Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Inhabitants of Bangladeshi Chhitmahals in India

Atig Ghosh

Approximately 200 Indo-Bangladesh enclaves, which are sprinkled along the international border of Rajshahi state, Bangladesh, and Cooch Behar district, West Bengal, are collectively known as chhitmahal or chhit mohol in Bengali and constitute a bizarre political geography. A simple rendition of the chhit mohol as enclaves obfuscates the myriad spatial configurations and strategies that have emerged in the area over 60-odd years since partition. There are, for starters, counter-enclaves; that is, enclaves completely enclosed by another enclave. Shalbari, the second largest Indian enclave, for instance, encloses four Bangladeshi exclaves. There is also a globally-unique counter-counter enclave; the largest Indian exclave, Balapara Khagrabari, embodies one Bangladeshi exclave, Upanchowki Bhajni, which itself embodies an Indian exclave called Dahala Khagrabari, thus making the last one a counter-counter enclave. Then, there existed until very recently arguably the world’s only part-time enclave, Dahagram-Angarpota, which was connected to Bangladesh by the one-acre or tin-bigha corridor. The corridor used to remain open every alternate hour during day and completely closed during night. The Singh-Haseena agreement of September, 2011, however, has opened the corridor permanently, thus conferring the dubious character of a pene-enclave on Dahagram-Angarpota. Pene-enclaves are, however, not unknown to the residents of the area, though they have curiously escaped academic as well as journalistic scrutiny. Kalsi para or simply Kalsi, the Muslim-majority Indian proruption into Bangladesh, for instance, is a pene-enclave of sorts located in Kuchlibari. Though all our respondents pointed out that it is not a chhit or enclave technically, they unanimously concurred that the life conditions there best represented what is normally considered to be life conditions in an enclave. The observation, of course, begs the question whether there are tangible conditions which actually mark out life in an enclave or is it merely a stereotypical reification, imbibed over time and regurgitated conveniently. This study pays special attention to this critical concern.

During colonial times, the people of the enclaves did not face any difficulty graver than those experienced by their mainland counterparts. Sovereignty was not expressed in terms of territorial contiguity as in terms of jurisdiction and tax flows. Even after partition, for some years the old arrangement limped along, though gradual tightening of national territoriality was becoming evident. The apical moment of this territorial closure came in 1952, when the two governments of India and Pakistan agreed to introduce the passport regime. The agreement made no mention of the inhabitants of the enclaves and, as such, they were pushed into a curious situation of government-enforced statelessness. That is, if a person of, say, an Indian enclave in Bangladesh wanted to obtain passport and visa for free movement, she had to illegally trespass into Bangladeshi territory; if the person managed to reach a border outpost undetected, she had to be admitted illegally into Indian territory, for she carried no identification proof, and then travel hundreds of kilometres to the nearest consulate. If all this resulted in the issuance of a passport and a visa, then the person could return to the enclave only till the visa expired. Then she had to repeat the illegal procedure all over again.

The Indian and the Pakistan (later Bangladesh) governments came to a series of understandings to effect the exchange of enclaves. But none ever got beyond paperwork and diplomatic pleasantries. In the meanwhile, the people in the enclaves were confronted with a slew of identity-related options; none of them felicific, but such were the choices. William Van Schendel has identified at least three such self-reckoning strategies of the stateless people of the enclaves. Two of them, he argues, are transterritorial: the enclave-dweller could think of herself as a citizen of the patron state. Conversely, a Bangladeshi Hindu could identify with India and an Indian Muslim could identify with Bangladesh. This he calls ‘proxy citizenship’ which was often induced by the ideological goading of the mainland nation-states. This latter claim however does not fit neatly with evidence collected over time. In fact, Van Schendel himself finds a Muslim interviewee residing in an Indian enclave, Md. Bokhtaruddin, who describes how Pakistan had disowned him and his community after 1947. Suspended in this stateless void, the third available identity-related option was, of course, one of belonging to the enclaves. This is not trans-territorial but locally rooted. However, identity as a claim-making device can only be effective when it has numerical, economic and political teeth. The residents of the enclaves, separated by swathes of foreign, often hostile, territory, with no health, education, civic and administrative guarantees, could hardly make such identity claims effectively.

