01 Aug 2015 19:28 IST

Freedom at midnight on India-Bangladesh border

All set for the historic swapping of enclaves between the two nations

With the monsoon peaking, this is no fun time in rural India, in general. Even less so this year, with sub-normal rainfall. The anxiety is palpable all over, especially in the northern districts of West Bengal and adjoining areas of Bangladesh.

Yet, to nearly 51, 000 people living in 162 ‘enclaves distributed between Cooch Behar in India, and Lalmonirhar, Kurigram, Nilfamari and Panchagarh (formerly Pochagar) in Bangladesh, it is celebration time.

Sixty-eight years after Partition, the two nations decided to swap these enclaves. Enclaves are small territories of one nation located in the other. But because of their location, the enclaves tended to be neglected by both countries, rendering them practically stateless.

Nationality issues
All that will change as the clock strikes the midnight hour on Friday/Saturday. Nearly 14,000 people, mostly Muslims, living in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India will become Indians. Similarly, some 36,000 people living in 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh will become citizens of that nation. Another thousand, mostly Hindus with some 30 per cent Muslims, will head to India before December.

Smooth relocation
The relocation is expected to be smooth. For, when approving the deal with Bangladesh that will shrink India’s boundaries by some 10,000 acres, Parliament also allotted ₹3000 crore for rehabilitating those retaining the Indian citizenship.

The West Bengal government, which is in charge of executing the package, is yet to announce the nitty-gritty though temporary rehabilitation camps are being set up at Dinhata, Mekhliganj, Haldibari and Mathabhanga in Cooch Behar. Over time the migrants will be offered permanent housing and economic compensation. Large investments are also planned for the comprehensive development of the 51 enclaves which will become part of India. This will range from electricity and roads to schools and hospitals.

Grey areas
“There are some irritants and grey areas mostly because of the opaqueness of the district administration,” says Diptiman Sengupta who had led a movement for freedom of enclave residents under the banner of the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC). But right now the mood in the enclaves is celebratory to signal the end of a long struggle for freedom and also the end of a stateless existence.

BBEECC, which will soon be dismantled, set off the celebrations with a major event at Mashaldanga, one of the largest Bangladeshi enclaves in India with a population of over 4,000, in the presence of representatives from across the border. For the people of all enclaves, it was a long night of celebration and revelry. “Countries war for an inch of land. Here, two countries altered their territories amicably without asking for any compensation. It is a moment to rejoice,” says Abraham Lincoln, a top lawyer in Bangladesh and senior official of the Awami League in Kurigram district, who has been a part of the movement. The Bangladesh government has also rolled out schemes for enclaves’ residents, including reservation of jobs. Dhaka has been going out of its way to convey to minority Hindus that they are safe in Bangladesh and that they must not leave the country. Convinced, a large section of Hindus, regardless of their economic status, has decided to stay back in Bangladesh.

Move to India
But many like Bisweswar Roy of Najirgunj in Panchagarh or Krishna Kanta Burman of Dasiar Chhara in Kurigram are not convinced. Both Roy and Burman will migrate to India after disposing their land in Bangladesh.

Some of their neighbours, like Russel of Panchagarh (exact location not mentioned on request), link it to the “social discrimination” of Hindus, an allegation that many others refuse to accept. Russel is the local head of an Awami League organisation. Incidentally, all those who will migrate to India from Panchagarh district, with a long history of BNP rule, are Hindus. Among Muslims, many are coming to India for economic reasons. Most of them, like Mohd Mofizuddin (45) of Dasiar Chhara, have for long been illegal immigrants. Mofizuddin’s family lives in Delhi, and he now wants to use the swap opportunity to become a bona fide citizen of the country. What is disturbing, however, is the allegation of intimidation and pressure on residents of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh to stay back. The allegation is mostly levelled by Muslims in Dasiar Chhara, who are headed to India. Of the 284 who have opted for Indian citizenship from the village, 136 are Muslim.

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