Cel­e­brate Our New­est Vot­ers

Whom15,000 vote for on May 5 is ir­rel­e­vant. What mat­ters is now they can

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Ab­heek Bar­man

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.

Se­quel­toIn­de­pen­denceDay

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

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