Global Policy Forum

At India-Bangladesh Border, Living in Both and Neither

There are over 50 archipelagos of villages located technically within Bangladeshi territory but entirely surrounded by India, and over 100 similarly situated Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh. For decades, neither government has taken responsibility for these stateless people stuck on the wrong side of the border. Without national citizenship, they lack basic public services like electricity, roads and access to schools and health facilities. Without identity documents, they face the threat of imprisonment as illegal immigrants. But there is reason to hope the question of their citizenship will be resolved soon. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed an agreement with his Bangladeshi counterpart in September that would allow the enclaves to dissolve into the country already surrounding them.

By Lydia Polgreen

October 9, 2011

Mohammed Idris Ali’s watery rice paddies shimmer in the monsoon breeze just like his neighbors’. His tepee-shaped stacks of jute, ready to be soaked, stripped and then turned into rope, stand as tall as the ones across the rutted footpath.

Muhammad Nazir Hussain, left, considers himself Indian, but his village is officially part of Bangladesh. His younger brother, Manik Mia, right, managed to get an Indian voter ID card.

But the house across the footpath sits in India, and its owner, Chitra Das, has all the trappings of citizenship: a voter ID and a ration card that entitles him to discounted rice and wheat at a government shop. His children go to local schools and have access to Indian government hospitals.

Mr. Ali, however, exists in a no man’s land. The patch of earth here on which he lives and farms is part of an archipelago of villages, known as enclaves, that are technically Bangladeshi territory but sit entirely surrounded by India, stuck on the wrong side of the border.

“The Indians say we are not Indian; the Bangladeshis say we are not Bangladeshi,” Mr. Ali said. “We are nowhere.”

There are 50 other Bangladeshi enclaves like Mr. Ali’s inside India; there are 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh. The people of the enclaves are orphans, citizens of no country.

For decades, neither the Indian nor the Bangladeshi government has taken responsibility for them. Their villages do without basic public services like electricity and roads. Parents must forge documents to send their children to local schools. They cannot vote. Without identity documents they face arrest and imprisonment as illegal immigrants.

“We were born like this,” said Abdul Mutalib, of Madhya Masaldanga. “Our fathers were born like this. Neither side claims us. But our land is here. What else can we do? Where can we go?”

Now, after decades of indecision, the problem may soon be resolved. When India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, traveled to Bangladesh in September to meet his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, they signed an agreement that would finally allow the enclaves to dissolve into the country already surrounding them.

Under the agreement, the 37,334 nominal Indians living inside Bangladesh will become Bangladeshis, if they wish, and the 14,215 Bangladeshis on the Indian side of the border will become Indians. Anyone who wants to move across the border will be permitted to do so, but officials on each side say any major movement is unlikely.

People living in the enclaves are cautiously hopeful that their citizenship will finally be settled, but this is hardly the first attempt so solve a bedeviling problem.

India’s borders are some of the world’s most hotly contested: disputes on its frontiers have led to war with two of its neighbors, Pakistan and China. The Bangladesh-India border is, for the most part, starkly marked: a fence bristling with concertina wire separates the two nations. Heavily armed sentinels prowl it to keep illegal crossers at bay, and hundreds of Bangladeshis have been killed by Indian security forces, rights groups say.

The lush, river-laced borderlands here include hundreds of barely marked, lesser-known frontiers, results of a quirk of royal and imperial geography known to map makers as “adverse positions.” The enclaves are marked by weathered stone pillars that stand about three feet tall, seemingly at random and often in the most inopportune place: a farmer’s field, a backyard, the middle of a footpath.

Local legend holds that the patchwork of villages in the enclaves is the legacy of chess matches between the maharaja of Cooch Behar and the faujdar of Rangpur, who traded the pieces of land like poker chips.

But the truth is more prosaic — the enclaves resulted from 18th-century peace treaties between the conquering Mughal emperors and the maharaja of Cooch Behar, according to a 520-page historical study of the enclaves completed by Brendan R. Whyte at the University of Melbourne in 2002.

When British India was split in two, the region known as Rangpur went to Pakistan. The princely state of Cooch Behar, which like other princely states had not been part of British India, joined independent India in 1949 and was absorbed into the Indian state of West Bengal.

But the villages, known as chhitmahals, remained marooned. The first failed attempt to resolve the issue came in 1954, when Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan. In 1974, Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, agreed to sort out the border problem, but Mr. Rahman was assassinated before the agreement could be carried out, and the pro-Pakistan government in Bangladesh never followed through. A third attempt in 1992, between India’s prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and Khaleda Zia, then the leader of Bangladesh, also went nowhere.

But there are reasons to be more optimistic now. Bangladesh is more stable and prosperous than ever, its economy growing at about 6 percent a year. India’s government, meanwhile, has tried to improve relations with Bangladesh, not least because it has testy relations with almost all of its neighbors, which include territorial disputes.

Muhammad Nazir Hussain, who lives in the enclave of Nalgram, certainly hopes that the question of his citizenship will soon be settled. He lives on land his family has farmed for generations and considers himself Indian. But his village is officially part of Bangladesh. His cousin’s house a few hundred yards away is in India, though half his fields lie in Bangladesh. Even the pond that borders Mr. Hussain’s rice paddy is divided between the two nations, though the ducks that skimmed it did not seem to notice.

“It is a very complicated problem,” he said, with considerable understatement.

Mr. Hussain’s younger brother, Manik Mia, has an Indian voter ID card because he was able to register at the home of a relative in an Indian village. Every family, it seems, is divided in this way.

“If we had been in India, we would have been connected to the road, we would have had a school, health facilities, electricity,” Mr. Mia said. “But we have none of that. At times I wonder, are we human beings or are we animals?”

They are certainly not treated like Indians. In 2006, four men from Madhya Masaldanga were arrested and charged with immigration violations. They had been trying to travel to the northern Indian city of Dehradun to work in the booming construction industry, but they were stopped by the police in a neighboring town. When they could not produce identification they were arrested and eventually convicted and jailed for two years.

Even when they had completed their sentences, the men were not immediately released — the local police told them they were awaiting identity papers for them from Bangladesh. Only after other residents of Madhya Masaldanga mounted a protest were the men released.

One of them, Mohanned Amir Hussain, said that he was born in Madhya Masaldanga, but had no way to prove it. When asked his nationality, he did not hesitate.

“I am Indian,” he said.

Deeptiman Sengupta, a local activist who has been trying to help enclave dwellers get identity documents, said someone must take responsibility for them.

“India says it is the world’s biggest democracy,” Mr. Sengupta said. “Bangladesh is also a democracy. Yet these people are truly stateless.”


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.