Seventy-nine-year-old Mohammad Ali, a resident of Bhatrigachhi, a Bangladeshi exclave in India, woke up on Tuesday to the news that celebrations planned for Saturday will have to be scaled down in view of the national mourning on the death of former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
He was taken aback. The celebrations to be held on the midnight of Friday-Saturday have been 68 years in the making. But when the scaled-down singing and dancing accompany handover of Bhatrigachhi to India, Ali will only be able to hoist the national flag at half-mast.
That’s a dampener for Ali. This moment of anticipation shouldn’t have been marred by national mourning that requires the administration to distance itself from the celebrations.
But Ali has had much to mourn in his tortuous life, so he doesn’t mind mourning again with the nation that will finally be his for the remainder of his life. “It has taken 68 years to shed the inglorious identity of an enclave dweller," he says.
The anticipation in Bhatrigachhi’s 250 homes is understandable: its integration with India will not only give its people Indian nationality, but is also expected to bring social development.
According to the terms of a 1974 agreement, India and Bangladesh are exchanging 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in Indian territory.
Enclaves are tiny pockets of land that each country possesses within the other’s territory.
Strung across Bhatrigachhi are high-tension power cables that travel into an Indian counter-enclave—or an enclave within an enclave—which is treated as part of India. It has electricity and a primary school, and its people have access to healthcare.
They even vote in Indian elections, but there is nothing except imaginary lines separating the two hamlets.
For the people of Bhatrigachhi, on the other hand, even travelling out of their village is a crime because they are Bangladeshi nationals trapped within India with no connection to their own country, which lies behind barbed wires, a river and inviolable Indian territory, just 6km away.
Rejected by India and Bangladesh, these enclave dwellers on both sides have grappled with complex laws and sustained themselves with concessions made by local administrations.
Still, many have wound up in jails in both countries for trespassing.
Meanwhile, in nearby town of Dinhata, Diptiman Sengupta, assistant secretary, Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC), is desperately trying to convince his followers not to go wild with their celebrations on Saturday.
He will himself lead one at Mashaldanga, one of the biggest enclaves on the Indian side, and wants everyone in every enclave to be restrained.
“We need to pay respect to the deceased leader, and at this moment of victory, we shouldn’t do anything that looks unbecoming," he tells a gathering of Bangladeshi exclave dwellers, who are disappointed on hearing that the symbolic flag hoisting will be shorn of the planned fanfare.
Amid the confusion, news arrives on Sengupta’s phone of isolated skirmishes in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, targeted at people who had previously opted to move to India but had since changed their mind.
For Sengupta, who has led the movement for the exchange of enclaves for 25 years, this is a disturbing development. Though he says there is little that can happen between now and the appointed hour that can scupper or delay the exchange of these fragmented territories, he appears to be anxious.
Sengupta’s organization has played a key role in reaching out to enclave dwellers on both sides of the border and building a consensus among them to support the 1974 land boundary agreement between New Delhi and Dhaka.
Over the years, he has had to deal with the various pressure groups, who, according to him, wanted “only corridors" or better access to the enclaves. Lawmakers on both sides agree that unless the resistance from within the 55,000 enclave dwellers was neutralized, this agreement couldn’t have gone through.
These enclaves began to be formed more than 300 years ago from armed conflicts between the rulers of Cooch Behar and Mughal expansionist chieftains.
When treaties were signed between them to temporarily end feuds, some chieftains from both sides claimed suzerainty over isolated villages completely surrounded by foreign dominion.
Though other theories abound on origin of these enclaves—162 in all—including wagering over the outcome of chess games between Cooch Behar rulers and the Mughal representatives in Dhaka, researchers have found them to be of questionable credibility.
For Sengupta, though, building consensus on the exchange of enclaves was like a long game of chess with the people who resisted the idea, playing on nationalist sentiments.
“Pressure groups"mostly comprised people who wanted to use the enclaves as warehouses for contraband—illicit cough syrups (which has a huge market in Bangladesh) and marijuana.
Because enclaves lay beyond the writ of the local administration in both countries, they were used as safe havens by smugglers, he says.
People, who had large landholdings or had illegitimately bought land in foreign territory, also opposed every initiative to trade the enclaves.
Because both Bangladesh and West Bengal have land-ceiling laws, the exchange of enclaves would have resulted in land being seized from them. And these people had the money to influence the political establishment, Sengupta says.
Sengupta’s last challenge was to ensure that the enclaves were exchanged with the minimum displacement of inhabitants.
And on this rides a great deal of national pride on both sides of the border. None from the Indian side is moving to Bangladesh whereas around 1,050 people are expected to move to India. (This figure has swung with time: Sengupta had initially estimated it at around 1,700, but it came down to 1,000 before going up again on Tuesday).
Both governments couldn’t overtly encourage or discourage people to move or stay. So, Sengupta’s organization played a crucial role in addressing scepticism among enclave dwellers on both sides of the border, says Nazmul Haque Prodhan, a Bangladeshi lawmaker of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, a Left party. Intense lobbying helped assuage concerns. If the figure had risen beyond each other’s comfort levels, the deal could have been delayed again, says Sengupta, now sceptical of every new person looking to move to India.