India Finally Clears Up Some Cartographic Confusion: Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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On Sept. 7, many Indians awoke to find that their country had just become smaller -- by about 40 square kilometers (15.4 square miles). A long-neglected episode of postcolonial cartographic confusion, lasting several decades and affecting the lives of at least 50,000 "stateless citizens" of India and its eastern neighbor Bangladesh, had at long last been resolved by the prime ministers of the two countries.

For several decades, India and Bangladesh had shared not only a fairly porous 4,156 kilometer-long (2,582 miles) border stretching across forests, rivers, marshes and fields, but also, remarkably, borders within each other's territories in the form of little pockets of land called "enclaves." These neighborhoods (locally called "chitmahals") were, in the 18th and 19th centuries, part of princely states in the region previously known as Cooch Behar. When south Asia was parceled into nations in 1946-1947, the states were assimilated by India and what was then East Pakistan, leaving behind little dribbles and specks of their holdings on either side of the newly drawn border. For decades, the inhabitants of the chitmahals, which range in size from entire villages to small hamlets of a few dozen people, lived in a surreal world of two nations and no state. They sometimes transgressed a national border when they crossed the road or visited a neighbor, but were unable to access education and health care because they were ringed on all sides by a country that wasn't theirs, even as their own nation was helpless to reach them.

The new pact between the countries, signed in Dhaka by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, grants Indian citizenship to the residents of Bangladeshi enclaves in India and Bangladeshi citizenship to the inhabitants of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh. This rationalization of territorial seepage meant that India acquired about 30 square kilometers of new land and ceded about 70 square kilometers. This led to protests about the overall loss of territory, as if these things were purely mathematical matters independent of human dilemmas. It also meant that the entire border between the countries, the fifth-longest in the world, was now demarcated to the satisfaction of both parties.

India Today reported:

India and Bangladesh inked a historic pact on Tuesday to exchange 162 enclaves, resolving a 64-year-old boundary demarcation problem.

According to a recent headcount conducted jointly by both sides, the total population in the enclaves is 51,000. The headcount revealed that 34,000 people resided in the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and there were 17,000 inhabitants in the latter's enclaves.

The pact signed by Singh allows residents of an Indian enclave in Bangladesh to seek local citizenship once the area becomes a part of Bangladesh. Such inhabitants also have the right to return to their original country from which they will be allotted land.

The plight of the residents of the enclaves, and the arbitrariness and perversity of the categories of citizenship and nationhood that defined their lives, were acutely captured by Madhuparna Das of the Indian Express. Journeying to the Bangladeshi enclave of Mashaldanga the day before the accord was signed, Das reported:

Half red and half tricolour flags [a composite of the flags of Bangladesh and India] flutter at every corner in villages inside Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves located in each other’s territories along the border. Along with the flags, there are banners with a slogan that reads: “Hoy nagarikatwa, nai mrityu (either citizenship or death)”. A slogan that sums up the mood in these villages as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Dhaka to ink an agreement on the exchange of these enclaves.

When asked which country the flags represent, 16-year-old Bilkish Khatun said, “We do not know which country we belong to. We do not know what our identity is. So, we have made these flags to show our pain...we are living in no-man’s land for the last six decades. This flag represents half Bangladesh and half India.”

Bilkish has to go to school in an Indian village with a fake identity card as she — a resident of a Bangladeshi enclave — is not allowed to study in an Indian school. “We do not want to survive in this way... We cannot live like thieves day in day out,” she added.

And in a longer essay over the weekend called "Two Nations, New Citizens," Das offered more stories of the difficulties faced by the inhabitants of Mashaldanga:

Few children from the village go to school and residents live in fear of their children being booked for crossing into Indian territory. A few hundred metres away, Indian and Bangladeshi border guards patrol on either side. In this village of 6,000 people, only four have passed their class X final examinations, getting false identities to study in Indian schools.

