Making history at midnight: India-Bangladesh end decades-long land dispute

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina/AP Photo
The Indo-Bangladesh border. Photo credit:
The Indo-Bangladesh border. Photo credit:

By Aishwarya Nag Choudhury

Marking the end of a seven-decade long land dispute, India and Bangladesh exchanged tiny enclaves of land at the stroke of midnight on Friday. 51 Bangladeshi border enclaves became a part of India while 111 Indian enclaves became a part of Bangladesh. It was a celebrated event and national flags were hoisted on both sides of the border in all the enclaves.

Relief to locals

The agreement gave identity to over 50,000 people who were stuck in a state-less limbo.

The celebrations kicked off post midnight. Many people lit 68 candles to mark the end of ‘68 years of endless pain and indignity.’ “We were facing lots of problems as we were trapped between India and Bangladesh. We never had any identity proof, we neither belonged to India nor Bangladesh. We faced problems in getting admission to schools, we faced problems going to hospitals. We are very happy now, we are happier than Eid or Durga Puja festivals,” said Ibrahim Sheikh of Coochbehar.

“We are happy that both the governments have solved the problems. Now, we will be able to get our identity cards, Aadhar cards and all that. We will get nationality. We are going to celebrate today,” opined Alamgir Hussain, also living in Coochbehar.

Land, divided

These small pockets of land survived the 1947 partition at the end of the British rule. They also survived the War of Independence against Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh had deliberated over the Land Boundary agreement with India first in 1974 in order to diffuse the pockets, but India signed the final agreement only in June this year after the September 2011 protocol. The final agreement was signed by PM Narendra Modi.

According to the agreement, the governments of the two countries had let the citizens decide which of the two nationalities they want to be a part of. The 51 enclaves of Bangladesh that are to become a part of India cover an area of 7,110.02 acres of land and range over 6.1 kilometres that are to be demarcated as strict border areas. On the other hand, the 111 enclaves that are being transferred from India to Bangladesh cover an area of 17,160.63.

Officials of both the countries conducted a survey asking the residents to choose the nationality they would want. Nearly 1,000 people on the Bangladeshi side wanted to retain their Indian identity. Thus, the former residents of Bangladesh with their new found identity will leave their homes in November to return and get settled in West Bengal.

The relocation is to end on July 20, 2016. Reports say that 37,000 people are staying in the Indian enclaves of Bangladesh while 14,000 people are staying in the Bangladeshi enclaves of India. This historical Land Boundary Agreement was actualised at midnight on July 31st.

“This is nothing less than our independence day,” said 26-year-old Altaf Biswas. The people expect that the merger with India will lessen infrastructural gaps. They would have electricity and no one would have to go to India to charge their mobile phones.

The Bangladeshi students will also benefit from the merger. From now onwards, they would be saved from the hassle of acquiring fake certificates in order to apply to Indian schools. Residents are also looking forward to the government schemes that they wound be entitled to.

Apprehensions abound

However, the story is not all hunky dory. The celebrations are being dulled because of apprehensions about new neighbours.

Photo credit: Getty imahes
Photo credit: Getty images

“We have definite information that at least 16 persons, among the 979 who have applied for relocating to India, have criminal cases against them in Bangladesh. Four of the applicants are hardcore Jamaat-e-Islami members,” Diptiman Sengupta, chief coordinator of Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee, told the media while supervising the nightlong celebrations on Friday.

Furthermore, the villagers said that everything was not fair about the numbers being allowed to relocate. “Many games are being played in Bangladesh to manipulate the list of people who intend to cross over to India with an Indian citizenship,” said 18-year-old Alamgir Hussain.

“Of the 270 persons, who want to come to India from the Indian enclave of Dasiar Char in Bangladesh, many have known links with various smuggling rackets,” added his friend Joynal Abedin.

The story on the Bangladeshi side doesn’t seem to be less complicated either. Among the villagers in Mashal Danga, the landless ones have readily opted to come to India. However, the propertied class is facing problems in getting right prices for their plots and are being forced to stay back. Local land sharks are using this opportunity to acquire properties at meagre prices.

Congress MP and a member of the Rajya Sabha, Pradip Bhattacharya revealed that he had received many complaints about people wanting to relocate being bothered by the local goons. He was of the opinion that this complication will take some time to get solved.

New beginnings

India and Bangladesh have outlined the broad structure of the complex process of re-settlement of movable and immovable property. Both the governments are dedicated to facilitate “orderly, safe and secure passage” along with “personal belongings and movable property.”

The details will be posted in the public domain by the respective administrations.

Despite such problems, the mood in the enclaves of both India and Bangladesh remained largely celebratory on Friday night. The locals were in their best attires, all set to welcome each other at the official ceremony at Madha Mashal Danga. Local children and youth were seen running in open fields with the tri-colour – something they had longed to make their own for decades.