Among the formerly ‘stateless’ residents of the enclave exchange, nationalism thrives despite the state’s failure to provide rights.
On October 23, Musa Nabi of Korola 2 cheered for the victory of the Indian cricket team at the World Cup playing against Pakistan’s cricket team. Asked how he felt about the cricket teams, he said he was always more familiar with the Indian cricket team, even at the time his village, Korola 2, was a Bangladeshi enclave.
In 2015, the Bangladeshi enclaves – small pockets of Bangladeshi territory geographically located in West Bengal – were incorporated into India. Like many in his village, Musa now confidently expresses nationalistic sentiment towards India, with pride in the Indian cricket team being just one aspect.
Indian nationalism in formerly Bangladeshi enclaves along the India-Bangladesh borderland thrives despite state failures to provide residents full rights, the benefits of citizenship and its very core, human dignity.
The former Bangladeshi enclaves are a unique case where the emergence of nationalism is not a product of colonial experience, like the rest of India, but that of the absence of statehood and citizenship rights.
On their journey from statelessness to Indian citizenship, these newly minted Indian citizens or the chitt bodoli people (enclave exchange people) are expected to perform Indianness – and have actively done so. Yet, to date, their inclusion in the national community has been largely documentary in nature.
Former Bangladesh enclaves
Until 2015, India and Bangladesh shared more than 200 tiny enclaves. Locally known as chittmahals, these enclaves were pieces of territory surrounded by another country. Under the Land Boundary Act that year, India and Bangladesh exchanged the enclaves between themselves. There were more than 50 inhabited Bangladeshi enclaves along the northern border of Bangladesh seated deep in India in the district of Cooch Behar.
These enclaves were not well accounted for when the borders were drawn between India and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1947, or in 1950 when the former princely state of Cooch Behar was incorporated into India. These enclaves remained suspended in statelessness and were governed neither by the home country nor by the one in which they were geographically located.
The residents of these enclaves were excluded from citizenship rights and benefits by both Bangladesh and India. They barely had any political representation in their national communities. Not having experienced the nation and modern welfare state, the residents learnt to survive by themselves.
They crossed the international borders regularly and illegally accessed basic amenities such as education and healthcare in India. They created proxy councils to ensure law and justice within their territories. But all these came at a significant cost to their rights as nationals and humans. They were mistrusted and isolated by both India and Bangladesh.
Costs of incorporation
India did not prioritise the speedy incorporation of the enclaves as they were not of much geo-political or geo-economic importance. However, in 2015, to secure the national boundaries and consolidate the nationalistic imagination of uninterrupted national territories, India and Bangladesh exchanged more than 200 enclaves on both sides of the border.
Musa Nabi and other former residents of the Bangladeshi enclaves became the latest emblem of the unified national territory and continuous borderland. Incorporation came with tall promises of not just citizenship and nationality but also primary healthcare and primary schools, anganwadis and community centres, greenhouses and solar panels, roads and bridges, water and electric supply, mobile towers and streetlights.
However, most of these promises have not been fulfilled. Residents were quick to get voter cards and were able to vote, but have not been able to access vital government schemes and benefits such as the rural employment guarantee scheme, Bardhoka Bhata (old-age social welfare pension), Bidhoba Bhata (widow pension), Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (maternity benefits) and Kanyashree Prakalpa (girl child scholarship scheme).
What is more, many of those who agreed to forgo privately-owned land to India to build schools and hospitals in return for a promised job have not been paid for their services or have not been employed at all.
In 2021, the courts heard a case involving Iyakub Ali Khan and Fuljan Bibi of Dokkhin Moshaldanga in Cooch Behar district. Khan had agreed to forgo his familial land to let the Indian authorities build an anganwadi for the village. The state authorities employed his wife, Bibi at the facility. However, Bibi has not been paid in the five years since she was employed.
It is a common practice among state authorities to accept private land from the residents and promise government infrastructure for the community and a job for a member of the family that has forfeited their land. The chitt bodoli people are encouraged to contribute land to show their commitment to their integration with the Indian nation-state. But in most cases, the promises made to them have either not been fulfilled or have been fulfilled with no financial or community benefits.
The land exchange documentation process based on the Land Boundary Act of 2015, which is the very foundation of the incorporation of the enclaves, has multiplied the misery of these residents. In the agrarian economy of the former enclaves where everyone is dependent on their land, the chitt bodoli people have no free access or legal rights to their lands.
During the international land and population exchange, their private land was transferred by the Bangladeshi government to the Indian government by converting it into state property to be exchanged through the agreement and re-assigned to the owners.
It has been seven years and the Indian bureaucracy has not reassigned the land to the people as their private property. Rajkumar Roy of Chitt Balapukur in Cooch Behar District complained about his land assets being under government control. He cannot sell the land till the exchanged land is logged and returned.
Despite this, the inconveniences faced by the chitt bodoli people has not compromised their nationalism. Desperate to find nationalised identities and affiliations, the former enclave dwellers wish to realise India as a nation despite the dysfunctional state machinery. In fact, the Indian nation never had to provide practical benefits in these enclaves to assert itself.
These former stateless people from marginal communities understand that they need to perform Indian-ness more than the nation needs to enact itself as a welfare state in this region. Like many other exchanged populations across the globe who have adopted newer nationalities or political imaginations, this process was expected to be cumbersome.
Musa Nabi, Iyakub Ali Khan, Fuljan Bibi and Rajkumar Roy consented to be Indian citizens during the 2011 survey leading up to the Land Boundary Act of 2015. They consented to the process of nationalising the former Bangladeshi enclaves into India.
However, their nationalisation preceded their inclusion into the Indian nation state. In a world of nations and governments they were an ungoverned, stateless and forgotten people. Unexpectedly, this became a fertile ground for the emergence of nationalistic sentiments much before the Indian state, government and citizenship arrived in these enclaves.
Nationalism among the chitt bodoli people became a basis on which they staked their claim to Indian citizenship and inclusion within statehood. Their nationalism flourished despite the failures of the Indian state machinery and possibly because of the absence of a nation.
Anindita Ghosh is a PhD Candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
This is the fourth of a six-part series on Nationalism and Belonging in India. It is based on the research of the author and the discussions of the Nationalism Reading Group convened by Priyadarshini Singh at the Centre for Policy Research in partnership with the Association for the Study of Nationalism and Ethnicity, at the London School of Economics. Read the series here.
The field-work for this article was aided by the Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Manch (MASUM), India.