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Trapped by a bungled boundary

Thousands on the India/Bangladesh border get the worst of both worlds

Trapped by a bungled boundary

Border people stage a protest to demand citizenship rights

Samir Kar Purkayastha, Kolkata

July 9, 2013

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More than 50,000 people on either side of the India-Bangladesh border live without citizenship, rights and basic facilities, and are in constant fear of being arrested if they step out of their restricted area.

They also risk being shot if they try crossing the border, or even venture too close to it, according to media reports.  

The stateless predicament applies to 111 Indian enclaves within Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi clusters in India.

“We have no roads, no electricity, no hospitals or no schools. The list is endless. We don’t figure in any government’s scheme of things,’’ said Mohammad Altaf Hossain.

Hossain lives in Dashiar Chara, one of the enclaves supposed to be governed by Indian law, but which is in fact situated in Bangladesh's northern Rangpur district.

The village of around 8,000 residents is bereft of any basic amenities.

After India’s independence in 1947 and the subsequent partitioning, it is widely acknowledged that new boundaries were drawn haphazardly. This resulted in 162 villages, spead across 120 sq kms of land, becoming part of one country while still being within the borders of another.

The continuing administrative muddle means misery for thousands.

“From getting our child admitted to a nearby school to getting hospital treatment, we have to depend on Bangladeshis in nearby villages,” Hossain said.

This plight is mirrored in the Bangladeshi enclaves in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, eastern India.

Here, for example, the 162-hectare Mashaldanga enclave has an official population of 2,000 people, but unofficially it has 10,000. The people have no voting rights, identity cards or jobs, and little or nothing in terms of basic facilities like water and power supplies.

“In such a situation, they cannot get jobs, cannot admit their children into schools or even use healthcare facilities,” said Diptiman Sengupta, convener of the Bharat (India) Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee..

This forces villagers to give false information to officials to conduct business and send their children to school or receive medical care.

Some take what they regard as humiliating steps. Mohammad Shafiat Ali of Dashiar Chara village told that his neighbor bribed a Bangladeshi villager to certify that his son was the son of the Bangladeshi so that the child could get admitted to a school.

Similar stories are aplenty. It’s not easy for a woman from a Bangladesh enclave to give birth to a child in a Cooch Behar Hospital, unless her husband persuades an Indian to pose as her “official” husband, says a Mashaldanga resident.

Besides, they live in constant fear of getting arrested.

“Each time we step out of our enclaves, we worry about being arrested by the Indian police or Border Security Force personnel who accuse us of being Bangladeshis even though Bangladesh does not recognize us as its citizens,” says 40-year-old Bellal Hussain of Mashaldanga.

Border police and soldiers from both nations are also accused of shooting and killing unarmed villagers, who allegedly attempt to cross the border illegally.

Media reports say in the past 10 years Indian security forces have killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, next to the boundaries between the two states.

In the absence of any administrative presence in these enclaves, they have also become safe havens for criminals and anti-social elements.

“If any crime is committed in these enclaves the residents can't go to the police. The police see them as outsiders,” said Sengupta.

People here hoped a land-swap agreement signed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina Wajid in September 2011 would resolve the problem.

But the agreement has not been implemented because of stiff opposition from India's Bharatiya Janata Party, which says the deal means India conceding land to Bangladesh.

“If needed we will start a vigorous agitation against the agreement,” BJP president Rajnath Singh told a party meeting last week in Guwahati in northeastern Assam state.

In the meantime, those suffering on the border wait in the hope that the accord does not end up as a meaningless piece of paper.

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