August 5 is a beautifully gloomy day — it has rained all morning, the sky is still overcast and the grey emphasises the green of the paddy fields spread out as far as the eye can see. However, the residents of Paschim Moshaldanga, a hamlet of 28 houses, are anything but gloomy. They are celebrating their freedom from a life of fear and falsehood — and relishing the sudden attention from the media worldwide.
Until July 31 this year, Paschim Moshaldanga was one of the 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India, all of them dotting the rural extremes of Cooch Behar district in West Bengal. Bangladesh did not have access to them, India ignored them. Their residents — poor, hardworking peasants had been stranded in a >no-man’s land ever since the Partition of India in 1947 .
If they’ve managed to live through the seven decades as non-entities, that’s largely because of the human instinct for survival and sometimes kindness shown by relatives living on the Indian side. The kindness usually came in the form of false address proofs, forged identity proofs and illegal power supply, without which they would have remained deprived of basic necessities in life.
But as July melted into August at the stroke of midnight, these pockets formally dissolved into India; simultaneously, 111 Indian >enclaves in Bangladesh merged into that country. The long-pending land swap, ratified by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina on June 6, finally gave their residents national identities.
“We have finally got independence, we can now move around freely, talk freely,” says Kadam Sheikh (36), a resident of Paschim Moshaldanga, who often spends months together away from home, working as a construction labourer in cities such as Gurgaon, Noida, Amritsar and Dehradun.
“I got myself a fake voter ID card because there is always the fear of getting arrested as an illegal migrant when I go to work in those places,” says Sheikh, sitting under a rain-washed tree along with his neighbours. “But the card is of no help to my children because it shows my age as 25, whereas my daughter is 19 and son is 17. Hopefully I will get a new card now — a genuine one.”
His neighbour Jamal Sheikh (55) says: “We had to use fake names, fake addresses for every little thing — sending children to school, getting treatment in a government hospital, earning a living. They would send us away if they came to know we are from a chhit .”
Chhit literally means drops or specks in Bengali, and is the term used locally, and quite aptly, to describe the enclaves. Even though the chhits have been totally ignored by India all these decades, they have relied entirely on India for survival, especially the Nazirhat market in Dinhata sub-division of Cooch Behar, where they sell their produce and also shop for their daily needs — from salt to clothes. Venturing too far from Cooch Behar always came with the risk of getting arrested, something that Amir Hossain learned the hard way.
One night in 2006, Hossain (now 60) and four fellow residents of Paschim Moshaldanga reached Nazirhat on their way to the New Cooch Behar railway station to board a train to Dehradun — they expected to find work as labourers in the capital of Uttarakhand, which was witnessing a boom in construction activity at the time — when they were picked up by personnel from the Border Security Force (BSF).
He recalls: “The train was at two in the morning, and we were picked up around 10 at night. We were brought to the Digaltari Camp” — very close to Moshaldanga, and which I happened to visit earlier in the day — “and beaten up all night. The next morning, they handed us over to the local police. Our crime: we had train tickets but no IDs. We spent 26 days in jail before we got bail, thanks to our relatives living on the Indian side.”
“How were you treated in jail?” I ask him.
“Wait, this is only the beginning of the story. After we were out on bail, the case went on for two years, and finally in 2008, the magistrate sent us to jail for two years and fined us Rs. 10,000 each. Failure to pay the fine meant an additional two months in prison. We spent three days in Dinhata jail, then four days in Cooch Behar jail, then 17 months in Jalpaiguri central jail, and then 19 months in the new jail at Alipurduar. That adds up to three years!” says Hossain.
“Are you happy that you are now a part of India?”
“Happy? That’s an understatement. There is no limit to my happiness!” exclaims Hossain.
The poor in India, as it is, have very little rights. For people in the chhits, their poverty was compounded by their statelessness. It wasn’t their fault that they were born in the chhits; they were born in lands where their father and grandfathers were born, only that those lands became uncared-for flecks on the wrong side of the border.
“There, that’s my house,” Mohammad Naushad Ali (55) points to a tin structure at a distance, “do you see two graves just outside the house?”
I do spot two graves, a tarpaulin covering them as protection from rain.
“That’s where my parents are buried,” says Naushad Ali, “we have no other place to go?”
Graves in their own homes are a constant reminder of death, apart from the burden of an identity-less life.
National identities of their own
How did the chhits come into existence in the first place? The joke is that a drunk British officer, while drawing the Radcliffe Line on the map spilled ink on either side of the border and those drops became the enclaves. Sir Cyril Radcliffe may not have had a hand in their creation at all.
