16 June 2015

Homeless, no longer

June 16, 2015

Neither accepted by Bangladesh nor India for 40-odd years, the enclave dwellers can now finally pick a nation. Mehboob Jeelani visited a chitt and found a people deeply hopeful that belonging to India might finally give them the identity they need to survive

On May 7, a day after India and Bangladesh signed the historic Land Boundary Agreement, the residents of Mosaldanga, a hamlet in south Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, marched down the main market. Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Long Live Mother India)”, they shouted, waving the Indian flag. As the parade entered the neighbouring village of Battala, it was blocked by a group of men wielding long bamboo sticks. “They asked us if we have permission to step on Indian land,” said Jayanal Abidin, 25, who was leading the procession.

Mr. Abidin and his people in Mosaldanga are among the 50,000 stateless people of East Bangladesh who, after India’s independence, got cut off from both East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and India, confined to fragments of land belonging to neither country. In an accident of geography, about 51 parcels of Bangladeshi land stayed on the Indian side, known as Bangladeshi enclaves, but with all roads leading to Bangladesh either fenced with concertina wires or guarded by the Border Security Force. And across the border, Bangladesh was left with 111 enclaves with Indian citizens and no access to India.

After four decades of dithering, the conundrum has been finally resolved, with enclave dwellers on both sides now allowed to choose which of the two countries they want to belong to. On the Indian side, the Bangladeshis have decided to become Indian citizens. They consider this a milestone of “freedom” and worth a thousand celebrations.

It was this sense of freedom that Mr. Abidin and his friends were celebrating in Battala village. They told the Battala men that the enclaves would soon be recognised as part of India, and its people would be considered Indians, so there was no need for any permission to rejoice. But the Battala men were in no mood to listen. “They said, ‘go back or we [will] beat you,” Mr. Abidin recalled.

The Mosaldanga group didn’t, however, pay heed to the threats. They regrouped in the village and danced to the drumbeats all through the afternoon. But as dusk fell, the protestors from Battala entered Mosaldanga with knives and sticks, beat up the revellers, and set a house on fire.

But, much to everyone’s surprise, the police arrived — the first-ever intervention made by an Indian law enforcement agency in a Bangladeshi enclave — and arrested an attacker immediately. They are currently searching for five more persons suspected to have been involved in the rampage.

Prior to the agreement, the Indian government viewed the enclaves as foreign territories, where Indian law was inapplicable and where criminals settled for years to evade police arrests. The police’s appearance in Mosaldanga this time sent out a strong message to the residents that the law had finally been established in the enclaves. For the first time, these stateless people today feel that they belong to India and India belongs to them.

The transition from being Bangladeshi to embracing an Indian identity will dismantle several oppressive structures that bred the lawlessness. Drug dealers who sold their marijuana in both Indian and Bangladeshi markets; local contractors who smuggled the enclave’s teenagers to Delhi and Mumbai for cheap labour; or Sarpanchs of Indian Panchayats who passed biased judgments on property disputes — all of this will end.

Political and economic players

Indian citizenship will make the enclave’s residents equal players in the local politics and economy.

The political workers of the Trinamool Congress and the All India Forward Bloc have already sensed the shift. They have started canvassing support in the enclaves, promising to build everything from scratch for the new citizens. All 51 enclaves will soon merge with the electoral constituencies adjacent to them, and their votes will be game-changers in legislative and gram panchayat elections, where victories are often decided by small margins.

With the sudden influx of political activism, the community is wondering if it should support a traditional political group or float its own party. The budding state-enclave relationship is empowering, and will help the enclave residents negotiate their rights with the people who have exploited them for decades.

But it’s hard to foresee that change taking place smoothly: the violence in Mosaldanga is evidence of the fact that the people who illicitly benefited from the enclaves are enraged and peace will not be granted so quickly.

On a rainy Thursday morning, a group of middle-aged men in lungis sat in a huddle under a rusty metal roof in Nalgram, another Bangladeshi enclave in east Cooch Behar. They chain-smoked beedis and crushed tobacco in their palms. Several cows wandered by on long halters. A woman in a pink saree fetched water from a hand pump. In the absence of piped drinking water, the people of Nalgram use groundwater.

The mood was jubilant. “We want to congratulate Mamata Banarjee and Narendra Modi,” Rasidar Mian, a 50-year-old farmer, who seemed to be the unofficial leader of the group, said. “We are very happy that we are becoming Indians very soon.”

More men assembled around Mr. Mian to narrate their stories of suppression. Mushtaq Ali, 38, explained the ordeal of studying as a stateless student. “My father has bribed so many people to get me enrolled in school and college,” Mr. Ali said. “I’m the first graduate of my chitt[enclave] but that doesn’t mean anything. I am still ineligible for a job.”

