Ballot route to beat statelessness

Assembly Elections 2011: Residents of Bangladeshi enclaves to vote in WB

Some dwellers of Moshaldanga at an election meeting.

March 29, 2010, changed all that. That day, the birth of a boy to Shahjahan Sheikh’s wife Asma Begum at the Nazirhat public health centre was the beginning of the people of Moshaldanga, a Bangladeshi enclave in Indian territory, to make a citizenship claim over the Indian state.

On April 18, 2011, Billal, Shahjahan and Asma, among thousands of others here, would turn rebels and force a fait accompli on the Indian government and pose a significant challenge to the mainstream political parties contesting the West Bengal Assembly elections from Monday.

An enclave is a portion of one state completely surrounded by the territory of another state. On both sides of the India-Bangladesh border, there are 185 enclaves (111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh and 74 Bangladeshi enclaves on Indian territory). Of the 74 Bangladeshi enclaves, 39 are in the Dinhata sub-division of Cooch Behar district.

Unifying identity

The enclaves, or ‘chhitmahal’ in local parlance, are ‘geographical curiosities.’ And the people living in these enclaves  are stateless, not claimed by either New Delhi or Dhaka.
But for Moshaldanga’s 15,000 dwellers, statelessness has become a unifying identity.
“Tomorrow we will exercise our franchise, even though we know that the voters’ identity cards we possess were procured by foul means. At times, we used the names of fictitious fathers, or gave the address of our in-laws since we had married into Indian households,” said Billal.

The purpose of obtaining a voter’s identity card was to lay claim to Indian citizenship since, as Nausher Mian, another Moshaldanga dweller, said, it accrued several benefits. “We have nothing. No education because our children cannot get admission in schools on Indian territory, no presence of administration, either Indian or Bangladeshi, no power because we cannot hook the overhead cables which pass over our chit and no access to healthcare,” said Ibrahim Sheikh, a farmer.

In March last year, the Bharat-Bangladesh Enclaves Exchange Co-ordination Committee (BBEECC), a Dinhata-based organisation spearheading a movement for the absorption of people living in Bangladeshi and Indian enclaves as citizens of the states they live in, ‘used’ Asma Begum’s pregnancy as a means to force the birth of her son as an Indian citizen on Indian soil – in Nazirhat, barely a kilometre away from here.

“We wanted to prove a point. We gave Asma Begum’s address as Moshaldanga No 3 Enclave, Bangladesh, and did not change it even though the local administration threatened arrests under the Indian Foreigner’s Act, 1956,” said BBEECC joint secretary Diptiman Sengupta.

“Forcing the birth of the baby in an Indian hospital was a symbolic and a singular achievement on the part of the enclave dwellers who pine to be citizens of either India or Bangladesh,” Sengupta said, fully aware of the problems associated with state sovereignty and international law.

Guerrilla war

Amid intense political activity, the BBEECC set up its own candidate, Maimana Khatun, an Indian Muslim married to a Bangladeshi enclave dweller. Sengupta described the struggle of the people of Moshaldanga as a guerrilla war, but “within a democratic system and democratic means... Even if we manage to win a few thousand votes, it will be a gain since these people have nothing to lose.”

Mohammad Tota Mian of Middle Moshaldanga pointed out that “life in Bangladesh is bleak.” According to him “where there is no enjoyment of rights, there is no life.”
With that objective in mind Tota Mian and the other dwellers of Moshaldanga will fan out in different polling booths in Indian territory to cast their votes – for the first time in 64 years after the Partition -- alongside Chitta Das who lives in an Indian enclave on Bangladesh territory.

It is in these polling booths that the people of Moshaldanga will take the first baby steps to realise their citizenship dreams. “The results that will be declared on May 13 will be a measure of that collective dream,” Sengupta said.

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