The last days of Bangladesh's chitmahals

After decades in limbo, the residents of 162 enclaves must choose a home

After decades in limbo, the residents of 162 enclaves must choose a home
Of the 22 families living in Ponchoki Bhajini village, 20 of them, left, will move to India, while others, right changed their minds and decided to become Bangladeshi citizens.

At one minute past midnight on July 31, India and Bangladesh ended one of the world’s greatest geographical border oddities. As the clock struck, the two countries formally exchanged 162 tracts of land totalling 24,270 acres, 111 inside Bangladesh and 51 inside India. More than 60,000 people living in these remote patches of rice paddy and bamboo groves celebrated well into the night.

After decades languishing in no-man’s lands, around 47,000 people on the Bangladeshi side and some 14,000 on the Indian side were finally given the right to make a choice: stay where they have lived for generations with official citizenship of the country that will absorb them or return to their country of origin.

Sitting in a muddy courtyard surrounded by houses made of bamboo and jute sticks, Sri Ajit Memo, 55, has lived in Dhoholakhagrabari chitmahal, an Indian enclave surrounded by Bangladesh, for generations. He is relieved to finally have rights in the only country he has ever known but feels it is too little too late. “The [Bangladesh] government doesn’t care about us, or our children, so it’s very difficult for them to even go to school,” he says. “Honestly we are Indian but how can we feel it when we get no help from them?” Yet the feeling of neglect did not override the desire to return. Come November, Memo and his family will return to India.

Sri Chandi Barmon, 27, and his extended family arrive at a government compound in Debiganj to sign documents, top, formalizing their decision to stay in Bangladesh. They originally thought they would go to India after the disbanding of the enclaves, but later changed their mind. Sri Ajit Memo, 55, left, hangs jute thread to dry outside his house in Ponchoki Bhajini village. The family of sisters Lobar Rani Bormoni, 11, and Shapla Rani Bormoni, 12, is among those who have chosen to remain in Bangladesh. (Click to enlarge images)

Geographers call these territories enclaves, most easily described as sovereign pieces of land completely surrounded by another sovereign nation. The locals call them chitmahals, or paper palaces, drawing the name from a legend that says these enclaves were staked — on pieces of paper — in a game of chess between two feuding 18th century maharajas. In another tale, the enclaves are the result of a drunken British officer who spilled spots of ink on the map he drew during partition in 1947. More likely, according to Reece Jones, a professor of political geography at the University of Hawai’i Manoa, in an article “Sovereignty and statelessness in the border enclaves of India and Bangladesh,” published in the journal “Political Geography,” the chitmahals date back to 1713, when a peace treaty was signed between the feuding Maharajah of Cooch Behar and the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. Some of their soldiers were in enemy territory when peace was declared, and had captured land where the local people were paying taxes, thus creating pockets controlled by each ruler within the other’s territory.

Enclaves aren’t unique to South Asia. The Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog, for example, is full of Dutch territory, and the locals have turned this unusual border into a tourist attraction. But the enclaves in India and Bangladesh are home to many more people, living in much more tenuous circumstances. Jason Cons, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin and author of the forthcoming book “Sensitive Space: Fragmented Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border,” explains that the residents of these enclaves are effectively stateless. “They live in zones outside of official administration, since officials of one country cannot cross a sovereign frontier to administered territory,” he says.

Slideshow: Life in the Chitmahals

  • A man pushes his bike through a swollen river in the Dhoholakhagrabari enclave. Because the enclaves were caught between India and Bangladesh, neither country wanted to devote resources to developing infrastructure like paved roads and bridges. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Because they had difficulty getting legal status and formal education, the residents of the enclaves have had difficulty finding formal work. Many thus work in the informal economy like this saw mill. (Click to enlarge images)
  • For the many inhabitants of the enclaves, jute production is a primary source of income. (Click to enlarge images)
  • A man living in Dhoholakhagrabari takes his cows to a field to graze. Before the enclaves were disbanded, the trees in the distance formed the place where the enclave ended and Bangladesh began. (Click to enlarge images)
  • With no police force, the enclaves were forced to maintain order themselves. Residents instead formed groups known as “peacekeepers” which would meet periodically to resolve problems, above. (Click to enlarge images)
  • A young boy uses an old fertilizer bag to shelter from the rain. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Without electricity, the homes must rely on oil lamps at night. Here, Eity Rani, 14, and Shobo Rai, 8, do their homework in their house in Dhoholakhagrabari. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The family of Shobo Rani, 7, will remain in Bangladesh. (Click to enlarge images)

Prior to 1947, when the entire region was part of colonial India and subject to British rule, life in the chitmahals was little different from life in any of the surrounding villages. But during Partition, when the boundaries were drawn between India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the Maharajah of Cooch Behar asked to join India on the condition that he retained all his land, including his enclaves on the other side. East Pakistan did the same with its enclaves, and thousands were left stranded on islands of no-man’s land.

The lack of any government infrastructure is complete. There are no border fences or security checkpoints. Paved roads stop at the boundaries, as do electricity poles. The enclave inhabitants in Debiganj District of Bangladesh were even barred from sending their children to school because they are not Bangladeshi citizens.

Mosques are the only solid structures inside the enclaves. Because of the uncertainty of life in the enclaves, no one wanted to invest the time and effort to build other permanent structures. Even the mosque, left, built from donations, is not entirely finished. In the interest of providing their children with a good education, many parents of the enclaves, paid bribes and acquired fake documents to get their children into schools like the Sher-e-Bangla government school, right. (Click to enlarge images)

This is a problem common to both sides of the border. “After decades in this situation many people found ways around it, through bribes to officials or through friends who helped them to obtain the documents they needed, such as school enrollment forms for their children,” explains Jones, who has visited chitmahals on both sides of the border. “However, the situation was not stable or secure. They were extremely vulnerable to theft and violence because the police had no jurisdiction in the enclaves.”

In 1974, India and Bangladesh reached a Land Boundary Agreement to rationalize the borders, but it was not finalized and implemented until this year. As part of the agreements, the residents had to choose which country they wanted to belong to.

No one in the Bangladeshi enclaves in India asked to return to Bangladesh, so all of them will become Indian citizens. On the other side of the border, nearly all opted to become officially Bangladeshi.

There were, however, a few outliers. In the enclaves on the Bangladesh side of the border, 979 people asked to return to India. The decision will change their lives profoundly; they will relinquish all Bangladeshi rights and move to India.

Dhonobala Rani, 70, gets emotional knowing that in a few months she will have to leave her son, Shankor, front, in blue shirt behind in Bangladesh when she takes Indian citizenship. (Click to enlarge images)

For Shankor Rani, in the enclave of Dhoholakhagrabari, the decision was even more difficult. The village is home to 22 families, and his mother and all but two families in his extended clan have chosen to leave for India, where they have many more relations. But he, his wife and child will remain in Bangladesh. When officials started gathering names four years ago of families who wanted to go to India, he thought it was yet another bureaucratic maze leading nowhere. “We are living in the enclave so if we don’t give our names then no problem,” Shankor said. “We have our houses and land here so I didn’t think it would be an issue.”

When his family leaves for India in November, he isn’t sure where they will live or whether he will be able to see them again. Rumor has it that there are provisions and temporary settlements waiting for them, but no one really knows. Shankor’s mother Dhonobala Rani, 70, stands behind him drying her eyes with her sari. “If I don’t have land or food in India, I don’t care, but I would like to see my son everyday.”

Join the Conversation

  • 0
  • 0
  • 0
  • 0