Voters in Bangladeshi enclaves seek to establish their identity

Voters in Bangladeshi enclaves seek to establish their identity

Poathurkuthi (a Bangladeshi enclave) : Maimana Khatun, 45, continues to use her maiden name because she is an Indian by birth and doesn’t want her nationality to be undermined by her marriage to a trader in a Bangladeshi enclave.

Polling in her constituency will be held on Monday in the first phase of elections in the state, and at least 14,000 voters in Dinhata live in Bangladeshi enclaves.

Although they don’t qualify for electoral photo identity cards, or Epics, in the first place, they have been voting in India for years, thanks largely to the mainstream political parties who helped them get their names included in the electoral rolls with fictitious addresses.

But that’s about all they have received from the Indian government.

There are some 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India, and 106 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, almost all located along the India-Bangladesh border.

The enclaves in India are situated mostly in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts in the northern part of the state.

Completely surrounded by foreign territory, these enclaves, or chhitmahal in the local language, were parts of the erstwhile estates of the royal families of Cooch Behar and Rangpur.

Independent candidate Maimana Khatun (left) on the campaign trail in Dinhata, Cooch Behar.

For years, these “extra votes" from the chhitmahal went to the Left Front. But it appears that in the 2006 assembly election, they went the other way, helping the Trinamool Congress candidate Ashok Mandal beat the Forward Bloc’s Udayan Guha after two successive defeats.

Both the Forward Bloc, which is part of the ruling Left Front, and the Trinamool Congress—the state’s main opposition party—have been promising to change the lives of the people in the chhitmahal with power connections to every home and civic infrastructure such as roads and drinking water.

But they have not been able to deliver on promises.

Being foreign territory, it is virtually impossible for Indian governments—the state or the Centre—to spend money on the Bangladeshi enclaves.

Disenchanted with the mainstream political parties, people from the enclaves decided to field their own candidate this year—Khatun, who is the first person from a Bangladeshi enclave to ever contest an assembly election in India.

It is unlikely that she is going to win the election. She can only count on the 14,000 votes from the chhitmahal, says Diptiman Sengupta, convenor of Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Co-ordination Committee, a pressure group pushing Dhaka and Delhi to swap the enclaves.

But she could yet be the “key deciding factor" in the three-way contest at Dinhata, where Mandal, the winner from 2006, is contesting as an independent candidate against his old rival, the Forward Bloc’s Guha and Amiya Sarkar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), an ally of the the Trinamool Congress.

By taking away these 14,000 votes from all three candidates, Khatun hopes to remind the mainstream political parties of their presence, and more importantly, draw their attention to the plight of the 150,000-odd people who live in the Bangladeshi enclaves.

If these 14,000 votes from the enclaves went en bloc to one of these three candidates, he would win comfortably, according to Khatun, who says she was intimidated by all the political parties in the fray when she filed her nomination to contest the election.

The aim eventually is to pressure Delhi to reopen talks with Dhaka on swapping these isolated territories, says Sengupta. “That is the only solution."

But till that happens, 90-year-old Saleha Bewa, a midwife, would continue to deliver children at homes, and people from the Bangladeshi enclaves would be working as agricultural labour in India for as little as 40 a day.

“It is impossible for us to get treatment, or even deliver children, in Indian hospitals," says Marjina Biwi, who had six children delivered at home by Bewa, despite having an Epic, which she obtained for a bribe of 5,500.

In the chhitmahal, one could obtain a ration card, too, by paying around 3,000, say locals, but putting children in Indian schools is almost impossible.

“For us, the fight is not about politics or winning, it’s about establishing our identity," says Khatun, who has had to conceal her address to put her children in school in Dinhata.

Photo by Indranil Bhoumik; Graphic by Sandeep Bhatnagar/Mint