India-Bangladeshi enclaves ready to swap sides

Mohammad Mansoor Ali, a resident of a Bangladeshi enclave in India
Image caption This man is one of 50,000 trapped in a form of geographical limbo

Thousands of people in India and Bangladesh live in little islands of land - enclaves- which belong to one country but are located in other. Now the two governments will swap enclaves, finally giving these people access to the public services they have been denied. the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder spoke to residents awaiting the change.

"This is where we are, see - right here on this map."

Mohammad Mansoor Ali, his white beard glistening in the midday sun, jabs his finger at a frayed, yellowing parchment.

"This is Bangladesh - and that's India all around us."

Mr Ali, who is 74, lives in the Bangladeshi enclave of Poaturkuthi in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. The map he's showing me is a land record dating back to 1931, the last time these lands were surveyed.

"We were part of British India then. I have our family's original title deed with the seal of George V, the Emperor and also one from East Pakistan and one from Bangladesh. But none from India."

Mr Ali is one of an estimated 50,000 residents of a geographical anomaly which has lasted more than two centuries.

They live in little islands of land - enclaves, which belong to one country but are located in the other, a result of a series of peace treaties drawn up by rival kingdoms in the eighteenth century.

But even as India and Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh, gained their freedom, these enclaves stayed as they were, with their residents effectively marooned and stateless.

"They just forgot about us," says Zainal Abedin, who lives in another enclave, Moshaldanga.

"For years we were just a football, kicked around by India and Bangladesh," he says.

Now the two governments have agreed to swap their enclaves, effectively meaning that the Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh go to Bangladesh while the Bangladeshi ones on this side merge with India.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMohammad Mansur Ali: "After becoming an Indian I will have a proper identity card - I want to travel and see my country"
Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media caption"Nobody will be able to neglect us", says Mohammed Mozammel Khondokar

"I have witnessed the independence of three countries - India, Pakistan and Bangladesh," says Mohammad Mansur Ali.

"But we were never independent ourselves. It's taken us 68 years to achieve our freedom."

Poaturkuthi is about seven to eight kilometres from the Indo-Bangladesh border but because it is completely surrounded by India, its residents cannot go the country that they are supposed to be citizens of.

Image caption Enclave residents cannot access public services

It also means that they have no access to public services of any kind, no electricity, water supply, schools or hospitals.

"At night we light candles and kerosene lamps in our homes," says Mr Ali.

To access anything else, they have to go out of the enclave which presents another problem.

"We have no identity papers of any kind," explains Alamgir Hossain.

It means that they live in constant fear of arrest since they have no legal documents. The only way out is to acquire one, fraudulently.

"We find an Indian, pay him to masquerade as our family member," says Alamgir. "That way we can get into school or use a hospital."

In Poaturkuthi's main square, a group of residents are seated under a tree engaged in an animated discussion.

Image caption District official Krishnabha Ghosh (right) has been trying to calm nerves in one of the enclaves awaiting transfer

They are talking about their impending merger with India, on Saturday - a result of the agreement signed between India and Bangladesh.

"It's like we have been living in a jungle all these years," says Zainal Abedin.

"Now that we've emerged, we'd like to get all the facilities that a civilized society expects."

As he finishes his sentence, there's a sudden flurry of activity as a car drives up, a red beacon fitted on its roof.

It is the local district official, Krishnabha Ghosh. The villagers draw up a chair for him and he joins them. A tray of tea appears magically.

He is here to inspect the arrangements for the transfer.

"There's going to be a celebration and the Indian flag is going to be raised," he says. "It's exciting for me too, to be witnessing a piece of history."

Image caption These children have a new national anthem to brush up on

But the villagers have more pressing matters to discuss.

"How soon will we get our voter identity cards," asks one. "What about a school? And when will get electricity," they press him.

Mr Ghosh asks them to draw up a list and promises to revisit them. Now they too will be part of his responsibility.

Inside the enclave's school - no more than a little tin shack - a group of schoolchildren practise singing the Indian national anthem.

It is a bit off key and they stumble through the phrases coaxed gently by a couple of teachers.

"My father's generation is gone, I will be gone too," remarks Mohammad Mansoor Ali, his eyes glistening.

"But at least they will be free," he adds pointing at the children.

"They will have all the rights of a citizen and be able to lead a life of dignity."

Related Topics

More on this story