Saturday, July 18, 2015

Life in the Enclaves and the Land Boundary Agreement: A Long Overdue Solution

Parvin Sultana

India and Bangladesh shared a peculiar history of enclaves. It is a long twisted tale of certain areas finding themselves in trans-territorial setting. Enclaves are fragments of one country totally surrounded by another. The trans-territorial setting means an area being geographically located in one country but politically and legally belonging to another. While the world does not have too many enclaves at present, the most well known ones are the Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog enclaves  Belgium and the Netherlands respectively. While the Belgium –Dutch enclaves are only 30 in number, there were 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India.

The situation within the enclaves has always been grim. Ever since independence and the partition that followed, the enclave dwellers numbering around 50,000 have been languishing in a situation of statelessness. While theoretically they are citizens of one country or the other, in practical terms they are not given the basic amenities which are supposed to be part and parcel of citizenship rights.

Being surrounded by the territory of another country, to travel to their home state, people have to cross international borders and take necessary permission for doing so. Along with this, due to the absence of access to the home country the people have been systematically denied of basic amenities. They are practically prisoners in these enclaves as they cannot procure documents required for travelling to their so-called motherland.

Regarding the formation of enclaves, local legends hold that these enclaves were pawns in a game of chess between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Fauzdar of Rangpur. They wagered villages from their respective domains in the game. When one lost a part of his area, he gave up control over these land islands. In this process, the enclaves were created. However, a more plausible explanation according to Brendan R Whyte is that the enclaves were a result of a number of treaties signed in 1713 by the Mughals and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar which gave the control of some lands in Mughal territory to Cooch Behar chiefs. This 1713 treaty is regarded as the beginning of the enclave problem.
While the princely state of Cooch Behar merged with India in 1950, the enclave problem of Cooch Behar became the problem of India and East Pakistan. With the formation of Bangladesh, it became an Indo- Bangladesh problem. What accentuated this problem is the pathetic condition of the enclave dwellers. They live in a stateless limbo. Their lives have become a resultant of historical and geographical anomaly.

To drive home the absurdity of their situation, for many across the footpath from home is a different country. They are physically the inhabitants of one country while their so called ‘allegiance’ is to another. They are the citizens of no country in practical terms. The villages do without basic public services like electricity and roads. Their children are denied education due to unavailability of required documents. Many are forced to forge documents to send their children to school. They have no right to vote. Without identity documents they are vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment for being illegal immigrants.

The problem of enclave dwellers began with the introduction of passports and visas in 1952. They lost their limited mobility and were allowed to pass through only designated check points. They ran the risk of being arrested for not carrying passport while crossing the international border. As the enclave dwellers had no voting rights, both India and Bangladesh lost interest in their cause.  

The terrible story of enclave dwellers has pointed to the nullification of the enclave residents’ citizenship because of their trans-territorial setting. While the enclave dwellers are excluded from the state judicial system and citizenship rights, they are subject to the host country’s law and mechanisms of exploitation. Vulnerabilities of enclave dwellers abound. There is no mechanism to regulate rape and murder cases. The enclave dwellers have no birth certificate, national ID card, passport or access to any state facilities including electricity, policing, schools and hospitals. Enclave life is entirely dependent on the benevolence of the host country for economic, health and educational facilities.  

The life of the enclave dweller is subject to law but is unprotected by the law. They are left invisible in the eyes of the state. State machinery is present as a punitive force in these enclaves but never as an agent of development. During the bird flu epidemic of 2009, poultry owners whose chickens were destroyed were compensated. But this benefit was not extended to the enclaves. However border guards often enter these enclaves to catch anti-social elements who use this area as a hideout.

Most of these enclaves have no tube wells, no medical facilities, no markets, no water. The residents travel to the neighbouring country to buy and sell things and hence risk themselves being caught. Unemployment was high in the enclaves as getting job without documents is next to impossible.

Neither India nor Bangladesh have institutionalized their legitimate sovereignty in these enclaves. Administrative absence in the enclaves deprives residents from their due citizenship rights. There is a lack of law and order. In case of violation of rights of one, justice is rarely done. While enclave dwellers suffered from exclusion and exploitation of various kinds, the worst victimized are the female enclave residents.

Female enclave residents are victims of certain gender-specific traumatic experiences besides the general experience of a life of exclusion and exploitation. They are abandoned from all kinds of citizenship rights, human rights and are denied specific health needs in maternity. They are also abandoned from any legal rights. The state of lawlessness not only situates life as unworthy in a nation state but also enhances sexual violence and private patriarchy. Public forms of patriarchy involve degradation from citizenship when women from the host country get married to men living in the enclaves. Women face health hazards on a daily basis. The risk of maternal mortality and stillborn in enclaves is increased manifolds.

