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Former Indian enclave dwellers want to return to Bangladesh

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Cost of citizenship: Lack of street lighting means the residents of Shib Prosad Mustafir chhit have to use lamps if they want to step out of the house after dark. Photo taken on February 2019.

For Kamoleshwar Roy, resident of an erstwhile Indian enclave on the Bangladesh side of the border, the mid-night of July 31, 2015, was the harbinger of a new era. Roy migrated to India in November 2015. But his euphoria was short-lived.

Five year on, Roy and hundreds of other erstwhile Indian enclave dwellers who had celebrated their “freedom” and an end to their “statelessness”, rue the choice they made and want to return to Bangladesh, saying that life would have been better had they stayed back.

Local folklore attributes the enclaves to a whimsical series of chess matches between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Maharaja of Rangpur who are said to have gambled small parts of their kingdoms-Cooch Behar, now in India, and Rangpur, now in Bangladesh. They would wager villages on their chessboards. That led to the Rajah’s owning areas within each other’s territory.

The enclaves endured through British colonial rule and independence, first of India and then Bangladesh. After the partition of India in 1947, their inhabitants remained where they were –citizens of one country but resident in the other. 

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All the 14,856 people living in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves that had become part of Cooch Behar district in West Bengal opted to take Indian citizenship, while 922 people from the 111 Indian enclaves that had been handed over to Bangladesh left behind their ancestral homes to be in India.

Roy and his 14-member extended family were among the 922 people who had opted for India over Bangladesh after the two countries ended a seven decades-old controversy and 40-year political deadlock.

Their dreams and hopes of being transformed from “nowhere people to somewhere people”, lies in shambles today. They are a disillusioned lot living in three settlement camps which are like prisons. The camps are in Haldibari and Mekliganj in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. The people have no land or job opportunities. They live in tiny two-bedroom apartments provided by the state government in September this year.

Multiple errors in documents and rehabilitation have also created problems. “Four of my brothers along with our families opted to move to mainland India. Later one of my brothers and his family decided to go back in Bangladesh. But due to discrepancies, on our arrival in India, we found that all three brothers along with our parents, were clubbed into one family,” Roy told South Asian Monitor from Haldibari settlement camp.

For the last five years Roy has been running from pillar to post to get the discrepancies corrected, but in vain. He has even approached the Indian ministry of home affairs.

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“Since the government has completely failed to rehabilitate us, at least it should send us back to Bangladesh, where we left behind our properties believing the false promises made to us,” Roy said. He is now eking out a living as a farmer working his two bigha of land (In West Bengal 1 bigha is equal to 14,400 square feet) that he bought with a loan from a local money lender.

Lack of livelihood

Roy is not alone. Sujan Barman, another erstwhile Indian enclave dweller from Bangladesh who along with his aged parents and a younger brother preferred to come over to India, is disillusioned. Living for the last five years in a settlement camp in Dinhata, Barman only last month moved into a two-bedroom flat provided by the West Bengal government. 

He said his family still owns seven bigha of land back in Bangladesh. “We were better off back in Bangladesh. The government here has failed to provide us with job opportunities and has gone back on its promise to provide one job for each family.”

A student at a local college in Dinhata, Barman said: “The livelihood options are better for those who chose Bangladeshi citizenship. The Bangladesh government has also taken up development work in the erstwhile Indian enclaves. We would prefer to return to Bangladesh as our family has not disposed of their land there.” 

But there is little chance that the people of the lands like Barman and Roy left behind would still be theirs to claim. Even if their lands were there to claim, most of the settlement camp dwellers have little or no resources to go back, says Rahman Ali from erstwhile Poaturkuthi enclave and a former member of the now-defunct Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee.

From ‘nowhere people’ to ‘nowhere land’

Joinul Abedin, a graduate from Madhya Mashaldanga chitmahal -a part of Mashaldanga, one of the largest erstwhile Bangladesh enclaves-says that temporary land deeds given to them by the West Bengal government are full of errors.

“In the absence of valid land deeds people are facing a lot of hardships. Land without ownership rights makes them ineligible for agricultural loans, Kisan credit cards, potato bonds and farm subsidy. Our main problem is that we have not received any permanent documents of land ownership,” Abedin explained.