Locals say the enclaves were the outcome of chess games played between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Mughal Governor of bordering Rangpur in the 18th century. After the Partition, when Cooch Behar joined India, the ownership of some pieces of land remained with zamindars across the border; likewise, the papers of many pieces of land in East Pakistan remained with zamindars in Cooch Behar — that’s how, the locals believe, the enclaves were born.
“Whenever they sat down to play, they would put the most fertile lands in their territories at stake. If you get the soil tested, you will find the chhits to be more fertile than other lands,” Diptiman Sengupta, chief coordinator of the >Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Movement, an NGO, had told me earlier in the day when I called on him at his home in Dinhata.
Diptiman’s father, Dipak Sengupta, a Forward Bloc MLA who died in 2009, was sensitive to the plight of those living in the enclaves and would frequently write to those in power presenting their problems. “It was on the day of his shraddho (the 13th day ritual) that I realised the kind of following he had among the people living in the chhits. We were expecting 10,000 people but 18,000 turned up. At the time I had a job with an MNC and was earning Rs. 7.5 lakh per annum, which was not a joke. But that day I decide to take the plunge and started this movement,” says Diptiman (now 45).
His organisation, made up of members from both sides of the border, carried out a census in the enclaves in 2011 — a measure that, he says, created awareness about the pockets. “Until then people didn’t even know that the chhits were inhabited,” he says.
Diptiman sees the ratification of the land swap as a victory for his organisation and the residents of the enclaves see him as a hero, evident from the steady stream of chhit -residents visiting his home in spite of the rain. They all wanted to know what the future holds for them. “Getting citizenship should be your first priority,” he told one visitor after the other, sometimes rebuking them, “everything else comes later.”
Chhit -residents have been asked to choose between Indian and Bangladeshi nationalities and relocate accordingly. While those living on the Indian side of the border — a little over 14,000 people — are all staying back, nearly 1,000 of the 37,000 living in Indian enclaves have chosen to come to India.
In Paschim Moshaldanga, where I was sitting under a tree with about a dozen of its residents, relief ruled over anxiety. “This place was like a prison. We lived like prisoners in our own land. Now we are free,” says Amir Hossain, the man who spent three years in jail for not possessing an ID.
As I left, someone pressed two boxes into my hand. When I opened them in the car, I found each containing a samosa and a rossogolla . “They are village-made, you must eat them,” the driver tells me.
Also in the car was Bashar Sheikh (31), who had hopped in just because he liked the idea of taking a ride with us. His trouser was torn and a few inches of his outer thigh remained exposed: either he hadn’t noticed it or didn’t have a choice.
“I worked in Noida for a few months, at a construction site. Then one day my landlord asked me ID proof and I had none. He asked me to leave. Now I do odd jobs in the farms here,” he told me.
“Odd jobs such as?”
“Mostly driving the tractor. The other day I took a tractor out to Cooch Behar for repairs. The police stopped me and asked me for licence. Now how do I produce a licence? They let me off after I paid them Rs. 600.”
“Are you married?” I asked him.
“Yes. My wife is from the Indian side.”
“Her parents agreed to marry her off to someone living in a chhit ?”
“The thing is, her family is even poorer than us. One day the elders got together and told her parents, Chhele ta bhalo, biye diye dao [he is a good boy, let your daughter marry him].”
We stopped next at Madhya Moshaldanga, yet another [former] enclave, where young men were about to leave, on their motorbikes, for Potarkuti, yet another former enclave about 25 km away that was hosting an ‘independence’ function.
I asked one of them, Joynal Abedin, how he got his bike. “This is my uncle’s bike. He lives on the Indian side, and is right now posted in Delhi,” said Joynal (23), a third year BA student at Dewanhat College in Cooch Behar.
“How did you get admission in the college?”
“I had to give a fake address. But for the past couple of years I have been publicising the fact that I live in a chhit . Is it a crime to live in a chhit ?”
I sat on a cot — overseeing a vast expanse of paddy fields, brilliantly illuminated by the sun that has finally shown up — along with Asgar Ali, who gave his age as 106 years. “I was born in Mymensingh (in Bangladesh) and my father moved here when I was nine or ten years old. All my life I have been a farmer.”
“You must have seen a lot in your life. Do you remember anything, such as the Partition?”
“All I remember is that Jinnah and Gandhi divided the country. I am 106, how do you expect me to remember old things?”
“How do you feel, now that Moshaldanga is part of India?”
“I will die any day now, how does it matter to me. But my children will see better times — that’s the only consolation.”