Residents of the chitmahals along India’s border with Bangladesh are living in a stateless limbo. But with other issues on their plate, can the two governments find a solution?
Problems in the relationship between Bangladesh and India are nothing new, but the controversy surrounding the chitmahals, or the Bangladesh-India enclaves, has proved particularly tricky for governments on both sides.
A patchwork of about 160 microscopic states-within-states lies scattered across both sides of Bangladesh’s northern border with its giant neighbor. In them live thousands of residents who for decades have watched successive governments discuss a land exchange that would release them from stateless limbo.
“We don’t belong to any country. Those outside look at us as uncivilized jungle dwellers,” says Mizanur Rahman, a farmer in an Indian enclave inside Bangladesh. Rahman and the about 8,000 other residents of Dashiar Chara enclave are nominally Indian citizens, but in reality they have no links with the rest of India and can’t vote there. Exiting the enclave means entering Bangladeshi territory, for which Rahman needs to obtain a visa and a passport. But acquiring these requires going to India, which means exiting the enclave and entering Bangladeshi territory.
To describe Rahman’s village as a jungle would be an exaggeration, although any signs of modernity gradually fade as you approach. Roads turn into paths, which shrivel into small trails that lead to a barely visible bump signaling that you are entering Indian soil.
At night, Dashiar Chara goes without light, with its 12 square kilometers of Indian land unlikely ever to receive the mainland’s electricity.Without Bangladeshi permission, the Indian government and the public services it offers aren’t allowed to access the more than 100 enclaves that are completely surrounded by Bangladesh’s Rangpur division. The same applies to the 50 plus Bangladeshi enclaves, which fall inside the Indian district of Cooch-Behar.
About 52,000 people on both sides of the border feel the effects of living in these cartographic anomalies, which are said by some to be the legacy of a time when villages were used as betting chips by Indian princes with a fondness for high-stakes gambling.
The districts of Cooch-Behar and Rangpur used to be princely states within a larger area known as Greater Bengal. Locals say that during the early 18th century, the Nawab of Rangpur and the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar liked to get together for card games where, using their villages to place bets, they gambled against each other using signed chits with the names of the villages on.
When the British departed in 1947, Bengal was split between India and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Cooch-Behar joined India, Rangpur joined East Pakistan, and their enclaves followed suit.
This odd arrangement is further complicated by the existence of enclaves within enclaves.
“There’s a smaller Bangladeshi enclave inside this Indian enclave,” says Altaf Hossain, another Dashiar Chara resident and an activist campaigning for a land swap. Hossain says this enclave-within-an-enclave (the technical term is counter-enclave) is home to approximately 170 Bangladeshi families. Elsewhere along the border, Dohala Khagrabari is the world’s only counter-counter-enclave, an Indian enclave inside a Bangladeshi enclave inside an Indian enclave inside Bangladesh.
During the days of the Nawabs and the Maharajas, these convoluted borders may have frustrated mapmakers, but they mattered little to residents. However, when India and Pakistan first agreed to impose visa and passport controls in 1952, the people of the chitmahals found themselves effectively stateless, virtual prisoners inside their paper palaces.
Physically moving in and out of the enclaves is easy for residents, as long as they don’t get in trouble with the local police. Shafiat Ali, also of Dashiar Chara, claims that police often take advantage of finding an Indian enclave resident trespassing in Bangladesh by extorting bribes.