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Stateless South Asians finally get identity under landmark deal

India and Bangladesh are set to simplify their fragmented border in a deal that gives citizenship rights to tens of thousands of people who have been effectively stateless for 68 years. Cooch Behar, West Bengal (dpa) – Born in British-ruled India, Mohammed Asghar Ali, 105, has celebrated freedom twice: once when the sub-continent attained independence in 1947 and later in 1971 when Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan.

The oldest resident of the Bangladeshi enclaves inside India will celebrate a third day of independence on the midnight of July 31. “I have witnessed the bloody partition of India and led a life incarcerated in my own land,” says the centenarian, sitting near lush paddy and jute fields outside his tin-mould house in Moshaldanga.

“But our dream of gaining real freedom is finally coming true now after almost 70 years.” Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina last month finalised a border agreement that will see 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India change hands from one government to another, without the main border being re-drawn. India will cede about 10,000 acres or 40 square kilometres of territory. Dwellers of the enclaves in India’s Cooch Behar district and Bangladesh’s Rangpur Division have been given the right to choose citizenship in either country.

The pact simplifies one of the world’s most complex boundaries while settling a 68-year-old dispute arising from lack of government access and control over the enclaves. “Most wars have been over land, but for such a substantial exchange of land in a completely bloodless manner stands out as an example for the world,” said activist Diptiman Sengupta. All 14,854 people in Bangladeshi enclaves on Indian soil have sought Indian citizenship, while 979 of the 39,176 people staying in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh have opted for Indian citizenship, Cooch Behar senior administrator P Ulaganathan said.

Residents of the enclaves have been effectively stateless, disowned by either country and lack access to basic amenities since the territories are cut off from their governments. They live in squalid conditions. They cannot legally travel or work outside their land; there are no schools, hospitals, electricity or running water. Since there are no identification cards, residents in the Bangladeshi enclaves in India are forced to assume false identities or forge identity documents using names borrowed from relatives in India so they can work, admit children at school or get treated at hospitals. Ali’s grandson, Joynal Abedin, says he provided false names of his parents and a false address to get admitted to an Indian school.

“It is the worst humiliation” he says. Residents say they are harassed by police for venturing outside the enclaves. Jabbar Sheikh spent three years in jail for infiltrating into India, because he had gone for medical treatment at the nearby town of Dinhata. “Even the poorest of poor are privileged because they have an identity. But we’ve had no sense of belonging and no citizenship,” a youth named Kailash Burman says.

“All this should change now,” he says. According to folklore, the enclaves resulted from a series of chess games played between two maharajahs centuries ago. But research by Australian geographer Brendan Whyte showed the enclaves were created after peace treaties between the local ruler and the Mughal empire. The issue lingered through the post-colonial Partition in 1947, when the map of India and Pakistan was drawn. Bangladesh was East Pakistan until the 1971 war of independence.

Chat Kuchlibari enclave chief Anukul Roy says people have started demanding development and amenities, which will be the “next phase of our struggle.” Mohammad Ali, 79, lives in the Bhatrigachh enclave, one of the many Bangladeshi enclaves that will soon be a thing of the past in India. He is optimistic about new-found freedoms at the height of the monsoon, a season of renewal. “I was born in British India, grew up in East Pakistan and Bangladesh and will spend my old age in India. My life has gone by but our young generation has something to live for,” he says. “They will have an identity. A new era is on the way.”

Siddhartha Kumar, "Stateless South Asians finally get identity under landmark deal," Business recorder. 2015-07-30.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political change , Mughal empire , Citizenship , PM Narendra Modi , Sheikh Hasina , Pakistan , India , Bangladesh , 1947