Friday, 31 July 2015

Home for the Nowhere People

Prabuddha Neogi writes from a Bangladeshi enclave that will be part of mainland India at the stroke of midnight tonight

Jalpaiguri: The road that leads to 74-year old Gaffar Mollah’s ramshackle tea stall, from the edge of the Panchanai enclave in Salbari of Jalpaiguri’s Madarihat, is a pedestrian’s worst nightmare. It has potholes that resemble craters on the moon. The condition of the road hasn’t changed since 1969 when Mollah, wife and two sons in tow, crossed over to India from Bangladesh in search of a better livelihood. He already had one of his cousins settled in Panchanai. Mollah set up a tarpaulin shade to shelter his family at the back of his cousin’s one-room mud hut.

“Both in India and Bangladesh, governments came and went, and we only received promises,” says Mollah who has no faith in the political machinery and still doesn’t believe that he’ll be Indian from today midnight. “I’ll believe it only if my situation changes for the better,” he says.


A Bangladeshi official at an Indian enclave
Like Mollah, 14,855 other people living in the 51 Bangladeshi chhitmahals (enclaves) in India, will have a homeland from tomorrow after being stateless for nearly seven decades. On the other side of the barbed wire, 979 of the 37,360 people living in 111 Indian enclaves, will cross over to India at the stroke of midnight tonight.

The Bangladeshi enclaves, mostly in Cooch Behar and a few in Jalpaiguri, have witnessed joyous celebrations over the past few days. Children were spotted running on paddy field dividers with Indian flags. One of them, Sohrabuddin Hossain, said: “My father says that we won’t need fake certificates anymore for studying in Indian schools. Our villages will finally have electricity and drinking water and get the rural schemes of the Indian government.” 

But a good degree of tension is also palpable among the enclave people on this side of the border. The uneasiness is about their prospective neighbours who have applied for Indian citizenship from Bangladesh. “There could be criminals, trying to enter India, taking advantage of the exchange of population,” Mollah says.

None in the Bangladeshi enclaves in India have applied for a citizenship in that country. There are, however, alleged reports that local politicians and toughs in Bangladesh are trying to prevent people from going to India. “It’s better if they don’t come. None here have any Bangladesh left in them,” Mollah says.  

A senior Indian official of the Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee said: “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 them are hardcore Jamaat-e-Islami activists.”


Concrete pillars are often used to demarcate the Bangladeshi enclaves
The Indian administration hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility of smugglers and criminals sneaking into the country. No comprehensive background check has been carried out on those who want to cross over, admitted a local government official to WebPressClub.

But that hasn’t deterred the people from preparing the celebrations. The Indian flag is already flying high in all the 51 enclaves on this side of the border. “We are not bothered about who is coming from Bangladesh. Things can only get better for us from here,” says Tufan Khan, a second generation enclave dweller while overseeing the setting up of a temporary dais for the celebrations. 

But the once-Bangladeshi people know for certain that their living condition is not going to change overnight. “The paperwork will take time and we are unlikely to get the benefits of merging with mainland India soon,” Mollah says.

Development, for him, begins with the conversion of the potholed road to his tea stall to a metalled one.   
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The writer is the chief editor of WebPressClub