Add to this the atmosphere of coiled tension that often erupts into violent engagements. It is inarguable that the quantum of violence has dwindled since Bangladesh came into being. However, it has hardly disappeared. For example, in May 2000, a Hindu girl from India eloped with a Muslim youth from South Moshaldanga, a Bangladeshi enclave in India. On May 11, a crowd of Indians entered the enclave and looted five houses. A week later, the enclave was once more invaded by hundreds of Indians who set fire to fifty-five houses, wounded ten people and abducted four, and looted cattle and valuables. The 65-year-old Jitendra Nath Roy of Balapara Khagrabari, the largest Indian enclave in Bangladesh, on the other hand reports, “Bangladeshis used to loot our grain silos and rob our cattle by day. When night fell, we would all go and hide in the forests. When they came to rob us during night, they beat up the men and tortured the women.”

From all accounts, it seems that the quotient of violence perpetrated against the residents of the enclaves was evenly matched in both countries. However, some fieldworkers have told that the Bangladeshis are harsher in their treatment of the stateless population than their Indian counterparts. Now, this is a very dangerous argument to make. But one sees why otherwise perceptive researchers would draw such conclusions. When our researcher reached Kuchlibari in Mekhliganj block, Cooch Behar, prima facie what struck him was the ease and comfort the people of the enclaves radiated. They were very happy in India, they said unanimously. Shambhunath Chowdhury, a resident of the Dhabalsuti Chhit Mirgipur of Bangladesh, declared that if the exchange of enclaves took place following the Singh-Haseena agreement, he will not leave for Bangladesh. He is a shop-owner. Our researcher insisted that they could not be that happy after all, what with statelessness and disenfranchisement. But he would not be budged. “All of us have Indian voter identification cards and ration cards. We are happy here,” he argued. Muhammad Belal Hussain, who has all his land in a Bangladeshi enclave, too echoed Mr Chowdhury. He would not leave.

The examples of xenophobic violence detailed above militate against such jolly instances of belonging. Accepted prima facie and outside their historical context, they may be misguiding. In the case of Dhabalsuti Chhit Mirgipur, for instance, a violent history of forcible expulsion in 1955, one could suggest, may have left only those who wanted to remain, to belong unconditionally. A horde of mainland Hindus had, in 1955, demanded “the blood of Muslims” and driven almost all dissenters into Bangladesh.

The respondents, nevertheless, fear that “those in the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh would come if the exchange happens. The government has promised to settle them. Where will the government settle them? There is no land but that of ours.” The tenuous belonging and wilful oblivion was slipping in face of the proximate possibility of dislocation when suddenly the group as if collectively snapped back into confidence. “But these governments will never reach an agreement; they never have,” they chuckled in self-assurance. Indeed, perhaps their confidence is not irrational. For India, the historical jingoism of the right-wing apart, recently another factor has cropped up to collude against an amicable exchange: the growth of tea gardens in the area. The enclaves, and their attendant instability in national space, have meant that land has been sold dirt cheap here, sometimes at as little as 8000 rupees per acre. Major players like Roshanlal Aggarwal, the Goels and NutriTea have bought land and started plantations. An eco-tourism resort of the GBC Enterprises Limited has come up a stone’s throw away from the Tin-Bigha Corridor which offers leisure walks through tea gardens, a modern saloon and massage parlour! If one provisionally accepts Giorgio Agamben’s (The Coming Community and Means without End: Notes on Politics) contention that attributes a determined character to the state and a determining power to the economic forces of capitalism that conditions particular forms of the state, then the Indian state is unlikely to rip through the tightening tangles of big investment. But, we offer this only as a possible outcome. Who knows, the nation-state may still surprise us.

Questions of statist ambition and quotidian statelessness, global processes and local exigencies, identity and the anamorphic ‘other’, get crosshatched in the fastnesses of the North-Bengal frontier; considerations of borders-in-the-mud get transformed into concern for the boundaries-in-the-mind. The story of statelessness in South Asia ultimately becomes a saga of survival techniques, self-making and, sometimes, strategies of status-quoist solidarity.

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