The enclave situation simmered for a long time. Political compulsions often pushed this problem to the backburner. Bangladesh had more Indian enclaves. Any talk of land swap meant India and Bangladesh would give up their claims on the area of enclaves within their territories. This meant India would have to give up claim on more land. This did not go down well with states like Assam and West Bengal. Another aspect of the Land Swap Deal was to give option to the enclave dwellers on choosing their country. They could accept the citizenship of the host country or move to their home country. Hence the residents of Indian enclaves could travel to mainland India and be given Indian citizenship. Many showed concern that this would pave way for illegal immigrants to move into India. This was accentuated by the fact that the question of illegal immigration continues to be an important one in the political discourse of northeast.

The logical solution of exchanging enclaves continued to be in the backburner of the tumultuous Indo-Pakistan relationship. This simple issue became intractable. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Feroze Khan Noon did arrive at an agreement in as early as 1958. But the 1965 Indo-Pak war made it impossible for the two countries to go ahead with the treaty. However after the formation of Bangladesh with an active support from India, a solution to the enclave problem seemed possible. A chance came in 1974 and the Indira- Mujib Agreement talked of a swap of enclaves. While the agreement was ratified by the Parliament of Bangladesh, it became a victim of internal politics which pushed the law into a limbo.

Another opportunity came with the Dhaka Agreement of 2011. It included minute details about the swap. However the BJP, then in opposition, opposed this bill dismissing the plight of the enclave dwellers. For mere reason of scoring brownie points, BJP opposed this bill tooth and nail in the Parliament. It quoted ambiguous reasons for doing so by saying that everyone, from the Indian Security Force to farmers are in the dark about the agreement. 119 amendments introduced by the Manmohan Singh government failed to take the opposition on board in addressing this humanitarian issue.

BJP conveniently played up the panic of sub-nationalist groups like All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) that Land Swap Deal would mean Assam losing land. However many have pointed out the need of such a treaty to address the problems of enclave dwellers. The land that Assam and West Bengal was scared of losing is already inaccessible to the Indian government without permission from the Bangladesh government. Rather land swap deal would give the country access to enclaves of Bangladesh which are territorially situated within India.

Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) is the first step to addressing other problems of the Indo-Bangladesh border. Better trade relations, transport corridors, Look East policy would be difficult without the support of the Bangladesh government. BJP once in power decided to go ahead with the same deal which it thwarted in 2011. A solution long overdue, the Land Boundary Agreement is expected to let the enclave dwellers live with dignity. Concerns for domestic politics overlooked the humanitarian crisis that enclave dwellers faced for almost seven decades. As opposed to the concern of many, it is unlikely that once enclaves are dissolved, the enclave dwellers will move to their home country. Having lived their lives in the host country, many preferred staying there along with a renewed hope of citizenship and a life not marked by deprivation on every sphere.

While the passage of the bill and the signing of the treaty have a potential to address the problems of enclave dwellers after all these years, the unnecessary delay showed how political parties undermined the problems of enclave dwellers in front of electoral compulsions. The real test of the LBA will lie in how far it can help in regulation of Indo-Bangladesh border and in turn help in a realistic evaluation of the influx situation. This is important so that people belonging to particular cultural stock are not demonized as ‘infiltrators’ and ‘potential foreigners’.

Like most other problems of the region, a genuine crisis failed to get notice of the governments at the centre for close to seven decades. A humanitarian crisis was undermined by concerns of the emotive issue of losing land which was not even accessible in the first place and concerns of national security. The region continued to be seen through the prism of national security. And the utterly long delay in signing the Land Boundary Agreement further re-entrenched this fact. 


1.    Shewly, Hosna J. “Abandoned spaces and bare life in the enclaves of the India- Bangladesh border”, Political Geography, Vol 32 (2013).
2.      “41 Years in the Making”,  The Indian Express, May 12, 2015.
3.      Bhattacharya, Ananya. “India- Bangladesh enclaves: Life in the islands on land”, Daily O, May 30, 2015.
4.      Daniyal, Shoaib. “ India- Bangla Land Swap: was the world’s strangest border created by a game of chess?”,,  May 8, 2015.
5.      “Breakthrough in India- Bangladesh ties”, The Hindu, May 11, 2015.
6.      “A settlement long overdue”, The Hindu, August 13, 2013.
7.      “At India-Bangladesh Border, Living in Both and Neither”, The New York Times, Oct 9, 2011.

The author is Assistant Professor at Goalpara College, Gauhati University, Assam.

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