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.
But even if they evade the attentions of the police, opportunities outside the enclaves are limited.
“We all make our living from farming, but to go work in Bangladesh we have to give false addresses. Some people do this, some don’t,” says Moniruzzaman Monir, a grizzled veteran of Dashiar Chara.
Enclave residents are stuck in a time warp, and the modernization of the outside world has caught them out.
“Things have been getting harder and harder every day,” says Monir. “India and Bangladesh are using more and more ID cards. Before, you didn’t need to show so much identification for things like schools, land, jobs. But new land registration rules mean that selling and buying lands has been shut down for the past 7 to 8 years.
“Without selling our land, we can’t get our daughters married,” he adds.
Until recently, life in Dashiar Chara wasn’t too different from nearby Bangladeshi villages, simply because access to public services was a rare thing throughout rural South Asia. But disparities have heightened as the enclaves are left out of the rapid development occurring in Bangladesh and India.
Award-winning NGOs like Grameen Bank and BRAC function almost as a parallel government in rural Bangladesh, delivering education, healthcare, livelihood training, banking, and even electricity. But they aren’t allowed to work inside the enclaves.
“Last year, Kurigram hospital turned away one of our residents because [the hospital found out] he gave a fake address. Now he’s lying crippled because of the lack of treatment,” says Hossain.
And the lack of public services has another dark consequence.
“Thieves, robbers, thugs, drug dealers, drug addicts – they all come here after committing crimes and take refuge here because we don’t have any police,” Rahman says. “It makes the whole atmosphere of the place bad. If we try to confront them or turn them out, then they say they’ll get us the next day when we’re on Bangladeshi land. They dare us to come out the next day. We are forced to accept that there is no law and order here.”
But what perhaps rankles most with residents is the lack of identity. Indeed, those living in Dashiar Chara suffer not from low status, but from the absence of any status at all.
“Right now, we are neither human nor animals. If a man from the enclaves goes to do business in an outside town, they first have to learn how to take abuse,” Rahman says. “They think of us as objects of ridicule. Even if I scrub myself from head to toe of whatever powders and scents I use, to them I will still reek of the enclave stench. People don’t want to give us their children in marriage.”
“We are forced to accept whatever insults Bangladeshis hurl at us. If they slap us, we bow our heads. If they call us ‘scum’, we call them ‘brother’. Then if they abuse us we can give as good as we get. Then, we will be equal,” he adds.
With all this in mind, land swaps seem like the logical solution. But although officials from the two countries signed an agreement in September aiming to achieve just this by this winter, many of the enclave residents note that previous agreements have gone nowhere.
A swap treaty known as the Mujib-Indira Pact, after the two leaders who signed it, was inked as far back as 1974, but was blocked by the Indian parliament. India is said to harbor concerns over how local elections might be affected if tens of thousands of Bangladeshi enclave residents suddenly became Indian voters.
“I’m not more hopeful,” Diptiman Sengupta, the leader of the Bangladesh India Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee, said shortly after the latest deal was signed. “The enclave dweller doesn’t have any voting rights, and the fact is our present political leaders understand nothing without the threat of losing votes.”
At the end of last month, Sengupta met with the governor of West Bengal to request that more be done to push for progress on the ground. But so far, there’s little sign of the pact being implemented.
Indian politicians and Bangladeshi politicians appear distracted by “bigger” issues, such as negotiating water-sharing treaties and trade agreements. For the residents of the chitmahals, meanwhile, whose families continue to live without access to healthcare, education, and basic utilities, the situation feels far more urgent.
Maher Sattar is a Southeas Asia-based journalist. He has reported for an contributed to PBS NOW, CBC and Global Post, among other organizations.