves moving into India, only 979 or 0.02 per cent of the 37,000 dwellers in these enclaves inside Bangladesh plumped for Indian citizenship during the joint survey conducted by the two countries. The survey conducted through 06-16 July 2015 was part of the 1974 India-Bangladesh LBA to exchange the enclaves. Given the attraction for Indian citizenship among Bangladeshi citizens, this was surprising.
Many residents in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh who wanted to become Indian citizens were disappointed, as they were allegedly threatened and intimidated by the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh against opting for Indian citizenship. In stark contrast, all the 14,854 people staying on Indian soil in Bangladeshi enclaves have sought Indian citizenship.
Officials of both countries associated with the Joint Working Group (JWG) held a meeting in Dhaka on 23 July 2015 to review and finalise the report as collected during the said joint survey in 162 enclaves. The crucial meeting discussed the modalities for exchanging information, including the land records and the respective list of families choosing between citizenships of the two countries. They also examined the complaints lodged by Indian politicians against the procedural problems faced during the joint survey in Indian enclaves.
Meanwhile, there have been reports and allegations that several thousand residents in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh were unable to exercise their option freely. A methodological hitch during the joint survey resulting in flawed results, too has been pointed out. Recently, a list containing names of over 5,500 people, who were left out of the purview of the survey, was submitted to the state government. A group belonging to the United Council for Indian Enclave (UCIE) helped in the collection of applications from those who wish to settle in the Indian territories but whose names don’t figure in the joint survey list. So far, over 2000 of these left out Bangladeshi enclave dwellers – who always wanted to opt for Indian nationality but could not do so during the joint survey in Indian enclaves due to assorted reasons that includes extremist threats – have submitted their applications to the Indian authorities, requesting Indian citizenship.
However, though the matter was discussed by the JWG officials during their 23 July 2015 Dhaka meeting, nothing has been finalised on how this section of people can register their names, yet.
“…nobody knows what will be the fate of those people, who want to quit Indian enclaves and settle in India but failed to enrol their names during the recent census,” said an Indian official.
Even as SK Chakraborty, Assistant Registrar General of India, and Member, India-Bangladesh JWG, claimed that people in the Indian enclaves had no grievances despite reports that they were allegedly deprived of their right to choose their nationality, a human rights organisation has said that it has collected many examples of such deprivation and that it has intimated the matter through letters to the prime ministers of both India and Bangladesh. Copies of the same have also been forwarded to the chiefs of the National Human Rights Commissions of both countries and other Indian officials.
The Manabadhikar Surakhsha Manch (MASUM), a human rights organisation based in West Bengal, has alleged that the JWG had not functioned transparently during the survey. “They created a few procedural complications to exclude or include names whimsically,” it alleged. “Procedural violations, omissions and commissions of duty have raised questions over the legalities and state’s accountability. It will again put thousands of enclave dwellers in a stateless situation,” they added. MASUM has also urged the concerned authorities to recall that India and Bangladesh both have taken a voluntary pledge before the UN Human Rights Commission to protect and promote human rights for all.
Against this background, the present path-breaking Agreement between the two countries reached after a meandering negotiation spanning over four decades should ensure to all the rights of citizenship that they were denied all these years. One just hopes that the gains made through the deal are not squandered by compromising the basic rights and interests of the people concerned as alleged and feared by many observers.
The views expressed here are personal and don’t reflect those of the Government of India.
District Magistrate and Collector, Burdwan, West Bengal, India