Stateless To Citizen

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Invisible for more than 60 years, residents of the former chit mahals or enclaves will turn a page when they vote in the Bengal elections. They are now citizens of India but even as they savour the sense of belonging that comes with it, issues of the past continue to haunt them BY SURYA GANGADHARAN

After recent rains, the Bengal countryside is a lush green carpet, fields of newly planted rice interspersed with freshly harvested tobacco, potatoes and chilly. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cooch Behar where the roads are lined with trucks bearing produce from the farms to the cold storages.

It’s been a decent year for the farming community here, and while there are always complaints about procurement prices, tobacco continues to generate some healthy profits. It helps that the soil, aided by regular and heavy rain, is very fertile; it helps that land reforms during the decades of Congress rule and taken forward by the CPI(M), virtually eliminated big holdings, limiting the land per family to about six acres. Travelling through the state, one gets the sense that there are no stark inequalities but there are always exceptions.

CHITS, THEN & NOW

The “chit mahals” for instance, bits of land reduced by accidents of history (or the gamblers dice) into stateless “enclaves”, have been the signal exception to Bengal’s success story of equality. Residents of these enclaves have been stateless since the vivisection of the subcontinent in 1947. That status made it impossible for enclave residents to leave the area legally and look for work. It’s a different matter that many did, bribing the local administration to look the other way as they sneaked out; relying on local mafias who could arrange anything for a fee. Others preferred to stay on, cultivating ganja for criminal networks; some trafficked in women, children, cattle and camels. It was all about making a living since they did not exist to the outside world.

Some like 105 year old Azghar Ali, looking out through the window of his tin shack in Cooch Behar’s Dinahata-I, a former enclave, recalls he was neither Indian nor Pakistani in 1947. When Bangladesh was born in 1971 everything changed except his status: he belonged to neither to India nor Bangladesh.

On May 5, however, he will battle failing eyesight and unsteady legs to make history when Cooch Behar goes to vote on the last day of the West Bengal poll schedule. So will the 12,000 odd other former enclave residents. The turn of fortune follows the India Bangladesh Land Boundary Accord signed in 1974, protocol drafted in 2011 and implemented in 2015 (an impressive 40 years!)

As Azghar Ali’s grandson Saddam Hussein puts it: “We have now learnt to dream.” Hussein is studying for an honours degree in Bengali at a local college. His yellow T-shirt, track pants and frequent asides into his mobile phone, testifies to his youth and his optimism. “We will vote for that party which will accept our demands: a development plan for Dinahata, all development work to be done by us, the youth of the village so we benefit and money stays here.”

He maybe overoptimistic but he’s shrewdly judged that elections are the moment to cash in, therefore the demands, and the confidence they will succeed. It also stems from the security of knowing that their families remain on the land they have worked for decades.

Fortunately, their enclave fell in India, which has been their “closest neighbour” all these years. They have built ties in the hinterland, a network of support groups that enabled their admission into local government schools and colleges by (falsely) showing that parents were Indian nationals. Scores of children of these enclaves passed out of local educational institutions bearing the name of some “Indian father” sitting miles away.

MoimonaKhatun of Dinhata-2, has a different story. The former enclave resident complains that the land in her area is bad: “There’s no electricity and no supply of potable water. The village hand pump delivers water full of iron. There’s no school.” Khatun is an “impressive complainer”, local officials say. She’s also a fighter.

Although an Indian national, she lost her status when she married an enclave resident and fought a long legal battle to regain her citizenship and even contested in a local election. As she argued: “If Sonia Gandhi could marry in India and become Indian, why could I not marry an enclave resident and remain Indian?”

She says her immediate goal is to help improve conditions in her area before she contemplates a larger political career.

SOUND & LIGHT

The residents of Boronachi camp not too far away, fall in another category. Their enclave and the land they tilled fell in Bangladesh but some preferred to move to India. Some were able to sell their land for a tidy profit, others were not so fortunate, and quite a few claimed they had left their land in the care of a relative because they were given so little time to settle matters. They say they cannot go back as their relative would kill them. This may seem like hyperbole but land is known to generate prolonged, often bloody, disputes.

At the Boronachi camp office, the mood is angry, many are bitter, some say they have been cheated. Charges fly thick and fast over allegations that documents handed over to some people have disappeared, that money is being charged for documentation that is actually available for free.

BSF constables spend long hours in makeshift shelters keeping an eye on a border which they know, presents no problem to enterprising smugglers and traffickers on either side

There’s another hitch. Local officials of the Block Development Office cannot verify the size of land holdings claimed to determine compensation, because it lies across the border in Bangladesh. The implication is there could be some among this lot who had no land in their former enclave, and saw the move to India as a convenient way to improve their economic condition.

An official from the local BDO admitted sometimes feeling overwhelmed with the constant demands being made on them. Conditions at Boronachi (and other settlements) are adequate, with residents accommodated in neatly laid out tin sheds with electricity and water supplied, there’s a doctor on call, children have been enrolled in local schools.

