01 January 1970

Geographical Quirks Of History

Weekend Reads

Geographical Quirks Of History

Puneet Kundal writes about how enclaves and exclaves have evolved over the centuries in different parts of the world, including in India.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The ongoing Israel-Hamas War has thrown up the words enclaves and exclaves into the daily lexicon, but what do these mean? Historical, geographical, and political factors have created territories for many countries that are far from their main landmass and become exclaves for that country. These sometimes are completely surrounded by another country and thus become enclaves. 

Having your territory surrounded by another country or having territory far away obviously leads to peculiarities and complex administrative, political, economic and humanitarian issues.

Enclaves, exclaves exist in India

The Union Territory of Puducherry comprises four unconnected districts. Puducherry and Karaikal districts are enclaves within Tamil Nadu while Mahe is located inside Kerala and Yanam is enclaved within Andhra Pradesh. 

The unique situation of Pondicherry —as it was called— also helped in the Indian Freedom movement. Being French territory, leaders like Subramanyam Bharti and Sri Aurobindo located themselves there and inspired the Indian freedom movement against the British.

Issues resolved with Bangladesh 

At the time of partition in 1947, there were 51 Indian enclaves in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and 111 East Pakistani enclaves in India. East Pakistan itself was an exclave, separated from West Pakistan by 1,600 km of Indian territory. 

The popular belief is that these enclaves were created when the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Nawab of Rangpur while playing chess staked each other’s villages, gardens, and properties. Some of these enclaves also emerged due to a series of peace treaties between Cooch Behar and the Mughal Empire between 1711-13. Whatever the reason, it led to the creation of land parcels belonging to Cooch Behar surrounded by East Pakistan and land parcels belonging to Rangpur surrounded by Cooch Behar. The residents of these enclaves lived through 300 years of changes of sovereignty from local rulers and Mughals to the British and then to India and East Pakistan which was liberated to become Bangladesh. 

A complicated exchange between India and Bangladesh happened in 2015 which alleviated the sufferings of these enclave dwellers. Under the exchange, that allowed people to move, Bangladeshi enclaves located in India became Indian territory and 14,863 residents became Indian citizens, while Indian enclaves located in Bangladesh went under Bangladeshi sovereignty and 37,532 residents became Bangladeshi citizens — also, 989 residents from Indian enclaves in Bangladesh chose to move to India.  

Europe has a land border with Africa 

Europe and Africa are separated by the Mediterranean Sea. However, in Morocco there exist two Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on its Mediterranean coast. The exclaves trace their origins to the Reconquista —the period of about 710-1492 AD— when Christian kingdoms expanded over the Iberian Peninsula fighting the existing Muslim rulers. 

Ceuta, which had been taken over by the Portuguese in 1415, was transferred to Spain under the Treaty of Lisbon of 1668 while Melilla came under Spanish rule in 1497. These exclaves continue to be a part of Spain and form the European Union’s land borders with Africa.

Europe has them too 

The European continent still has parcels of land that are under the control of other countries. Kaliningrad Oblast is a Russian exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania and is separated from the main territory of Russia by over 4,600 km. Then, there is also the town of Llivia, 13 sq km with 1,300 inhabitants, which is a Spanish exclave surrounded by French territory and separated from the rest of Spain by a corridor about 1.6 km wide. 

There are more but a particularly unique situation exists between Belgium and the Netherlands. The village of Baarle, though located in the Netherlands, is divided into a patchwork of Belgian and Dutch territories. The reason dates back to medieval times when parcels of land were divided between two aristocratic families. This was further complicated by the split of the Netherlands and Belgium in 1830. Today, there are 22 Belgian exclaves in the Netherlands and three other parcels that lie on the Dutch-Belgian border. To compound matters, the largest Belgian exclave has six Dutch enclaves located within it. It leads to a situation in which several buildings straddle both countries. The problem is solved by the ‘front door rule’ that states that the address lies in the country that contains their front door and every house number plaque shows a flag. It works in a borderless EU, but certainly created problems when Belgium and the Netherlands had different regulations during the Covid-19 pandemic! 

The train line that is now a cycling track: 

The Vennbahn, a railway built by the German Prussian State in 1899 to transport coal, iron, steel, and later military supplies in World War I was awarded to Belgium by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The railway slowly fell into disuse and in 2013 was converted into a 125 kms long cycling track that covers three countries from Aachen (Germany) to Troisvierges (Luxembourg) and in between crossing Belgium several times. 

The region has great historic significance. Charlemagne ruled his medieval empire from Aachen, where the Vennbahn begins. Later, Napoleon ordered the construction of a road linking towns that would eventually be connected by the railway. Hitler seized the region and rail line in 1940 and set up ‘dragon's tooth’ concrete barriers to stop the advance of Allied tanks. However, in September 1944, US troops fought their way through and reached Roetgen, which became the first German village liberated during World War II.

Countries as enclaves 

There are three sovereign countries that are land islands, which means they are enclaves completely surrounded by a single country from all sides. 

These countries are Lesotho (surrounded by South Africa), San Marino (surrounded by Italy), and Vatican City (surrounded by Italy). Each of them was created under different circumstances, but exists as a sovereign country, though completely surrounded by another country. 

(Puneet Kundal is an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer working as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.)