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Land records of enclave dwellers are primarily derived from the revenue records of erstwhile Maharaja of Cooch Behar. “But there was no administration setup to register lands within the erstwhile enclave for seven decades, so transactions of land happened through either verbal negotiations or mutual understanding among the parties involved,” he said.    

Though most enclave and camp dwellers admit that the West Bengal government was prompt in issuing voter and Aadhaar (ID) and ration cards, they add that the documents were not enough to qualify for Indian citizenship.

However, citizenship alone couldn’t solve all the problems of educated enclave youngsters. Kirity Roy of MASUM, a civil rights organization that has been highlighting on the issue of these erstwhile enclaves, says these people are still far from getting complete citizenship.

“Due to the government’s apathy these people have lost whatever little they had before the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was implemented. Compensation, as conceived in the LBA, is a discrepancy-riddled process, having now led to a situation where tube wells are without water, job cards are occupationally ineffective, Aadhaar Cards come without the promise of identity, and voting rights fail to provide a nationality,” Kirity Roy said. 

Twenty-nine-year old Rahman, an unemployed person, holds a master’s degree in political science and has studied in Cooch Behar. He earns a living by giving tuition to students. Many educated youngsters like Rahman and Abedin complain about lack of job opportunities pointing out that the Bangladesh government rehabilitated many of the younger erstwhile enclave dwellers in police and other security forces.

“We are in touch with those who stayed back in Bangladesh. When we hear that the government there has taken up extensive development work in their areas, it only adds to our despair,” Barman rues.

“We were residents of Indian enclaves and always had the feeling that we are Indian. But now after five years in India, we don’t feel that we are Indian. The administration here has been unfair to us, Barman added. And Rahman said: “We grew up in Indian culture. We are Indian in mind and body. But now, we feel so unwanted in our own country.”

Looming threat of NRC

Then there is the looming threat of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). “Residents in the enclaves and the settlement camps have no proper land rights and there is no clarity on their citizenship, which leads us to question what will happen to them if the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) is implemented in West Bengal,” Kirity Roy said, citing the example of Rasidul Islam.

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Islam had opted for Indian citizenship though his parents decided to stay back in their ancestral village of Burungamari in Kurigram district of Bangladesh. He was issued Aadhaar and ration cards and also a voter ID, just as they were issued to other former enclave residents. All these documents proved of no value three years ago when he migrated to Delhi for a job.    

Delhi police arrested him on August 18, 2017, and imprisoned for three months. Later, Islam along with 35 other suspected illegal-Bangladeshi nationals were pushed back to Bangladesh.

“The people who fought for decades for citizenship feel cheated. There is no guarantee that other former enclave dwellers will not meet the same fate in the future,” Kirity Roy said. 

With no documents or proof of Indian citizenship, Sujan Barman too worries what will happen if the NRC is implemented. “We don’t know if we will be able to stay or be thrown into detention camps,” he said. 

Pawns in vote-bank war

The West Bengal Minister for North Bengal Development Rabindra Nath Ghosh, however, claimed that most of the rehabilitation issues of the former enclave residents had been resolved.

“There had been some issues with the land documents that have been sorted out. As for the employment opportunities, we cannot give any preferential treatment to the youth from the (former) enclaves.  But we are arranging skill-development training to help them get jobs,” he said, a claim strongly refuted by the local residents.

As for the land demand of 922 migrants, the minister said that could not be fulfilled. “Where island to give them?” he asked. “There is no left-over property to be disbursed among those who have migrated to India,” he added, offering no solution.

Debunking the minister’s claim, Abedin says politics has divided the residents of the erstwhile enclaves as well as settlement camp residents.

“Only people with political connections-those with the ruling Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress-are getting jobs. We get no job if we don’t support the ruling party,” Abedin said.

Rahman endorsed Abedin and said: "Erstwhile enclave dwellers have now become pawns in a vote-back war between the Trinamool Congress and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” Rahman said. 

A majority of the chhitmahal (enclave) people belong to the indigenous Rajbongshi tribe of North Bengal which constitutes 51% of Cooch Behar’s population. Though the Muslims constitute 28% of the population, they are essentially Rajbongshis. “Ethnicity cannot be ignored,” Rahman argued.