For decades, more than 50,000 people have been stranded, without access to basic rights, on tiny islands of no-man’s land locked within India and Bangladesh. 2015 finally saw an end to these enclaves, or ‘chitmahals,’ bringing hope and change to communities living on the world’s most complex border.
The party lasted long into the night across remote patches of northern Bangladesh. As the clock struck midnight people played music, danced and sang using candles for light, and for the first time in their villages they raised a national flag. Similar events were also taking place on the other side of the border in India just a stone’s throw away.
For 68 years, ever since the formation of East Pakistan in 1947 (which later became known as Bangladesh), the residents of one of the world’s greatest geographical border oddities have been waiting for this moment; for their chance to finally become part of the country that has surrounded yet eluded them for so many years.
At 12.01am on July 31st, 2015, India and Bangladesh finally exchanged 162 tracts of land — 111 inside Bangladesh and 51 inside India.
Known in geographical terms as enclaves, or locally as chitmahals, these areas can most easily be described as sovereign pieces of land completely surrounded by another, entirely different, sovereign nation.
Enclaves aren’t as rare as you may think, and until now this part of South Asia has contained the vast majority. Existing around the world, mostly in Europe and the former Soviet Union, they were once much more prevalent — until modern day cartography and accurately defined borders eliminated many. Some still remain, such as the Belgium town of Baarle-Hertog, which is full of Dutch territory. The locals have turned the unusual border into a tourist attraction. However, for this region of southern Asia, where political and religious tensions run high, the existence of enclaves is not so jovial. Life for those who are from these areas is far harder than in neighbouring villages, only minutes away.
“These enclaves are officially recognised by each state, but remain un-administered because of their discontinuous geography. Enclave residents are often described as “stateless” in that they live in zones outside of official administration — since officials of one country cannot cross a sovereign frontier into administered territory,” explains Jason Cons, a Research Assistant Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and author of the forthcoming book, ‘Sensitive Space: Fragmented Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border.’
Several folktales tell of the origin of these enclaves being the stakes in a game of chess between two feuding maharajas in the 18th century, or even the result of a drunken British officer who spilt spots of ink on the map he drew during partition in 1947. Captivating as these stories are, the most likely explanation dates back to 1711 when a peace treaty was signed between the feuding Maharajah of Coch Behar and the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. After the treaty their respective armies retained and controlled areas of land, where the local people had to pay tax to the respective ruler, thus creating pockets of land controlled by different people.
Prior to 1947, when this region was entirely Indian territory, living in these locally-controlled enclaves made little difference. However, during the drawing of the boundary between India and Bangladesh, the Maharajah of Coch Behar asked to join India — on the condition that he retain all his land, including that inside the newly formed East Pakistan, which his ancestors had rightly won control of over 200 years ago.
So, through no fault of their own, the lives of 50,000 people turned upside down — for decades they have been stranded on islands of no-man’s land.
During the early 1970s a framework to find a solution to this problem was put in place — called the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. For forty years, as governments came and went, neither the Indian nor the Bangladeshi politicians were able to agree with their counterparts at the time. And whilst the politicians squabbled, the residents suffered.
On the ground there are no border fences or security checkpoints, and without realising it, you can walk in and out of India countless times, crossing an international boundary completely obliviously. However, there is a serious lack of infrastructure and this has been one of the most serious problems facing the residents. Paved roads quite literally stop at the boundaries to the chitmahals, as do electricity poles. The enclave inhabitants in Debiganj District of Bangladesh, as non-Bangladeshi citizens, were even barred from sending their children to school, also receiving no state assistance or even the most basic of hospital treatment.
Wearing just a lungi — a traditional sarong worn around the waist — Sri Ajit Memo is sitting in the middle of a small muddy courtyard, surrounded by houses made of bamboo and jute sticks. At 55 years old, his family have lived in a Dhoholakhagrabari chitmahal for generations. Chewing on the twig of a certain tree that locals here use as an alternative to toothpaste, he explains, “All kinds of problems exist here. The government doesn’t care about us, or our children, and so it’s very difficult for them to even go to school. Honestly, we are Indian, but how can we feel this way when we get no help from them?”
For enclave dwellers on both sides of the Indian-Bangladeshi border, the entitlement to receive even the most basic of rights has eluded them.
Reece Jones, an Associate Professor in Political Geography at the University of Hawai’i Manoa, who has visited many chitmahals on both sides of the border, explains further, “After decades in this situation many people have found ways around it through bribes to officials or through friends who helped them to obtain the documents they needed, such as school enrolment forms for their children. However, the situation was not stable or secure. They were extremely vulnerable to theft and violence because the police had no jurisdiction in the enclaves.”
Today, after decades left living in limbo in these randomly placed no-man’s lands, around 47,000 people on the Bangladeshi side and some 14,000 on the Indian side have finally been given the right make a choice: stay where they have lived for generations with official citizenship of the country that will absorb them, or return to their country of origin.
None of the residents living in Bangladeshi enclaves within India asked to return to Bangladesh and as a result they will now all become Indian citizens. However, on the other side of the border in Bangladesh, whilst the vast majority of the Indian enclave dwellers decided to stay and become Bangladeshi citizens, 979 people requested to return to India. For these families, the enclave saga has yet to end.
Of those 979 individuals, a total of 406 come from Debiganj district. In 2011, a team of Indian officials visited every home in every enclave in Bangladesh and produced the first ever detailed census of all those living within the Indian enclaves. This report formed the basis of all subsequent decisions on the status of each person living in the enclaves.
Several months after my visit to document the enclaves during the final days of their existence, those who had chosen to leave for India finally crossed the border, leaving their homes in Bangladesh forever. In India they were given land and began the process of integrating into Indian society. Those who chose to stay behind in Bangladesh also started to receive such basic rights as eligibility to vote and access to health care.
Let us hope that after decades of struggle on these isolated political islands, the lives of these ex-enclaves dwellers can begin to reach some level of normalcy. In the end, after so many years of uncertainty, the world’s strangest border region has now become a thing of the past.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Luke Duggleby is a British freelance documentary and travel photographer living in Bangkok.