On the Conflicted Space of "Chitmahals" between the Indo-Bangladesh Border: Arpita Chakraborty

Arpita Chakraborty is currently pursuing her PhD on masculinity and the discourse around political violence in India from Dublin City University, Dublin. She has completed her MA in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her MA dissertation was on the socio-economic conditions of the residents of Bangladeshi enclaves in India. There are more than two hundred geo-political enclaves in various continents across the globe. "Chhits" or Enclaves are small fragments of land owned by one country, inside the geographical boundaries of another country. India and Bangladesh share the largest group of enclaves in the world, a historical legacy that has retained its existence despite Partition during Independence in 1947 and the later fragmentation of Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971. There are about a hundred thousand people living inside these enclaves, with no access to either basic fundamental rights or any form of livelihood. In 2011, India and Bangladesh signed an agreement to absorb the enclaves within the host countries. It is yet to be realised.

Co-Editor of Cerebration, Amrita Ghosh talks to Arpita Chakraborty on her experience of fieldwork in six such enclaves.


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All photos copyrighted: @Arpita Chakraborty
Image 1: The picture shows a typical method of grain storage in the Bangladeshi enclave of Poaturkuthi, within India. Agriculture is the main mode of sustenance for most of the enclave residents. With archaic methods being used, the produce is low, and the difficulty to reach the adjacent Indian markets made it difficult to garner monetary value out of it.


1. How does gender impact the "nationless" lives in these enclaves?

The connection between one's gender and citizenship comes up in the most unexpected of ways. Existing literature on nation, citizenship and gender often talk about the complicated dynamics between the gendered identity and role of citizens. Nationalism effects women in many, and mostly adverse ways. Works as diverse as that of Nira Yuval Davis and Katherine Moon show how women are effected as part of the nation and the strains of international relations. But, what about women who are stateless? The Indo-Bangladesh enclaves are an intricate example of such statelessness. Howver, what sets it apart is the unique role women play in mediating the interaction of the enclave residents with their host countries (India for the residents of Bangladeshi residents, and vice versa).

The residents of the Bangladeshi enclaves in India (where I did my fieldwork) had been denied access to education, health services, public distribution scheme, electricity and all other state provided facilities due to their lack of citizenship. There are no schools or hospitals inside the enclaves. Since they are not connected to the Bangladeshi mainland, the residents have no access to these resources and services from the Bangladeshi government either. In a situation like this, women have instrumentally become the currency through whom access to Indian citizenship is achieved. In a perverse display of the deep seated way in which patriarchal social customs work, many Indian women are being married off to families living in the enclaves. Though their families are aware of the immense hardship that awaits them as enclave residents, this decision is often pushed by the fact that a marriage with a chhitmahali will save them from paying dowry. In exchange for this, the chhitmahali and his family gets access to social benefits. Through his wife, the man can slowly claim a ration card, admit his future children to schools, and in many cases, manage to get a voter ID card as well. This mutual exchange is only sometimes explicit. But, in most such cases of implicit arrangements, what matters the least is the opinion of the woman who is central to it.

Women who become enclave residents through marital ties have just become an interesting case of how gendered roles and statelessness interact in the Indo-Bangladesh enclaves. Social practices like the dowry system force their families to barter them in exchange for access to rights of citizenship. These rights are more de-facto, but crucial for survival in such harsh realities. This system, arguably, provides some status to these women in their conjugal life; my field work supported this theory to a large extent. However, further research needs to be done on this aspect.

Image 2. The residents of the Bangladeshi enclave, Poaturkuthi, standing in front of the office of the Indo-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Committee. The Committee, formed by a now deceased Forward Bloc leader, Deepak Sengupta, has been working for the resolution of the enclave issue for the last few years. This is the only office that the committee has inside any of the Bangladeshi enclaves in India

2. What kind of strategic agency do women have in these chhitmahals?

As I mentioned earlier, strategic agency depends to a large extent on how they are contributing to the familial resources. In the case of women from India married into the enclaves, their agency in terms of providing access to resources like education, health services or public distribution schemes can be pivotal in changing the social and economic position of the family within the enclaves. However, a larger segment of women have been born, brought up, and married inside the enclaves. The life they led had been vulnerable, harsh and unimaginably challenging. Most have no access to education, are married off at a barely legal age, and with most enclave families being below poverty scale, suffer from malnutrition.

