In a virtual no-man’s land ever since India became independent in 1947, more than 9,000 persons living in 51 enclaves in Coochbehar district, West Bengal, exercised their franchise for the first time on May 5. Excitement is palpable among the voters, who till recently belonged to no country and hence were devoid of any right belonging to a citizen. Their enclaves were formally declared Indian Territory after the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh on August 1, last year.
For the last several decades, 103-year-old Asgar Ali had been waiting patiently for this moment in his life when his voice is heard in the formation of a government. He recently fulfilled his dream as he walked out of a polling booth in Dinhata constituency of Cooch Behar district along with voters from three generations of his family.
He is the eldest among 9,776 voters in the erstwhile Indo-Bangladesh border enclaves (Chitmahal) who were eligible to vote for the first time today since Independence after a formal inclusion into the Indian territory last year. Beaming with pride, Ali happily posed for cameras while flashing the ink mark on his index finger and told the PTI reporters.
Accompanying him was his 24-year-old grandson Jaynal Abedin who said his grandfather was very excited ever since he got his voter identity card. Ali has two sons, five daughters and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
It is like a dream come true for me. I am satisfied now but not sure whether I will be there during next elections,” he told reporters. Since nobody from our family or our neighbourhood had ever voted, we didn’t know how to cast vote. But we got help from polling officials who explained us everything.
The Election Commission had made special arrangements and awareness programmes for the first-time voters.
Diptiman Sengupta, Chief Coordinator of Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee, who has been fighting for the rights of the enclave dwellers for a long time, said in an interview to PTI that the voters were confronted with two big issues: Job reservation and quick disposal of land settlement. He said,
There are nearly 15,000 people in the enclaves who have got Indian citizenship. Out of them, 9,776 are eligible voters who will vote for the first time.
He told the reporters that the people there want at least 10 per cent reservation in government jobs and that all development work in the enclaves be carried out through the active involvement of the residents. Diptiman said that another important demand of the people of the enclaves is quick disposal of land settlement.
The 51 enclaves became Indian territory, but the enclave dwellers (14,864) who became Indian citizens were yet to get the rights of the land they were living in
Bangladesh and India exchanged 162 adversely-held enclaves on August 1, 2015, at the stroke of midnight, ending one of the world’s most complex border disputes. In all, 111 Indian enclaves, measuring 17,160 acres, became Bangladesh territory. Similarly, 51 Bangladesh enclaves, measuring 7,110 acres, became Indian territory. The 51 enclaves are spread across Dinhata, Mekliganj, Sitai, Sitalkuchi and Toofanganj Assembly constituencies.
The district administration of Coochbehar said the technical process regarding the identification and granting of land rights was in process.
The technical process in under way. We have already sought maps for the identification of the land that are to be granted, said Ayesha Rani, Assistant District Magistrate of Coochbehar.
The political parties are, however, non-committal on the issue of reservation of jobs, but say they will surely look into their other demands.
The issue of job reservation can’t be decided by the state government, it has to be discussed in Parliament. I have been fighting for the cause of enclave dwellers from the very beginning. But we will surely look into other demands,” said Udayan Guha, senior TMC leader and sitting MLA from Dinhata. If voted to power, we will surely discuss granting land rights and getting development work done by local people. But job reservation is a constitutional matter and has to be discussed in Parliament, said Mohammed Salim, CPI-M politburo member.
The Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee, which was fighting for the rights of enclave dwellers, has now become defunct after 111 enclaves of India and 51 enclaves of Bangladesh were exchanged in August last year.
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Diptiman of the new body Nagarik Adhikar Samanway Raksha Committee told the reporters that they voted independently and without any fear. He estimates that around 20 per cent of the first-time voters in the enclaves were aged above 60. All were excited, happy and proud to be part of the electoral process, said Sengupta. The enclave voters are spread across five constituencies of Dinhata, Mekhliganj, Sitai, Sitalkuchi and Tufangan
The land boundary dispute between India and Bangladesh has been one of the reasons why the Countries share a sour bond. It’s been six decades since both India and Bangladesh have got their independence, but even till today there are small patches of Bangladesh land on Indian side of the border and patches of Indian land on Bangladeshi side of the border. These islands are called enclaves or Chitmahals (in Bengali). These men lead a very sad life with practically no national identity from each of the sides. Ever since Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, issues of land and illicit migration have affected its relations with India. Both countries have not been able reach an agreement to swap enclave territories. As a result, the life of enclave dweller is suffering. There are no physical lines, no demarcation that separates enclave dwellers from people living in the mainland of Bengal and Bangladesh. The communities have the same culture and language. The only difference is the realization that they stay in a ‘foreign land’.
One of the major issues these enclaves face is ‘Identity Crisis’. Life for these enclave dwellers has been extremely dangerous. Each time they step out of enclaves they can be arrested by Indian Border Security Force who consider them Bangladeshis even though Bangladesh doesn’t recognise them as their own citizens. They remain as the underprivileged part of the main stream society. With basic amenities lacking and education turning to be a distant dream, these enclave dwellers are still fighting for their basic rights. Enclaves don’t have hospitals. Pregnant women face problems as doctors on the Indian side of the border refuse to admit mothers in labour. Even if they somehow persuade the doctors, the children are not provided with birth certificates.
Currently, there are around 1.5 lakhs residents in both the Indian and Bangladesh enclaves who are citizens of neither country. Recognition as citizens of respective countries, with proper identities and access to public distribution system are major demands of enclave dwellers.
While India is having its general election, the newly setup government in Dhaka are pursuing their efforts to bring the ‘Land boundary agreement’ into force. Till this time the enclave dwellers or people of nowhere land are living in hope that another series of political wagers do not prolong their sad state of affairs. Both the governments have not been able to come to agreement as to where the borders should be. If the political representatives and people in power chose to sit back and find a fruitful conclusion to this, the long overdue exchange will certainly harmonise India’s land boundaries and will also improve the lives of these enclave dwellers.