Life after Citizenship in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar (A Case Study)

The India-Bangladesh enclaves, also known as the chitmahals sometimes called pasha enclaves, were the enclaves along the Bangladesh–India border, in Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya. Within the main body of Bangladesh were 102 enclaves of Indian territory, which in turn contained 21 Bangladeshi counter-enclaves, one of which contained an Indian counter-counter-enclave – the world’s only third-order enclave. Within the Indian mainland were 71 Bangladeshi enclaves, containing 3 Indian counter-enclaves. A joint census in 2010 found 51,549 people residing in these enclaves: 37,334 in Indian enclaves within Bangladesh and 14,215 in Bangladeshi enclaves within India.

A revised version of the 1974 agreement was adopted by the two countries on 7 May 2015, when the Parliament of India passed the 100th Amendment to the Indian Constitution. India received 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (covering 7,110 acres (2,880 ha)) in the Indian mainland, while Bangladesh received 111 Indian enclaves (covering 17,160 acres (6,940 ha)) in the Bangladeshi mainland. After the Land Boundary Agreement, India lost around 40 square kilometres (15 sq mi) to Bangladesh.

Significance of the Agreement

Indian and Bangladeshi officials conducted a field survey of enclave residents between 6 July 2015 and 16 July 2015. Seventy-five teams, made up of one Indian and one Bangladeshi member each, were tasked with conducting the enumeration.

Twenty-five teams surveyed the Bangladeshi enclaves which would be transferred to India, while 50 worked on the Indian enclaves that would be transferred to Bangladesh.

As the enclave residents were allowed to choose citizenship of either nation, by 13 July 2015, 100 families residing in the Indian enclaves applied for Indian citizenship, while none of the residents of the Bangladeshi enclaves chose to go to Bangladesh.

New citizenship, if chosen, took effect from 1 August 2015. Nearly 14,000 people living in the former Bangladeshi enclaves became Indian citizens, while about 36,000 people living in the former Indian enclaves became Bangladeshi citizens. Some 1,000 people in the former Indian enclaves chose Indian citizenship and were to be relocated to India by December 2015.

Ground Zero

  • Unfortunately the ground realities do not display the same happiness among the dwellers, which their faces had while the agreement was signed. Diversity of drawbacks in its implementation have left their living conditions in a status quo when compared to pre-agreement era. Formal conferment of citizenship is yet to ease the economic and bureaucratic hardships faced by the people. “Their lives have essentially remained the same”.
  • Inadequacy of school infrastructure have made school going children to be crammed into tiny tin sheds. Those ‘schools’ have nothing except few plastic chairs. It displays a sorry state of neglected school infrastructure in the former enclaves. Unfortunately these tin sheds are placed nearby Shishu Kendras that are far better in their schooling infrastructure, aggravating the inequality and discrimination.
  • An enclave dwelling woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy, was not only denied medical attention at the Dinhata Sub-divsional Hospital in Cooch Behar but also threatened with arrest for seeking services at a state-run health facility despite being a Bangladeshi. It was only after vociferous protests by the enclave dwellers that the hospital authorities yielded. She finally got the medical attention she needed and had a safe delivery.
  • Another woman had paid ₹55,000 for a three-year lease on 1.5 bigha of land. (A bigha is a measure of land area varying locally from 1/3 to 1 acre.) She looks worried as she is concerned not just by the poor yield but also by the fact that her three children, are yet to receive proper identity documents.
  • Hence due to difficulty in accessing the appropriate living documents from the government, Children are denied admission into educational institutions, depriving of their basic rights under the Constitution.
  • Before the exchange of enclaves, people living in the adjoining areas that were part of the Indian mainland were often presented as the parents of children from the enclaves. This helped them get admission in schools and colleges, and avail treatment in government hospitals. Sadly, even three years after getting citizenship, the people from the erstwhile enclaves are still finding it difficult to get their identity documents corrected, hence they continue the previous said practice.
  • One instance of how people are not ready to accept the change is illustrated below: A person worked as a construction worker in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, for almost a decade before the exchange of enclaves took place. He received a new voter identification card after August 2015. But his sense of insecurity is such that he still carries his fake photo identification card, for which he had paid ₹4,000. His 17-year-old son, dropped out of school some years ago and now works with him in Noida.
  • Inadequate financial support to students’ education has forced them to take up various sorts of jobs, hence disturbing their education and future prospects. On the other hand, students who had completed their X standard of schooling in erstwhile Bangladeshi enclaves, are facing rejection from the Indian higher education boards as the 10th certificates are not being accepted in India. This has deprived the students of economic assistance in the form of scholarship like West Bengal’s Vivekananda Merit Cum Means scholarship (a scheme for meritorious and economically backward students), putting a full stop to their education/learning.
  • Probably, the feeling of homelessness was more feared than being disloyal to a state and its borders. As far as rations are considered, first preference is given to indigenous dwellers and even the amount provided is largely insufficient to the large migrated families.
  • The Government says it will build some 220 pucca houses for the Indians from Bangladesh, but it does not spell out when or where. As for livelihood, officials say they will arrange to provide these landless people with employment for 100 days a year under different schemes, but it remains a promise even today.
  • There are no leaders or elected representatives who visit this place to enquire about the welfare of the citizens, they feel neglected and indirectly disrespected.

Silver linings beneath the dark Cloud

  • Interestingly, the enclave borders had largely remained unfenced and scattered which made the international borders illegible and difficult to acertain. The distance from borders kept changing as rainfall submerged the sand bar, making this piece of land only a temporary phenomenon. This meant that the natural border created by the water kept fluctuating, making the borders even more difficult to control. A fluid border had troubled the calculations of distance and time needed to cross it. But now the issue seems have been solved by this exchange of territories.
  • Roads are paved, and half-a-dozen solar-powered irrigation pumps are available in the nearby paddy and mustard fields. There are also new anganwadi centres, primary schools, and power lines that were installed recently, ensuring electric supply to most of the tin houses in the area.
  • Every family in the camps gets 30 kg of rice, five kg of pulses, five litres of cooking oil, and one kg of salt a month. The administration is also building three residential complexes where an apartment will be given to each of these families.
  • Rabindranath Ghosh, Minister-in-charge, North Bengal Development Department, and an MLA from Cooch Behar, government in West Bengal has passed an amendment in the State Assembly to give land rights to the people of the 51 erstwhile Bangladeshi enclaves that are now a part of India. He adds that land documents have been provided to 12,560 beneficiaries.
  • “Only 30 km from Cooch Behar is Assam, where the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has left lakhs of people struggling for nationality. Here in West Bengal we have provided every assistance to the enclaves”, claims the State Government. This is true to a very large extent.

Conclusion

It is the duty of both State and the Union Government to look after the basic amenities and rights of the people like in the region. In no circumstance, should they feel alienated, disrespected. Their dignified being should be respected and nurtured with all the possible support from state as well as non-state actors of the society. Hence the transferred people should feel at home and at ease, while they productively contribute to the nation building and growth process.