Mashaldanga’s residents have another problem—few people from outside their village are willing to marry them. Rasheda Biwi, 35, a midwife, was an Indian citizen before she married Bellal Hussain, a resident of Mashaldanga. “In our area, no resident of an Indian village will marry a man or a woman who is from a chitmahal (enclave). Only if a family is very poor, will they marry their daughter to someone from an enclave in exchange for a bride price,” says Rasheda.

Earlier this year, the Economist's blog on Asia, Banyan, had an excellent post called "The Land That Maps Forgot":

Those of us who keep an eye out for anomalies in the world’s maps have long held a fond regard for what might be called Greater Bengal. A crazed array of boundaries cuts Bangladesh out of the cloth of easternmost India, before slicing up the surrounding Himalayan area and India’s north-east into most of a dozen jagged mini-states. But the crème de la crème, for a student of bizarre geography, is to be found floating along the northern edge of Bangladesh’s border with India.

Surreally, [the enclaves] include about two dozen counter-enclaves (enclaves within enclaves), as well as the world’s only counter-counter enclave—a patch of Bangladesh that is surrounded by Indian territory…itself surrounded by Bangladeshi territory.

And, taking stock of what India stood to gain from the resolution of these disputes, the writer of the post continued:

For India’s governing Congress party, making a gift of land to Bangladesh [...] will not come easy. During a time of ideological waffle, it is an issue which India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can use to flaunt its nationalistic (oftentimes pro-Hindu, ie anti-Muslim) credentials and to attack Congress at a weak spot—its perceived softness towards illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, most of them Muslims. By many estimates, more than 15m illegal migrants have entered India from Bangladesh since 1971. The BJP has been trotting out the round figure of 20m for years.

Meanwhile, construction of a border fence, 2.5m high, on India’s 4,100km border with Bangladesh, the world’s fifth-longest (due to all its zigging and zagging), continues unabated. It is a bloody border, too. Indian soldiers enforce a shoot-to-kill order against Bangladeshi migrants caught making their mundane way from one side of the line to the other.

But what’s in it for India? Its broader desire to clarify its fuzzy borders with all its neighbours provides one attraction. The dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir has eluded resolution. China’s claim of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh remains an open sore. Drawing one steady borderline in the east looks comparatively easy.

The agreement over the exchange of enclaves was among a list of measures -- including the cutting of duties on many Bangladeshi imports into India, especially textiles -- that were approved at the Dhaka meeting. If there was one black mark on the negotiations, though, it was the failure of the two countries to reach an understanding on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta River, long a subject of dispute. That, in turn could have opened up other mutually advantageous connections, such as the formation of a transit corridor across Bangladesh that would allow India better access to the remote and economically backward states of its northeastern region. These are connected to the rest of the country only through a narrow channel of land called the Siliguri corridor, which snakes between Nepal and Bangladesh, and is no more than 40 kilometers wide.

Taking stock of the negotiations in the Deccan Chronicle, Srinath Raghavan remarked:

All of this reflects a convergence of strategic views in New Delhi and Dhaka. India realises that its emergence as a global player hinges on its ability to manage its relations with neighbours. This can best be done by pushing for closer economic ties, even if it requires unilateral concessions, coupled with sustained political engagement. Bangladesh recognises both the unprecedented opportunity presented by India’s economic growth for its own developmental aspirations and the futility of a confrontational course.

[...] India’s exports to Bangladesh in the fiscal year 2010-11 stood at $4,570 million while its imports from Bangladesh amounted to $512 million. If anything India could go even further in giving Bangladeshi goods freer access to its markets.

There clearly is plenty of room for further engagement and economic cooperation between the countries, which for four decades have done little to leverage this potential. For the moment, though, the belated application of the spirit of justice to the quirks of history means that at least the inhabitants of the chitmahals can heave a sigh of relief, and look forward to a more settled life in their old neighborhoods and new countries.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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