New Delhi, India

Thousands of ethnic Bengalis living near the Bangladesh-India border have for decades found themselves citizens of one nation but bound within the sovereign territory of another. In recent months they have escalated their campaign for a land swap that will align their citizenship with cartography.

After independence from Britain in 1947, the territory was divided along religious lines, with Hindu communities going to India's West Bengal State and Muslim pockets joining what is now Bangladesh.

But the division was not clean, resulting in 162 land parcels that became part of one country while remaining within the borders of the other. Today they form a mostly destitute patchwork of 120 square kilometers of villages whose inhabitants are largely neglected by both governments, say locals.

There are no roads, only dirt trails in Dashiar Chara, one of 111 communities nominally governed by Indian law, but enveloped by Bangladesh's northern Rangpur division.

It is a village without electricity, only the occasional kerosene lamp. In the marketplace, a few store owners have managed to procure solar panels with the cooperation of neighboring non-enclave Bangladeshis.

"No roads, no electricity, no hospitals or schools, nothing. It is like living in the middle of a jungle," said Mohammad Shafiat Ali.


Known to cartographers as "enclaves", there are another 51 of these border anomalies governed by Bangladesh's government, but located in India's southernmost Cooch Behar District, according to a joint census conducted by the Bangladeshi and Indian governments in July 2011.

Some residents are lobbying for a land swap: transfer Indian enclaves within Bangladesh for Bangladeshi pockets in India. In 1994, a group formed an enclave exchange committee with representatives from each community.

"We are campaigning for Bangladeshi citizenship," said Mohammad Altaf Hossain, from Dashiar Chara, whose 8,000 residents are nominally Indian citizens, but in reality have few links with India.

"Both countries are claiming [their enclaves] as sovereign territory, but accessing the enclaves [for government officials] means getting permission from the other country [where the enclave is located], so there is no real access," said Diptiman Sengupta, the joint secretary of the enclave exchange committee.

For permission to leave the enclave and enter Bangladeshi territory, a resident of an Indian enclave needs a visa and passport from mainland India - but that requires crossing Bangladeshi territory.

"We can't go back and forth between here and India. Anyway, all our daily interactions, all our trade, are with Bangladesh," said Hossain, describing how enclave residents live and work in a perpetual state of illegality.


Indian citizens in Bangladesh are often forced to provide false information to Bangladeshi officials to conduct business, send their children to school or receive medical care nearby, said Mizanur Rahman, a 34-year-old farmer from Dashiar Chara and a father of two.

Duplicity is at the core of an enclave-dweller's existence, he said.

"The most shameful thing, the most offensive thing, is that when one of us goes to do our pilgrimage in Mecca, we have to give fake addresses for our passports. We have to lie to perform Hajj. How can we ask for Allah's blessing for our Hajj when the first thing we do is lie?"

A neighbor, Mohammad Shafiat Ali, spoke of his constant fear of encountering police. "People are always nervous when they go outside."

"If the police stop you for something, they ask you 'Where's your home?' If you give your real address, they know you're Indian and trespassing, and they can harass you or extort you, or even beat you."

"What can we do?" he shrugs. "We can't do anything to the police. If I go tomorrow with people to file a complaint, they'll arrest us all for trespassing."

Mizanur Rahman (not related to the farmer), chairman of the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission, said such arrests were not general practice.

"Unfortunately corruption is an ingrained part of our society, which we are trying hard to fight. But these are isolated incidents."

Widespread or not, says Hossain, residents feel the impact. "We are captives here. We are like birds in a cage."

Manoj Kumar Mohapatra, the First Secretary at the Indian embassy in Dhaka, told IRIN both governments were committed to finding a solution. He said a new border, a precursor to any eventual land swap, was agreed in September 2011 and would be implemented "as soon as possible".

Agreements have been brokered in the past, but have yet to be enforced.

However, experts say both governments are now showing honest intentions towards settling the stalemate.

A solution cannot come too soon for the farmer, Rahman. "I want my little boy and girl to be able to move around, to be able to live and study like all Bangladeshis. This is my dream. Right now we are being given hope by the leaders of the two countries that they will resolve the issue by winter [January-February]. If they do, we will have a new life gifted to us."


- Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.


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