Stephan Uttom in Dhaka and Christopher Joseph, New Delhi
Updated: August 03, 2015 12:13 AM GMT
Residents walk on a village road in Dashiar Chhara, northern Kurigram district, a former Indian enclave that became part of Bangladesh on Aug. 1. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Thousands of villagers living along the Bangladesh-India border cheered on Aug. 1 as the two nations officially exchanged once-disputed patches of land to bring an end to an unusual border disagreement that had lasted since the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.
The long-awaited implementation of the 1974 Bangladesh-India land boundary agreement will have a major effect on the lives of some 53,000 people who formerly resided in 162 enclaves — small sovereign areas surrounded on all sides by the other country.
Effectively, this act allows villagers from 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India, to choose their country of citizenship. Authorities on both sides of the border are promising the new citizens improved access to education, health facilities, jobs and other basic services they had long been denied.
Some 7,000 villagers at Dashiar Chhara, a cluster of 20 villages, the largest former enclave in Bangladesh in northern Kurigram district, celebrated their new-found identities.
On Aug. 1, they lit 68 candles, burned 68 firecrackers and arranged for a night-long cultural program to mark the end of their 68-year wait for citizenship.
"Now, we are part of a nation, and a map. Our forefathers have waited for this moment for so long, but couldn’t see it happen in their lifetime. So, our joys know no bound," said Nur Islam, 32.
"I have a master's degree but I have been forced to become a farmer because I have had no identity card; I couldn’t get a job outside the village. I can hope to get a good job now," he said.
The end of statelessness marks the end of a cursed life, says Abul Hossain, 60, a businessman from the former Dinbazar enclave in Panchagarh district of northern Bangladesh.
"My eldest son died of a heart attack in 2013 and I feel sad because he couldn’t see this day when we became Bangladeshi citizens. I would like to send my youngest to the army, so he can serve the nation," Hossain said.
Jogen Julian Besra, regional director for Caritas Bangladesh in Dinajpur, said the agreement will allow the agency to finally provide services to its impoverished residents.
"Because the people in enclaves didn't have citizenship, we couldn't cover them," he told ucanews.com. "We know these areas are undeveloped, and people are extremely poor because there was no development activity for a long time. In the future, we hope to extend our activities to those areas as well."
Political leaders and government officials say measures to help the new citizens are underway.
"The government has ordered all local leaders and administrators to work together to assist villagers in every way they need. We will be with them all along," said Golam Rabbani Sarkar, a local leader with the ruling Awami League party in Kurigram district.
"The government will construct roads, schools and clinics wherever it is necessary. Everyone will be included in the development process," he added.
The government has allocated US$25.6 million to help develop villages in the former enclaves, according to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.
"Security measures are underway to ensure safety, law and order in the areas," said Giasuddin Ahmed, superintendent of police in Panchagarh district.
A family in the Dinbazar enclave in northern Panchagarh district of Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
In India, a local legislator assured the new Indian citizens that the government would prepare a special package for the development of the former enclaves.
Arrangements would also be made for the proper integration of 989 people who have decided to migrate to India from the 111 enclaves that were transferred to Bangladesh, the legislator assured.
According to local legend, the enclaves were the result of a series of chess matches between two 18th-century kings, who wagered entire villages on their games. The issue became more complicated in 1947, when India achieved independence and Pakistan formed. Boundaries were drawn haphazardly and the enclaves effectively became part of one country while remaining within the borders of the other. The confusion remained when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan in 1971, becoming Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and India signed in 1974 the land boundary agreement to end the dispute and it was ratified by Bangladesh's parliament the same year, but the process was stalled in India until June this year due to domestic politics.