He's a real nowhere man/Sitting in his Nowhere Land/Making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Doesn't have a point of view/Knows not where he's going to/Isn't he a bit like you and me?- The Beatles
“Please don’t ask me what happened on the night of October 16, 2010. On that fateful night, hundreds of houses in my village of Garati were burnt down to ashes. I was just returning to my village after my day's work at a doctor’s pharmacy in the district town of Panchgarh in Bangladesh. I saw my brother Joshim Miyan’s house being torched. I was frantically shouting out the names of my brother, cousins and other family members. No one replied. Everyone was crying out the names of their own family members, people were running helter skelter for shelter. I ran too, I had to save myself. I don’t know how long I ran for. Someone told me all houses in my village were gutted and that Bangladeshi miscreants were roaming around with firearms. I did not have any clue about my two brothers and my old parents. People were running towards their agricultural fields with their children to escape the marauding miscreants. I took shelter on an open road in Bangladesh like some other villagers, we waited for dawn to arrive. It was a horrible night,” says Hamidul Miyan. Hamidul is a resident of Garati village, which is one of the Indian enclaves within Bangladesh.
An enclave is a geographical territory which is completely surrounded by foreign land.
It is locally called chitmahal. “Chit” means a fragment and “Mahal” means land. Chitmahals are enclaves which are geographically separated from the mainland but still pay revenue to it.
Hamidul has come just on the other side of the Kurshahat border gate in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal with two other affected villagers from Garati, Asraful and Sirajul, to meet this reporter. They wanted to come to India to demand justice for the people of the Indian enclaves. But the Border Security Force (BSF) and the state administration will not allow them to come into India.
Hamidul is aghast at being treated as a foreigner even after 64 years of Independence. “It is very painful to live in the enclaves. We have no identity, we are neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. It is my own land but I can’t claim it, parents cannot fix marriages for their daughters, we can't apply for proper jobs. Tell me what will we do? Who is responsible for us leading lives led by prisoners,” asks the angry young man.
Hamidul is 28 years old, his father Samsul Miyan has been a resident of Garati from the pre-Independence times. Hamidul is known as a medic in his village. Actually, he is a helper of a doctor in Panchgarh, Bangladesh. He passed his 10th standard from a Bangladeshi school. It is very difficult for people of chitmahals to get access to education. They have to persuade Bangladeshi families to let them use their names as their parents for admission in Bangladeshi schools.
The mob, which torched and vandalised several houses inside the Indian enclave in Panchagarh district of Bangladesh, apparently did so in retaliation of the alleged killing of a Bangladeshi criminal, Ramjan Ali, on October 15.
Diptimaan Sengupta, assistant secretary of “Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Committee (BBEEC), told TSI, “We are working to spread awareness among people in enclaves on both sides of the border to stop illegal activities. You know, some miscreants take shelter in the enclave after the crime as the local administration can’t enter the foreign land. We have had reasonable success and crime in the enclaves has stooped to an all-time low.”
Sengupta continues, “That’s why the enclave people denied shelter to Ramjan Ali, a known Bangladeshi anti-social. Ramjan and his group then attacked the Garati people with arms. Now hundreds of people are living under the open sky, they have lost everything. We appealed to the West Bengal state administration to send relief material. They have sent some but not in sufficient quantity. The people from the Bangladeshi enclaves are also lending their helping hand to the people of Garati.”
BBEEC has just started a census in the Indo-Bangla enclaves, a first since 64 years of Independence. According to the organisation, the census report, apart from finding out the exact number of affected people, will also bring out the social problems, the economic situation and the health conditions of the people so that they can appeal for help of both the Indian and the Bangladeshi governments.
“We are extremely sympathetic to the problems of the people in the enclaves, people who are living in Bangladeshi enclaves in India and those who are living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh. The people of Indian enclaves can’t come to India easily because they have to cross Bangladeshi area. So, they need permission from both the countries. After the Garati incident, we have sent relief materials to the affected people through BSF and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR),” are the kind words of Smaraki Mahapatra, the district magistrate of Cooch Behar.
Things have started looking up for residents of Bangladeshi enclaves in India. “For the last two years, we are not treated as badly as before. Now if we need to see a doctor, we can go to the Indian mainland for treatment. Two years back, this was just impossible, the police would arrest us immediately but thanks to BBEEC's intervention, a lot have changed,” says Saheb Ali, a resident of the Bangladeshi enclave of Puaatur Kutir within the district of Cooch Behar. Currently, Saheb is busy collecting relief materials from Bangladeshi enclaves to help the Garati Indian enclave people. According to him, people of the enclaves on both sides are suffering the same situation and an acute identity crisis.
According to an Oxfam study conducted back in 2002, there were 1,50,000 people in the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh. As many as 50,000 people migrated to the Indian mainland as they were evicted from the enclaves. Thus, hundreds of thousands of people are living as stateless along the Indo-Bangla border. Lack of political will to find an effective and permanent solution has made their lives more miserable than ever before.
Available sources indicate that 92 Bangladesh enclaves exist within India. The number of Indian enclaves within Bangladesh stands at 111. After the partition of India in 1947, Cooch Behar district was merged with India and Rangpur went to then East Pakistan which became Bangladesh in 1971. After the formation of Bangladesh, New Delhi and Dhaka signed an agreement in 1974 demarcating the land boundary between the countries. According to that, both the countries agreed to exchange the enclaves or at least provide each other easy access to the enclaves. But very little has materialised ever since. The people of the enclaves on both sides have been demanding corridors connecting their respective enclaves with the mainland. They think since India and Bangladesh are friendly countries, ordinary people should not face discrimination or harassment.
“The current estimate of the number of stateless people is about 15 million all over the world and a large number of them are Bengalis living in the enclaves on both sides of the Indo-Bangla border. We want immediate intervention of the relevant authorities to solve the problem,” says a passionate Sengupta.
Mahapatra conceded that residents on both sides have demanded merger of their enclaves with the host nations or at least easy access to each other's mainland territory. But since these matters are much beyond the purview of a district magistrate and rest with the respective Central governments, she could not elaborate on what follow-up actions have been taken on these demands.
Unlike The Beatles' nowhere man, the saga of these men and women is not so romantic and escapist. Their lives are hard, there is no yellow submarine to ride. Their nights are cold and no one wants to hold their hands.