On October 19, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared the Tin Bigha Corridor formally open for 24 hours, heralding the end of nearly 64 years of captivity for its inhabitants. The right to unrestricted movement through the corridor was virtually open from September 8 when the two countries signed an agreement during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh.

For the people of the two tiny Bangladesh enclaves, history recently took a new turn. The iron gates of the Indian corridor connecting them with the mainland will now remain open round the clock.

On October 19, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared the Tin Bigha Corridor formally open for 24 hours, heralding the end of nearly 64 years of captivity for its inhabitants. The right to unrestricted movement through the corridor was virtually open from September 8 when the two countries signed an agreement during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Bangladesh.

Whatever the reasons, it took nearly four decades to see the full implementation of a historic agreement signed between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1974 — three years after Bangladesh emerged on the world map dividing Pakistan with active Indian assistance. Ironically, the signatories could not see the agreement implemented during their lifetime.

Accompanied by senior Ministers, lawmakers and journalists, the Bangladesh leader moved through the Tin Bigha Corridor, a piece of 178x85 square metres, where she was greeted by two Indian Ministers — Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Minister of State for Home Jitendra Singh. Both Bangladeshis and Indians were in a festive mood when Sheikh Hasina crossed the corridor into the enclaves. She was given a rousing reception at the corridor, which wore a new look with festoons and flags of both countries. According to Sheikh Hasina, complete access through the corridor is a great achievement as it has given “our people a new freedom.” Mr. Azad was also jubilant as he said “it is a historic occasion.”

Sheikh Hasina, whose nearly three year-old government is increasingly coming under attack with her political opponents launching a nationwide agitation, highlighting what they call its “complete surrender of national interests to India,” seemed unfazed. “India is a friendly country. We have good relations with them,” she told her audience that had gathered from the enclaves as well as mainland Bangladesh and India. Amid euphoric applause, she said, “you have lived the lives of prisoners for long. Your imprisonment has ended.”

Apparently moved by the joy expressed by the inhabitants, she narrated later at a public rally in Patgram — a border township adjoining West Bengal's Cooch Behar — her government's efforts to resolve the long-standing enclave problem. “It's an achievement of our government,” she said, recalling her father's move in 1974 to ensure the use of the Tin Bigha corridor for the people of the two enclaves.

The issue of enclaves is the result of a hasty and unwise job done by the Boundary Commission led by Sir Cyril Radcliffe in 1947 — the year British India was partitioned. After Bangladesh emerged as an independent country in 1971, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed an agreement aimed at putting into effect the demarcation of boundaries on selected stretches of territory on May 16, 1974. Under the accord, India was supposed to lease in perpetuity to Bangladesh an area of 178x85 square metres in Tin Bigha, to connect the Dahagram-Angapota enclaves to the mainland in exchange for Bangladesh's South Berubari. South Berubari was handed over to India almost instantly but the people in Dahagram-Angarpota remained virtually stateless due to a lack of unfettered access to the mainland.

The handing over of the piece of land was delayed abnormally due to prolonged constitutional and legal controversies in India that resulted in adverse public reaction. On October 7, 1982, the two countries signed another deal which, too, failed to resolve the issue. On June 26, 1992, the people of the two enclaves were able to move through the corridor for six hours a day till June 1996. They were allowed to use the corridor for 12 hours a day between July 1996 and September 2011. But even after getting the 12-hour access, the people remained virtual captives. Most of the children were forced to abandon their education, many died due to a lack of timely health care. The mainlanders refused to even enter into matrimonial relations with the enclave inhabitants.

Naturally, the people of Dahagram-Angorpota were euphoric when they got back their rights and privileges. Sheikh Hasina was accompanied by the former President, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh between 1982 and 1990. “People of the enclaves have got a new life,” remarked the former Army Chief-turned-President, whose Jatiya Party is a partner of the ruling Awami League.

Sheikh Hasina assured the inhabitants that her government would take urgent measures to improve the quality of their lives, and that would happen when new projects in the 18.68-square km area — where 16,000 people have their homes surrounded by India — were implemented. She inaugurated a 10-bed hospital, a union parishad complex, and a power transmission line.

While in the enclaves, surrounded by West Bengal — a stakeholder in the Teesta — the Bangladesh Prime Minister renewed her firm optimism that the deal on water-sharing would be signed. “All issues will be resolved, provided friendly relations exist between the two countries,” she remarked.

After the Indian authorities allowed the iron gates of the Tin Bigha corridor to remain open, Sheikh Hasina became the first head of the government to go there. There was a great expectation that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose last-minute opposition frustrated the Teesta water-sharing deal during Dr. Singh's much-hyped Dhaka visit, would be in Tin Bigha to receive Sheikh Hasina. But the hope was dashed. Ms Banerjee's presence would have provided an opportunity for the two leaders to discuss the Teesta issue, after the missed opportunity in Dhaka.

Asked by journalists of both countries about the transit facility to India, Sheikh Hasina said her government believed in connectivity, and added that the opening of the Tin Bigha Corridor was indicative of good relations.

The two governments, which enjoy a cordial relationship despite the jolt over the failure to sign the Teesta deal, deserve to be credited with taking up the issue of mitigating the sufferings of the people of the 162 enclaves. While the Teesta deal is important to carry forward the warmth, it is also time to complete the final exchange of the enclaves, in accordance with the agreement signed in Dhaka.

Under the protocol signed on September 6, the transfer of enclaves and demarcation of 6.5 km of land boundary between the two countries have been agreed upon. But except the 24-hour access through the Tin Bigha Corridor, not much progress has been achieved on the issue.

A total of 37,000 Indians live in the Bangladesh enclaves while 14,000 Bangladeshis are in the enclaves in India. An early exchange of enclaves in line with the agreement will help resolve the long-standing problems which, over the years, have bred misgivings between the neighbours. It will also address the issue of virtual captivity of those living in the enclaves — caught in the midst of government indifference and suffering for decades for no fault of theirs. Let New Delhi and Dhaka see the issue as humanitarian, rather than territorial.

(The writer, a Bangladesh journalist and author, is at hh1971@gmail.com)

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