Hapless enclaves people in Indo-Bangla border seek identity

Are border enclaves – surrounded by foreign land – part of a country’s territory? Or are they merely properties owned by a country on foreign shores populated by mostly poor and unlettered people devoid of legal identity? With the India-Bangladesh enclaves triggering diplomatic issues, an organisation is moving court seeking an answer.

The Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC), an organisation fighting for the rights of thousands of “stateless” enclave dwellers, will approach the Indian Supreme Court on the constitutional status of the 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India, which have a cumulative population of over 51,000.

a atateless woman in Indo-Bangla borderExcept a few fortunate ones, the poor and unlettered enclave dwellers, devoid of any legal identity, are forced to grow up without access to education, electricity and other basic necessities.

“Unless the legal and constitutional position of the enclaves is established, the dwellers’ status will remain a contentious issue. So we are approaching the Supreme Court,” BBEECC coordinator Diptiman Sengupta told IANS.

The committee has been working tirelessly for the past few months preparing for the legal battle expected to be initiated early next year, its legal adviser Ahasan Habib told IANS.

An enclave is defined in international law as any portion of a state that is entirely surrounded by the territory of another state.

Popular folklore attributes the India-Bangladesh enclaves’ existence to a series of chess games between the royals of Cooch Behar and Rangpur, using the villages as currency for their wagers. Australian scholar Brenden Whyte has stated that the enclaves are the result of peace treaties between the Cooch Behar kingdom and the Mughal Empire in 1711 and 1713.

Enclaves are also found in western Europe and on the eastern fringes of the former Soviet Union.

Blaming the government’s apathy for the dwellers’ miseries – marked by a constant fear of state action – Sengupta said RTI replies have revealed several inconsistencies between what is asserted by the government and the facts on the ground.

“The union home ministry asked us to address our RTI queries to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) instead. If the Indian enclaves are actually part of Indian territory, as asserted by the government, then why did we have to approach the MEA? Isn’t it the home ministry that is concerned with affairs happening within the territory?

“If the enclaves are part of Indian territory, then why don’t their dwellers have the rights of a normal Indian citizen? Why did the two countries carry out a joint headcount in the enclaves instead of going through the normal procedure during the 2011 census,” Sengupta asked.

While the enclave dwellers have long been pinning their hopes on the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) which entails swapping the enclaves, the committee now is questioning the very basis of the LBA.

“The constitution does not say anything about enclaves. Then why is a constitutional amendment essential for LBA? Since independence, we had four LBAs, including the latest, but not a single one materialised. It’s a mere eyewash,” Sengupta maintained.

The Constitution (119th Amendment) Bill seeks to ratify the LBA signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in 2011. But it was stalled in parliament after opposition parties, including West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress, rallied against it.

Life for the stateless dwellers is a daunting and continuous challenge. They cannot even approach the administration in case of a crime committed against them.

“The Indian police say they do not govern us and we should approach the Bangladeshi police. If we do that we will be arrested for illegally crossing the border. Is being an enclave dweller such a big crime that both the countries have to disown us,” asked Tozammal Sheikh, who lives in an enclave in Cooch Behar district.

Echoing his views, Monirul Bibi, an enclave dweller of Bangladesh’s Kurigram district, asked: “Who do we show our allegiance to? Despite living inside its territory, I am told I am not a Bangladeshi. If I am Indian then why doesn’t India care for me?

“The BBEECC and the enclave dwellers are now pinning their hopes on the country’s apex court.

“The least we expect is a court declaration that the enclaves are not part of Indian or Bangladeshi territory, rather properties on foreign soil. This will mean the dwellers are akin to tenants and may be given the legal rights enjoyed by a renter,” Sengupta said.

“The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?” Sengupta asked, quoting world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals.

– By Anurag Dey