At the stroke of midnight, 14,214 citizens of Bangladesh, who had been residing in 51 enclaves within India, became Indians. It's an independence that has come late, but arrived nonetheless.
The tricolour was unfurled in these enclaves, at half-mast because India is mourning former President APJ Abdul Kalam. At the same time, 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh merged with that country. Of the 37,000 living there, 979 have opted to move to India, allaying fears of a huge transfer of population when the historic Land Boundary Agreement became operative and both countries redrew their boundary maps along north Bengal. No one from the Bangladeshi enclaves in India has chosen to cross over. The total number of new Indian citizens will be 15,193. The swap will be completed by November.
Asgar Ali, a 100-year-old man from the oldest Bangladeshi enclave here, had been waiting for years for this dream to come true. "Allah wanted me to see this day. Now I can die in peace in India, as an Indian. In 1956, Moshaldanga was engulfed in strife and I had gone over to Bangladesh. In 15 years, war broke out there and I returned to Moshaldanga," Asgar recounted haltingly. "It has been painful since. We had no access to schools or hospitals and enclave dwellers were even arrested for stepping out on the road. Now, there will be no restrictions, people here will not be treated as outcasts," he said.
The Cooch Behar administration has arranged temporary camps to accommodate the 900-odd enclave dwellers who have opted to come over to India. But what about land for these new residents? Forward Bloc MLA from Dinhata Udayan Guha was confident that land won't be a problem. "There are many people in Bangladesh who had land in the Bangladeshi enclaves on the Indian side. Now the government may acquire the land and distribute them among the new settlers," Guha said.
But before all that, the Centre has to make an official gazette notification incorporating the new territory in India. Soon after the Indian Posts will give these areas a pin code. In time the people will get Aadhar cards, ration cards and the Pradhan Mantri Sadak Yojana will connect them with the mainland.
Despite all the excitement of the merger, there was an undercurrent of uncertainty. Dinhata SDO Krishnabha Ghosh said people would be temporarily issued multiple entry visas to allow them visitation rights to the country whose nationality they have opted for. This creates a paradox for people whose land - on average 0.39 acres per head - is now geographically in Bangladesh. It makes their land records registered in the sub-registry in Dinhata redundant.
That's not all. In a move that has come under fire from several rights bodies, people were being allowed to revise their nationality options a second time. The deadline for this expired at 5pm on Friday. This was following demands from a section of people who, either by obtaining fake documents or impersonation, have already obtained Indian citizenship certificates, like ration cards etc. This enabled them to go to Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi to work as migrant labour. Their absence at the time of the census ensured their names figure nowhere.
But the move to give them time to select options drew criticism. "One has to draw a line somewhere. It isn't about the census alone," said Diptiman Sengupta, the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee convenor. "We had personally gone to homes urging people to register themselves as Bangladeshi. But in some homes, they told us they'd lose their fraudulent BPL cards if they did. So they had to be left out."
Land, sources say, is turning out to be another potential flashpoint. Apparently, for the next six months the Cooch Behar district administration has embargoed any land sale. Formally, 7,110 acres of land are set to be added to India, in addition to 2,777 acres that are part of the adverse possessions -- a portion of territory that is contiguous to India's border and within Indian control, but which is legally part of Bangladesh. TOI had also highlighted a curious case of cross-land holding in the Bangladeshi enclaves, where Indians own vast tracts of land.
Cooch Behar's Trinamool Congress MP Renuka Sinha feels it will take days, if not months, to resolve these complex issues. "The state and the Centre have agreed to a quantum of the rehabilitation package (an estimated Rs 3,008 crore). There is an information vacuum now, hopefully the knots will be untied," Sinha said.
Diptiman, whose BBEECC will cease to exist from August 9, feels, "The only way the problem can be resolved in the coming days is by declaring these newly acquired areas as reserved areas. And that will be our first demand."
All this does not confuse Asgar Ali though. "Being Indian gives us a sense of hope. My grandchildren will now study like other Indian children in government schools; my daughters will be taken to an Indian hospital at childbirth; we'll have electricity at home," he says. "And I will become part of history."
Source: Times of India