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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 43 New Delhi October 17, 2015

India-Bangladesh: Reviewing the Enclave Exchange

Monday 19 October 2015

by Saumitra Mohan

Boundaries between nation-states are reflections of the interplay of the forces of history, politics and wars but oftentimes they could be simply a manifestation of a shoddy and hasty job as transpired in the wake of the recommen-dations of the Boundary Commission led by Sir Cyril Radcliffe. The malformed borders between India and Pakistan became a curse for the people living in the enclaves between India and Pakistan or Bangladesh since 1971. Even though the enclave residents did not leave their homes and hearths, they, however, lost their countries. They lived in territories legally belonging to India, but never qualified as Indian citizens. The same happened to the people who lived on Pakistani and subsequently, Bangladeshi territory but would have none of the citizenship rights.

They were not stateless people in terms of international law of territorial sovereignty, but that was merely a cold comfort for them. They had no access to the laws or services of the land to which they technically belonged. The piquant situation created an ontological crisis for these people sans the benefits of citizenship and sans the protection of the state. With the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) of 1974 between India and Bangladesh finally coming into force on August 1 this year, the historical hardship for the people living in 51 Bangladeshi and 111 Indian enclaves eventually came to an end.

The enclaves were exchanged on the midnight of July 31 this year. The Indian flags were hoisted at midnight to mark the historic moment. A total of 111 Indian enclaves with an area of 17,158 acres inside Bangladesh became Bangladeshi mainland and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves with an area of 7110 acres within India’s Cochbehar district of West Bengal became official Indian territory. In practical terms, it simply meant that the boundaries around these little pockets of foreign land disappeared as they merged with the host countries.

Against the expectations of around 13,000 people in 111 Indian enclaves moving into India, only 979 or 0.02 per cent of the 37,000 dwellers in these enclaves inside Bangladesh plumped for Indian citizenship during the joint survey conducted by the two countries. This was surprising given the attraction for Indian citizenship among Bangladeshi citizens. Many of these residents in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, who wanted to become Indian citizens, were disappointed as they were allegedly threatened and intimidated against opting for Indian citizenship by the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh. In stark contrast, all the 14,854 people staying on Indian soil in Bangladeshi enclaves have sought Indian citizenship.

Indian political leaders belonging to several parties have made strong allegations regarding several thousand residents in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh being unable to exercise their option freely owing to intimidation by extremist organisations. They have also pointed to a methodological hitch during the joint survey resulting in flawed results. A list of over 5500 people, who were left out of the purview of the survey, has been submitted to the State Government recently. Already, over 2000 of these left-out Bangladeshi enclave dwellers, who always wanted to opt for the Indian nationality but could not do so during the joint survey in Indian enclaves due to assorted reasons including extremist threats, recently submitted their applications to the Indian authorities praying for Indian citizenship.

“But nobody knows what will be the fate of those people, who want to quit Indian enclaves and settle in India but failed to enrol their names during the recent census,” said an Indian official. Though the matter was discussed among the officials associated with the Joint Working Group (JWG) in the meeting held in Dhaka on July 23 this year, nothing has yet been finalised as to how this section of people will be able to register their names. A group, belonging to the United Council for Indian Enclave (UCIE), helped in the collection of applications from those sufferers who want to settle in the Indian part but whose names don’t figure in the joint survey list.

Members of the India-Bangladesh Joint Working Group examined the complaints lodged by the Indian politicians against the procedural problems as were faced during the joint survey in Indian enclaves. The survey, conducted through July 6-16, 2015, was part of the Land Boundary Agreement-1974 to exchange the enclaves. Officials of both the countries held a meeting in Dhaka on July 23, 2015 to review and finalise the report as collected during the joint survey in 162 enclaves. The crucial meeting discussed the modalities for exchanging information including the land records and the respective list of families opting for the two countries.

Even as S.K. Chakraborty, the Assistant Registrar General of India and a member of the India-Bangladesh Joint Working Group, claimed that people in the Indian enclaves had no grievances despite reports that they were allegedly deprived of their right to choose their nationality, a human rights organisation has said that it has collected many examples of such deprivation and that it has intimated the matter through letters to the Prime Ministers of both India and Bangladesh. Copies of the same have also been forwarded to the Chiefs of the National Human Rights Commission of both the countries and other Indian officials.

The Manabadhikar Surakhsha Manch (MASUM), a human rights organisation based in West Bengal, has alleged that the Joint Working Group had not functioned trans-parently during the survey. ‘They created a few procedural complications to exclude or include names whimsically,’ it alleged. ‘Procedural violations, omissions and commissions of duty have raised questions over the legalities and the state’s accountability. It will again put thousands of enclave dwellers in a stateless situation,’ they added. MASUM has also urged the authorities concerned to recall that India and Bangladesh both have taken a voluntary pledge before the UN Human Rights Commission to protect and promote human rights for all.

Subsequent to the enclave exchange, many of these residents who opted for Indian citizenship have been visiting India for an exposure visit on receipt of a multi-visa for their families from the Indian High Commission to make preparation for permanently settling in India as well as to interact with close friends and relatives here. As their citizenship related formality still remains to be completed, all of them are to pay over Rs 500 taka against the travel pass issued to them at Changrabandha and Burimari immigration check-posts in Cooch Behar as admissible for a foreigner. All these enclave dwellers, who have opted for Indian nationality are supposed to finally leave Bangladesh during November.

