Celebrate Our Newest Voters
Whom15,000 vote for on May 5 is irrelevant. What matters is now they can
On May 5, West Bengal will see India’s newest, and in some ways strangest, voters exercise their franchise. After the1971war to liberate East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, most people assumed the earlier, British-controlled subcontinent had been partitioned into three nations: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But there was a catch.
After the euphoria subsided, leaders in Dhaka and New Delhi woke up to a startling reality: India and Bangladesh contained — within each other’s borders — patches of territory belonging to the other nation.
Wheels Within Wheels
These were called ‘enclaves’, or chhitmahal in Bengali. Each was small in area, but there were many:102 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, 71 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. In 2010, it was discovered that more than 51,500 people lived in these enclaves.
Now, people who lived in, say, Bangladeshi enclaves in India, mainly in the district of Cooch Behar, were officially foreign citizens. Therefore, they were not entitled to public goods or services provided by India. So, no power, water, roads, government schools, policing and administration. It was the same for the wretched folk on the other side of the border.
This was hard enough to comprehend. But, of course, things were much worse. Of the 102 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, 21 contained a Bangladeshi enclave as a subset, nested inside the Indian chhitmahal. Complex, huh?
Now think about Dahala Khagrabari (DK) India, in the Rangpur district of Bangladesh. But DK, though geographically in Rangpur, actually belongs to Cooch Behar in West Bengal. How come?
Well, all1.7 acres of DK is surrounded by Upanchowki Bhajni (UB), a Bangladesh village. But UB is completely nested inside the Indian village of Balapara Khagrabari (BK), which as the discerning reader has already figured out, is an Indian enclave in Rangpur, Bangladesh.
DK is an enclave inside an enclave inside an enclave. It is India, inside Bangladesh, inside India, in Bangladesh. It has the exalted status of being the only ‘third order’ enclave on the entire planet. The 19th-century German mathematician Georg Cantor, who invented set theory — remember all those overlapping and nested circles? — would have been delighted with DK. Dwellers of DK might be less enthusiastic.
Anyway, in 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart Feroz Noon decided to put their heads together and solve this Cantorian puzzle. But within months, Noon was kicked out by Iskander Mirza, a military sort, who declared himself the ruler and imposed martial law.
Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court waded in and said nothing doing, till the Constitution was amended. While we were scratching our heads over that, India and Pakistan did katti, and things went downhill. Cantor’s children were forgotten.
There’s a story — probably apocryphal — that this royal mess was created by the kings of Cooch Behar and Rangpur in undivided Bengal hundreds of years ago. Addicted to chess and gambling, these gentlemen used parts of their territory as betting currency. If there’s any truth to the tale, the Maharaja of Rangpur appears to have been the better player.
Well, after 1971, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman got along famously. In 1974, they sat down and signed what is called the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). This transferred administrative control over the chhitmahals without changing the borders of India and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, famine and political unrest raged in Bangladesh. In 1975, less than a year after signing the LBA, Mujib was assassinated.
After that, things dragged along, till in March 2014, Manmohan Singh, in his second term as prime minister, decided to solve the problem. It helped that his Bangladesh counterpart was Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujib. By the time Parliament passed the amendments, Singh’s term was over. But thankfully, last year, India and Bangladesh finally swapped each other’s chhitmahals, to the great relief of their residents.
Which is a nice sort of way to end this tale. But actually, it gets better. On May 5, the last phase of polling in Bengal, nearly 15,000 people — all residents of the chhitmahals in Cooch Behar — will get to vote for the first time ever. Their names figure in the list of voters in six assembly seats of this district.
Soon after becoming CM in 2011, Mamata Banerjee refused to cooperate with the LBA, saying that West Bengal would ‘lose’ 40 sq km to Bangladesh. It was a disingenuous argument. That land was anyway within Bangladesh’s borders. All that would happen was a change in citizenship of enclave-dwellers on both sides.
But the fact that all these people, stateless and stranded since 1947, now have a country to call their own is worth celebrating. We should raise a toast that they have also got the right — for the first time in many generations — to elect their representatives. They will get voice — public services should follow. Given these positives, who they vote for on May 5 is irrelevant.
Not a Wagah candlelight vigil: Residents of an enclave, Cooch Behar