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Nowhere People

Land sharks and an apathetic government have left over a lakh of people living in 130 pockets of Indian land, that lie landlocked in Bangladesh, in total disarray.

Nowhere People

BHUPENDRANATH Roy remembers the time vividly. It was an autumn afternoon and he was watching grandchildren play in his sprawling five-acre farm of lush paddy and jute fields and mango and bamboo orchards in Dahalakhagrabari. For a nowhere man like Roy, life had been kind: after all, home was inside one of the 130 pockets of Indian land, referred to as chhits, that lie landlocked within Bangladesh. So Dahalakhagrabari was a geographical nightmare—impossible to administer in absence of any access—inhabited by doomed Indians, left to land sharks and touts. But this septuagenarian landlord had been, somehow, left untouched.

Till the mob descended on his place that afternoon last October. For the next hour or so, the terror-stricken Roy family gaped at the men plundering the farm. For sharks, this land is easy pickings: the nearest Indian police station from Dahalakhagrabari, for example, is 20 km away in Haldibari, a busy north Bengal town of tin-and-concrete homes and hybrid tomato godowns.

So the rampage by the "100-odd bad men, even a few cops" continued till Roy was on his knees. "They told me that if I didn't leave my place, they would cut me to pieces." Next morning, he took a 10-km rickshaw ride to Bhaolaganj, bribed the Bangladesh border guards, dragged himself another 5 km to the Indian side, sobbed out his story to the Border Security Force (BSF), and walked into Haldibari. There, friends and relatives advised him to pull out from his chhit with his family.

For the next three months, Roy and his family, a son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, became refugees in their homeland, living with a friend and on handouts. Then they pooled in some family money, borrowed from others, raised Rs 20,000 to buy a two-bigha plot in the uneven farmlands of Gangduba village in Haldibari. But this is a highland sandy soil plot where paddy doesn't grow, and home is a shabby cluster of two cramped reed-and-thatch huts ringed by a brittle reed fence. Now, son Bhabesh, 38, and daughter-in-law Basanti, 32, keep the homes fires burning, earning Rs 25 a day, working as farm workers and hoping to save up enough money to start cultivating vegetables on their meagre rain-fed plot. "I can't sleep at night," sobs Basanti, "thinking about our home in the chhit, our big pond, the bamboo orchards, the two servants and the good life not so long ago."

The Roys are possibly luckier than the other nowhere people living in chhits: now they can hunt for a ration card, register a complaint with the local thana, expect drinking water and electricity some day and hopefully vote in the next elections. No such luck for over-a-lakh Indians living in the 130 Indian enclaves spread over some 83 sq km along the Indo-Bangladesh border for ages. "It's a shame, a national shame that we haven't been able to do anything for them," says Sailen Chakraborty, the 62-year-old secretary of the Haldibari-based Indian Enclave Refugee Association (IERA), an NGO fighting for their rights and rehabilitation.

It is a shame—and a travesty of the Indian state. The existence of the chhit could have shameful feudal roots: the local lore is that the erstwhile maharajah of Cooch Behar, a north Bengal state, and the zamindar of Rangpur, in what is now Bangladesh, gave away to each other mouzas or clusters of villages as prizes when they lost a game of chess. When Cooch Behar was merged with India in 1949, along came several mouzas from what was then East Pakistan. Local officials, however, trash these legends and offer a more coherent historical explanation: the chhit was probably the result of intermittent warfare between the Cooch Behar rajas and the Mughals in the 16th century. When the Mughals captured large tracts, they were unable to dislodge the ruling family from some pockets which continued to be part of the Cooch Behar domain. The rest became part of the British district of Rangpur. Thus, for centuries, these areas have overlapped. The upshot: 130 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, while another 93 such Bangladeshi enclaves in India.

It is difficult to determine how many people live in the Indian plots. The last census in 1951 showed a population of over 30,000. Five years ago, an estimated 1 lakh people were living there. The IERA, however, says the population has shot up to nearly 2 lakh. They have no schools, dispensaries or power because wires cannot be drawn across foreign territory. The law of the jungle prevails: there were 70 murders in 1993, and houses are gutted regularly as land sharks exploit the lawlessness. (In 1993, 25 families from Indian enclaves entered India after their homes were torched.)

 Intelligence reports suggest that an alarming 40 per cent of land there have been bought by Bangladeshi land sharks posing as Indians. Faking their nationality, they register the land in their names—and, in effect, become illegal dual citizens of both Bangladesh and India. One report says that between January and March last year, there were 50 cases of transfer of ownership of land in the chhits, implying that some 84 acres had changed hands.

Not surprisingly, it's a stick that the state BJP uses in its anti-Bangladeshi drive: the party's share of votes in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri, the two districts along the Indo-Bangladesh border which contain the enclaves, jumped to over 23 per cent in the 1991 assembly polls from less than one per cent in 1982. In 1996, the party still managed to secure over 15 per cent of the popular vote from these two districts despite a Marxist wave.

The apathy of the government to this festering human problem is astounding. A 1958 agreement between Jawaharlal Nehru and then Pakistan prime minister Feroze Khan Noon attempted to resolve the issue. But nothing came of it. Sixteen years later, Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman agreed to exchange the enclaves, but officials found this agreement riddled with "constitutional and legal complications." Last year, the IERA send an SOS to Prime Minister Gujral with a 14-point wishlist for basic amenities—and to push for the exchange agreement. Then there are the cases of at least 1,164 uprooted families from Indian enclaves, farming and quarrying for a living in north Bengal, who await rehabilitation. "There was no response from the PM's office," rues Chakraborty.

Such apathy has meant a lifetime of misery for the residents, and penury and mental breakdown for those who have been forced to leave. Outside her Gangduba hut, Sarojini Roy, 62, howls all day. "She's going mad thinking about her lost home," says husband Bhupendranath. Then he displays a picture album containing happier memories. "Fate has been unkind to us," he mutters. For India's forgotten chhit residents, it must be worse.

(The series on the people untouched by elections is concluded)

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