Both India and Bangladesh have agreed to their exposure visit to India as part of their preparations for permanent settlement in India as has also been allowed for those who have opted for Bangladeshi citizenship. All these citizens are being issued travel passes to visit anywhere in India to finalise their settlement plan. As per the agreement, the Indian Government will bear all the cost of trans-portation when they eventually arrive in November from different Indian enclaves which have now been incorporated into Bangladesh.

The local administration has been directed to provide with food and shelter for the new Indian nationals. The visits are also being facilitated by a non-governmental organisation called the United Council of Indian Enclave as it has maintained a liaison all along between the new nationals and administrative officials. During their interactions with the Indian officials, these dwellers have pleaded for taking up the land-sale matter with the Bangladeshi Government for getting the right price for their lands.

Having waited over six decades for the establishment of their citizenship rights, these enclave residents still have to grapple with many of the existential problems before finally settling down in India. The foremost among them is to find a reasonable price for their farm and homestead lands. Most of these problems arising out of enclave exchange between the two countries were discussed in detail during an interaction between the delegations of Bangladesh and India at Siliguri in January this year as well as during the Dhaka interactions as mentioned above. The Government of India is said to have earmarked Rs 3000 crores for the liabilities and responsibilities arising out of the exchange of enclaves. The fund shall be used not only for the rehabilitation of the people moving into India but also for carrying out various development works in these enclaves.

These developmental works and activities will be almost like laying out a virgin country, for no government agency has ever existed in any of these enclaves. Schools, colleges, hospitals, police stations, roads—everything will have to be created for the welfare of the people in them. As per the Notification issued by the State Government, a land survey has been conducted in the erstwhile enclave areas to officially demarcate and delineate their geographical status vis-a-vis bordering Indian areas. In case of small patches of land accrued, these will be integrated into the existing mouzas, the smallest cartographical entity on India’s map. In case of big stretches, for example, a big enclave, a new mouza will be created. This will be followed by their incorporation into the extant panchayat system. The new areas will also need to be allocated police stations and post offices. In some cases new police stations or post offices will have to be formed.

Another tricky area relates to the redistri-bution of land among the individual owners as per their entitlement as figured out during the joint survey done for the purpose. As they leave for their new country, they also seek corres-ponding return of their lands as owned in the erstwhile enclaves but have no supporting papers. Most of these residents have lived in enclaves with forged and false identity documents.

The basic principle of land allocation, namely, ‘possession backed by documents’ or ‘documents backed by possession’ may prove tricky, especially if one person’s claim is contested by another. Hence, a big challenge pertains to identity verification of the incoming Indian citizens. The residents in many cases don’t have any legal papers in support of their claims or to prove their identity. The processing of identities will, therefore, be an onerous task which would require careful handling because the same has serious implication for national security.

The government will also need to keep some land aside for the sundry developmental activities including infrastructures, school buildings, anganwadis, health centres, roads, space for electricity lines and water supply. The same would also require the consent of the residents in these areas. The entire rehabilitation work is going to be a long-drawn, complicated and humongous task, requiring intricate planning and execution. The Indian Government shall also need to factor the concerns of the incoming young citizens whose educational interests would warrant safeguarding. The local administration would have to ensure continuation of their education in India as per their eligibility and requirements.

The Indian law enforcing agencies including the Border Security Force (BSF) heaved a sigh of relief as the enclaves were finally exchanged between the two countries. According to sources, the Bangladeshi enclaves on the Indian side had become safe havens for the Indian criminals who would often take shelter therein after committing a crime in the Indian territory. Technically being a foreign territory, the BSF and other Indian officials found it difficult to enter and take any action against these anti-social elements. The Indian law enforcing agencies, including the BSF and local police authorities, are now relieved as they can crack down on the criminals in the enclaves now that these areas have legally come under total Indian control.

Besides, there are many other issues which need serious attention of the two countries as discussed during the July conclave between the two countries. The newly introduced quarterly meetings would now be convened on a regular basis at the levels of District Magistrate and Collector of the two countries bordering these enclaves. The flag meetings on a regular basis as per a mutually agreed calendar of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and BSF have also been institutionalised. The success in the enclaves issue has its lessons for leaders of both the countries. They need to realise that India- Bangladesh relations should no longer be held hostage to their domestic politics.

There are other issues that the two countries need to resolve. They inter alia include poppy cultivation in border areas, cattle smuggling, construction and improvement of land customs station and land port, movement of militants along the border, sharing intelligence to curb the menace of terrorism, women trafficking, illegal arms smuggling, exchange of prisoners languishing in each other’s jails, setting up immigration centres at the border, survey, construction and repair of missing border pillars, exchange of Cadastral Survey records (some CS records of Bangladeshi Dinajpur district are in Indian South Dinajpur and some CS records of South Dinajpur of West Bengal are in Bangladeshi Dinajpur.), export-import issues, promotion of tourism, border management of common rivers and sharing of their waters including that of Teesta. A new bus service between the two countries has already started.

Both India and Bangladesh must continue to show more of the pragmatism that made the exchange of enclaves ultimately possible though it took the two countries 41 years to complete the job of enclave exchange has much to do with the changes in Indo-Bangladesh ties over the years. One hopes that the relationship between the two countries shall only grow stronger on the strength of the recent warmth as emerging in the wake of resolution of the enclave exchange issue. The flagging of a new bus service between the two countries is only one of the many positive breakthroughs waiting to be made as a result of the new-found bonhomie between them.

Dr Saumitra Mohan, IAS, is the District Magistrate and Collector, Burdwan district, West Bengal. The views expressed in the above article are personal and do not reflect those of the government.