Sarita Santoshini is a freelance writer based in Assam, India. Her work has been published in Al Jazeera English, National Geographic Traveller India, and Mint, among other publications.
A historic agreement in 2015 was supposed to bring 162 isolated villages into the modern world. A lot of them are still waiting.
In a large wire-fenced enclosure in West Bengal, India, 75 tin houses stand in neat, tight rows. The doors are flung open, clothes are hung out to dry, and most of the residents perch on small verandas in the front.
Sapikul Kandahar crouches to get a manual cooking stove to work, while the other members of his family huddle around him to watch. It is November 25, their second day here. The previous morning, they’d packed their lives into steel boxes and hopped on a bus that, eight hours later, dropped them here.
Kandahar, like everyone else in this camp in Dinhata—a town in the Cooch Behar district of the state of West Bengal—had lived in Bangladesh until now, but in an Indian enclave within Bangladesh. Following the signing of the historic Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) last summer, however, he chose to be an Indian.
“We’ve lived in terrible conditions for 70 years. Now, I’m hopeful of a bright future. I’m here to rebuild my life,” Kandahar says.
The LBA was an attempt to solve the problems of the India-Bangladesh border—mainly, the 162 enclaves on either side of it, which were territories entirely surrounded by foreign lands. Until six months ago, this group was the largest archipelago of enclaves in the world. In local lore, an ancient chess match led to the wagering of land, but more accurately, the history of the enclaves began in 1713, as a result of peace treaties between the kingdom of Cooch Behar and the Mughal empire, when each failed to evict the other from some portions of their land.
More than two centuries later, India was partitioned to form Pakistan, part of which became Bangladesh in 1972. Yet the two countries left the enclaves as they found them, and failed to come to an agreement about their situation until last year.
At the stroke of midnight on July 31, 2015, the two countries swapped the 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. Once stateless, most enclave dwellers have since become residents of the country where their homes are geographically located.
About one thousand residents of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, however, chose to relocate to gain Indian nationality. The resettlement camp in Dinhata is one of three such camps in the state of West Bengal that will provide them temporary residence for two years, or until permanent settlements are built.
The enclaves, isolated from their countries, had lacked even basic services and infrastructure, and their residents had been denied the identity cards they needed to have any official status in society. Kandahar and his family are happy to leave that behind, but Diptiman Sengupta, the secretary of the Indo-Bangladesh Border Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBCCEE), believes the government ought to be doing a better job with the resettlement camps.
“The infrastructure is extremely poor, and there are already problems in regards to water and food supply,” he says. “Most houses have been given one or two pillows and blankets each, irrespective of the size of their family. How will they survive the winters like this?”
For the 14,000 residents of the 51 former Bangladeshi enclaves in India, which are now a part of India, things haven’t been easy, either. Having survived so long without roads, electricity, schools, or hospitals, the residents continue to wait for their identity cards so they can pursue a normal life.
In one village, after a community meeting with Sengupta, Saabidul Haq, 25, breaks free from the crowd to share his plight. “We have no certificates that will allow us to get the pregnant women admitted in hospitals, or our kids admitted in schools,” he says. “We either bribe authorities or Indians in neighboring villages to create fake certificates, and it’s both a tiring and humiliating process each time.”
Haq, like other residents of his enclave, toils in his own farm to grow vegetables but is often denied the right to sell them in the market. Many residents have been detained for months during their attempts to look for work opportunities outside.
While Haq is hopeful that these may be problems of the past, for some, there’s still no relief in sight. A survey conducted in enclaves on both sides of the border in 2011 excluded the names of many people—who will, once again, fail to receive identity cards.
Mohammad Javed Ali, a resident of Madhya Mashaldanga, is one of about 46 people in the village who has been writing letters to the authorities since June, asking to be officially recognized. “Once everyone else receives their identity cards, I’m worried the BSF [Border Security Force] will fail to understand the problem and keep us from going about our lives like the others,” he says.
A few positive stories do come through. Despite the difficulty of getting an education, enclave resident Jaynal Abedin, 20, is studying political science at a university, while 30-year-old Shailendra Nath Barman got his degree in 2007. They’re among a group who call themselves “Facebook Fighters,” using Facebook to highlight events, protests, and progress in their respective enclaves. For years, they’ve been the local media’s most reliable source for news about the land-boundary issue.
Having collected money from the villagers to set up a one-room school in each of their enclaves, the young men spend a few hours every day teaching children who’ve been excluded from government schools owing to their lack of documents.
In his village of Paschim Bakalichhara, Barman, along with four other graduates, teaches about 50 kids each morning. “We either talk to the heads of nearby Indian villages and borrow books from them, or try to buy some ourselves,” he says. Asked what he’ll do once he can apply for a job, Barman promptly responds, “I’ll be a teacher.”