Some residents have shown enterprise and initiative in building a new life. The younger lot have had their families invest in e-rickshaws that add to the daily kitty. Others like Mrs. Rai, make a profit of Rs.300-400 every day selling confectionery, cigarettes, pan masala and so on from a small shop. What does she appreciate most about her new life in India: “It’s the freedom I have as a woman to move around, to go to the market, to run this shop,” she said. “In Bangladesh women do not have that freedom.”

If the current phase has been tough, expect the months after the elections to get even tougher. Authorities in Cooch Behar are concerned about possible violence as the process of demarcating land for allotment to India’s new citizens gets underway. It’s not that there is any shortage of land in Bengal.

“There is enough land in the former enclaves,” said P Ulaganathan, district magistrate of Cooch Behar. “The total land there amounts to 7000 acres of which only 2000 acres is occupied. It is more than enough to settle those who came here from Bangladesh.”

Others are not so sure and there are reports of local authorities tapping private land owners who may be required to turn over surplus land. The land survey in the former enclaves is expected to begin after the assembly elections. It’s likely that problems could crop up if land ownership is not proven with the right documents. There are many cases where people say their land has been encroached upon by neighbours. Expect scores of family and other disputes to come out of the woodwork, there could even be violence.

LOCAL SENTIMENTS

Surprisingly, there’s little obvious resentment among the people of Cooch Behar to the new arrivals. There’s no public agitation, no demands that they be sent back. But some do complain that the new residents “are getting too much”. There are also those, especially in urban areas, who say Bangladeshis are being dumped on them at a time when successive state governments have done little to stem the flow of illegal migrants from across the border.

The illogic of partition is visible in the twists and turns that the India-Bangladesh border takes. Portions are fenced but there are vast spaces where cultivated fields make any fence unviable. BSF constables spend long hours in makeshift shelters keeping an eye on a border which they know, presents no problem to enterprising smugglers and people traffickers on either side. Often, the national highway runs alongside a Bangladeshi rice field separated by two forlorn strands of barbed wire.

That status made it impossible for enclave residents to leave the area legally and look for work. It’s a different matter that many did, bribing the local administration to look the other way as they sneaked out; relying on local mafias who could arrange anything for a fee

Authorities admit that the migrants are very well informed about how local administrations in India function, how to get ration cards or domicile certificates. Bangladeshis are known to “settle” their families in Bengal before the male members take off for Delhi, Noida, even Kerala to work on construction sites (Bangladeshis are rarely known to get into trade or business, something which they seem to have little aptitude for. Even in Bangladesh, trade is in the hands of Hindus). Anti-Bangladesh sentiment, dormant for now, could ignite as politicians look to grow and expand. That could trigger response from local minority groups and India’s new citizens could find that new identities are not an unmixed blessing.

POLL DYNAMICS

Right now that’s far from their minds as every political party of note including (and obviously) the ruling Trinamool Congress of MamataBannerjee, the Congress, BJP and the Left, pull out all the stops to woo the new voters. It’s not that their numbers are substantial but in any election, every vote counts. It has also opened the doors to political hopefuls like Diptiman Sengupta, who has cultivated a following in the enclaves before they became a part of India. “They don’t need an administrator to fulfil their needs,” he argues, “they need somebody with a heart, who can listen and empathise with them. Those who came here leaving everything behind have big expectations of India. They have not come for free food or a tin shed, they have self-respect, they oversaw workers on their fields and today you expect them to go and do manual labour in somebody else’s field.” His point is the administration cannot hope to fully rehabilitate the former enclave residents if officials come and go, in the manner which is routine in government. He believes whoever is in charge must be given a mandate for at least five years, so there is an element of continuity and trust can be built up.

Sengupta’s arguments appear reasonable but there’s little doubt a sharp political brain is at work, seeking to leverage his standing among the former enclave residents for his benefit. It’s no secret that he was negotiating with the Trinamool Congress for a ticket, which never happened. He claims he had earlier rejected a Left offer of a ticket to contest. The local press is full of reports about the doings of all manner of politicians and would be netas. Often derisively referred to as “Kalakars” (performers), it’s not clear how they expect to build a political career by relying on the votes of former enclave dwellers. There is obviously a larger plan at work here.

But for the former enclave dwellers, after decades of being invisible, the attention is very welcome. They are being courted by politicians, advised by activists and visited by journalists. They are the flavour of the season and are loving it. They know it won’t last forever.

Summary

  • More than 12,000 residents of the former chit mahals or enclaves along the India-Bangladesh border are now citizens of India
  • They will exercise their vote for the first time in the West Bengal assembly elections, a turning point in their lives
  • Many problems remain, issues of land and ownership, jobs, homes, re-settlement as a whole
  • For some the future looks uncertain, others have been quick to grasp the opportunities in India to build new lives
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