Mr. Ali graduated in 2010 in political science. The same year he passed an examination for the post of bus conductor in the government’s transportation department. Like most enclave dwellers, Mr. Ali acquired a voter ID, a unique identification number (Aadhaar card), and a driving licence by bribing the local Indian authorities. He submitted all the documents in the transportation department as proof of Indian citizenship. But the Panchayat of the neighbouring Indian village came to know about it, and “the Sarpanch told them that I was a Bangladeshi and got my named removed from the list,” said Mr. Ali.

Finding ways to establish an Indian identity hasn’t been restricted to students. In the last decade, the younger generation in the enclave has tried hard to buy property on Indian territory, so that the sale agreement documents can be used as proof of their Indian identity, allowing them to marry Indian women. Without this, finding a match was difficult. In the winter of 2010, 32-year-old Abdul Rehman of Karola enclave got ready in a groom’s finer. He was to marry a girl in the neighbouring Indian village of Nadina. The bride’s family welcomed Mr. Rehman and his companions with a delicious meal. Before approving the vows of consent, though, the cleric crosschecked Mr. Rehman’s name, parentage and address. Mr. Rehman felt it would be inauspicious to lie about his identity, so he confessed that he was from a Bangladeshichitt. The bride’s father simply cancelled the wedding and asked Mr. Rehman and his companions to leave.

“As we walked out, everyone [from the bride’s side] said things like ‘we will never send our daughter to that jungle,’” Mr. Rehman recalled.

The women in the enclaves are just as hard up for marriage partners. In fact, they fare worse. The men in their community prefer marrying outside — it is a trend, a status booster. “We are compelled to pay huge dowries to get our girls married to Indian men,” said Mr. Rehman. As a result, a large number of people in the enclaves are reeling under debt. Many farmers have mortgaged their agricultural land. Many of them have uncleared debts dating back to the early 2000s. Every year, their landlords, the moneylenders, take 70 per cent of the production, leaving them with two or three gunnybags of rice.

It is in the absence of governance that an informal economy, aimed at exploiting the enclaves, materialised. It has been largely run by Indians from the villages that encircle the enclaves. From small grocery shops, which even have charging slots for cell phones because the enclaves don’t have electricity, to a big cattle and labour smuggling industry, the enclaves are a haven for exploitative entrepreneurs. “It costs Rs. 5 to charge one cell phone here,” said Jamal Sheikh, 20, from Mosaldanga. “There are about 200 cell phones in this enclave and we charge them twice a week.”

Similarly, the middlemen sell the farmers’ rice and jute to Indian merchants for a massive commission. Contractors take Rs. 1,000 per person to smuggle them to big cities as cheap labour. Agents charge Rs. 5,000 for an original voter ID and Rs. 500 for a fake one. For every small step, there is an agent to go through. It’s hard to know whether these exploitative forces will vanish after the enclaves join the Indian mainstream, or whether they will realign themselves to the new reality.

Hidden voters

Diptiman Sengupta, a social activist from Dinhata distict, is watching the developments closely. Mr. Sengupta has worked for the rights of enclave dwellers, just as his father Dipak Sengupta, a former MLA of Dinhata from Forward Bloc, did. Mr. Sengupta said 3,000-odd “hidden votes” were issued by local politicians to the enclave people, in order to bolster their voter base. “The politicians promised them [hidden voters] jobs. But after the elections, they refused to recognise them. We thought about this vote bank and decided, ‘let’s have them vote for a candidate who’s an Indian but lives in an enclave’”.

Mr. Sengupta found Mayamana Khatun, an Indian who’s married to an enclave resident, and pitched her as a candidate in the legislative elections of 2011 from Dinhata constituency. “She lost the elections but she proved that she was able to turn around [the results of] four-five gram panchayats,” he said. “She got 3,500 votes, which is enough to destroy any [assembly-level] politician.”

Through Ms. Khatun’s electoral advance, Mr. Sengupta earned some degree of power. He utilised it by lobbying the politicians to gather support to “Indianise” the enclaves. “I told them we will support you in the next elections if you convince the Chief Minister to support us,” he said. By 2014, the West Bengal Chief Minister had changed her stance, from being critical of merging the enclaves with the Indian mainland, she endorsed the settlement bill passed by the Indian Parliament in May 2015.

On June 6, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina signed the historic deal. The government has now signed contracts for laying roads, drainage systems, and building hospitals and schools. An initial investment of Rs. 174.98 crore has been charted out. In addition, existing government schemes for housing, sanitation and agriculture are set to be implemented shortly.

And this is where politics comes into play, Mr. Sengupta worries. As the enclaves will be run by the Panchayats close to them, he thinks their unity is likely to be challenged. “The politicians may divide the people on the basis of religion and caste while misappropriating funds,” he said. When asked if the Mosaldanga violence had anything to do with local politics, Mr. Sengupta said: “I don’t think so. I think it’s too early to jump to any conclusion. I would say some miscreants did it.”

© The Hindu

No comments: