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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.

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US Was Temporary Stop for Many Venezuelans; Now it’s Home

Helene Villalonga speaks during an interview at AMAVEX INC., an organization she founded that helps reunify migrant families and victims of domestic violence find shelter, in Doral, Fla., March 12, 2018. VOA

Helene Villalonga decided she had to get out of Venezuela for a while when two men, one brandishing a gun, showed up at her party rental business and told her to stop working for local politicians opposed to then-President Hugo Chavez.

Villalonga put a sign in the window of her business that said “closed for vacation” and set off with her two youngest children to the U.S., figuring she would be gone a few weeks.

But it hasn’t worked out like she expected. The weeks turned into months and then years. As Venezuela started a massive downward spiral, she and many other Venezuelans put down deeper roots in the U.S.

In a demographic trend that has political and economic implications back in their South American country, a growing number say they may never return.

“I would like to return to Venezuela like it was, but that place doesn’t exist anymore,” said Villalonga, a Florida resident who has helped organize voting among her fellow exiles. “I’ll never see it now.”

This is a profound shift. Venezuelans used to typically come to the U.S. to visit or study. Their country offered its more fortunate citizens a lifestyle and economy that was better than virtually anywhere else in Latin America. Its people visited Florida to go shopping and see Disneyworld like tourists from Europe, and then they went home.

But more recent arrivals are starting to acknowledge a bitter reality: Conditions in the South American country have forced many to conclude that their future is overseas. “It is beyond what anyone ever imagined,” said Veronica Huerta, a 57-year-old in Miami who fled in 2003. “To go back now would be very hard.”

For Villalonga, it was gradual process. The men came into her business in Valencia in 2000, asking for her by name and making sure she could see one was armed. After she left the country, her husband was attacked in the street and soon joined her in South Florida with their third child.

A woman holds a placard that reads “No more hunger. Stop. Change. Out Maduro Out” — a reference to President Nicolas Maduro — during a gathering of opposition supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, March 17, 2018. VOA

The situation in Venezuela, meanwhile, only got worse. Chavez died and was replaced by his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro. The government grew increasingly authoritarian, the economy spiraled downward, and crime rose, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. It’s gotten so bad that hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing across the borders of neighboring Brazil and Colombia, some saying they barely had enough to eat in Venezuela.

A fearful Villalonga never went back, even for important family milestones like the death of her brother.

People who study immigrant trends in the United States say the Venezuelans harken back to the Cubans who fled the 1959 revolution and the upheaval that followed.

In this Aug. 27, 1994 file photo, U.S. Coast Guard crew from the cutter Staten Island are hindered by rough seas in the Florida Straits as they attempt to rescue Cuban refugees. VOA

“The initial wave of Cubans that came to the United States when Fidel Castro came to power had hopes to return to Cuba soon at some point when Fidel Castro was no longer in power,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center. The Venezuelan story “is an echo” of their experience.

Unlike those fleeing to other South American countries, the Venezuelans who have come to the U.S. tend to be from the middle and upper classes, and their departures have had economic repercussions in their homeland. Many homes in Venezuela are empty and real estate prices have collapsed, marking a change from years prior when people would preserve wealth in the face of hyper-inflation by investing in property.

There are political consequences as well. Expatriates had been a small, but influential force in past elections. Villalonga helped mobilize three buses with 180 people to vote in the presidential elections of 2013, which they had to do in New Orleans because Chavez closed the Miami consulate to punish the opposition-dominated expat community. She’s not planning to do that for this year’s upcoming presidential election because she doesn’t feel represented by opposition leaders and doesn’t see the point of getting involved.

She’s not alone. With Maduro expected to triumph over divided and dispirited opponents, enthusiasm among overseas voters overall appears to have declined.

Supporters gather at Diego Ibarra Square to listen Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speak after a ceremony formalizing his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election, in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 27, 2018. VOA

“I don’t think our vote will make any difference at this point,” said Elvira Ojeda, a 45-year-old business owner who came in 2011. “The energy is gone.”

Various polls have shown that about 10 percent of the electorate, or between 1 million to 2 million people, are outside the country. The Venezuelan government says it projects only about 100,000 will take part in overseas voting for May elections.

“While it’s true that the vote of the diaspora is essential, in this election it won’t amount to anything,” said Moises Rendon, a public policy analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There’s a sense of frustration in the exile community, as there is in Venezuelan society in general, that there is no way out of the situation.”

The Venezuelan population in the United States has more than doubled over the past decade to about 366,000 as of 2016, according to the census, with about half in Florida. More than three-quarters of the total came after Chavez took office. The number of Venezuelans seeking political asylum in the U.S. doubled last year to 28,000, a figure that is five times as much as in 2015.

Their presence has been felt most strongly in the South Florida suburbs of Doral and Weston, communities where it’s common to find the red, blue and yellow of the Venezuelan flag. People from Venezuela regularly feature near the top of the list of foreign property buyers in the Miami area as they seek safe havens for their capital and put down roots. A local association of Venezuelan lawyers now has about 200 members, up from 10 founders in 2013. Membership at the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce has doubled to more than 300.

Venezuelan-born Cristina Pocaterra says it is hard to imagine going back to the country. She came for what she thought would be a temporary work assignment in 1999 and ended up becoming a naturalized citizen in 2014 and giving birth to twins. She is trying to get her 74-year-old mother to join her. “Those of us who left had to do so in order to develop,” said the 54-year-old business consultant. “Now, I don’t have anything concrete left in Venezuela.”

Those who have chosen to stay in the U.S. find ties only deepen as more time passes. Villalonga, now 48, and her husband eventually became citizens and had two more children. One of their kids is now in college and another is considering joining the military. Her husband manages a family-owned moving company. Villalonga is active in helping migrants and victims of domestic violence through her nonprofit organization. And her mother came to help with their kids 10 years ago, married an American and stayed.

“I have my life here now,” she said. VOA