Lack of access to health services have hit women the hardest. Child birth are mostly done at home. In cases of complications, the quacks from surrounding Indian villages are consulted. If, as a last resort, they do manage to reach the nearest Indian subdivisional hospital in Dinhata, they are admitted under a false name and with an Indian citizen signing the bond as their husband. After childbirth, they leave the hospitals without the birth certificate, since is it of no use to them. if by agency, one understands the basic ability to lead a meaningful life, most of the enclave women are denied all aspects of it. This denial works through the lack of citizenship, through patriarchy, and last of all, through denial of any scope to improve.

Image 3. One of the four mosques in the Bangladeshi enclave, Poaturkuthi. With the absence of any education system, the mosques often provide the basic primary education to the enclave children. A lucky few among them can use forged Indian identity or residence proof of Indian relatives to continue education in Indian schools. For the rest, this is the only source of enlightenment.

3. Are there cases of small/larger border crossings (discursive or literal) in these conflicted territories?

One needs to understand that though the enclaves are part of the mother country (Bangladesh in case of the Bangladeshi enclaves, and vice versa) only politically. They do not belong to the surrounding mainland of the host country of course, but there is no border security put in place to make the borders into real compartmentalizing demarcations. The isolation is not to the effect of not allowing the residents to venture out of their enclaves. But the isolation is more in terms of their rights as citizens, access to resources, and most of all, acceptability in the surrounding areas which are Indian.

But this porousness has also created issues for the enclave residents. The enclave areas are not under the surveillance of Indian police, and is for all purposed without any security. This makes them havens for criminal activities and transit points for smuggling. A few years ago, the residents of the enclave Shibaprashad Mustafi found a dead body within the enclave area. He was murdered and then left inside the enclave area. The Indian police refused to get involved, and the rotten carcass remained there for the next few days, unclaimed. This is just one instance of many such repeated incidents.

Image 4. One of the well-off residences in the Poaturkuthi enclave of Bangladesh. The lack of amenities, as shown in the photo, is a common feature of all the households. Extreme poverty, lack of any state help, and denial of basic citizenship rights have made their conditions deplorable, to say the least.

4. In your experience, give us one instance of reconstruction of voice/agency of women in the Bangladeshi or Indian chhitmahal?

I think one of the most well publicized women from the enclaves in recent times has been Mayamana Khatun. For the first time in the history of Indian elections, a candidate from a Bangladeshi enclave contested in the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2011. Mayamana Khatun, a then twenty-nine year old resident of the Bangladeshi enclave of Poaturkuthi had filed her nomination papers from the Dinhata constituency of Cooch Behar district of North Bengal as a Janabadi Forward Bloc candidate on 31st March 2011. Her nomination brewed trouble initially when Muhammed Fazle Haque, the ex-MLA of Congress and an independent candidate this time objected to her nomination, since she is a resident of a Bangladeshi enclave. It underwent scrutiny and was found valid. Though she lost the election, the acceptance of her nomination became a rallying point for the demand of enclave residents for integration with the Indian mainland.
Though a Chhit Mahal (as they are called locally) resident now, she was born in the Indian village of Kalmati and hence, an Indian citizen by birth. She studied till the eighth standard in the Kalmati High Madrasa before being married to Rehman Sheikh, an enclave resident. As an enclave resident, she has personally experienced the distress of being de facto stateless. "I have two children, a son and a daughter. During their birth, the delivery had to be done at home because the doctors of the hospital in India (in India) refuse to admit us. They say they cannot treat us because we are not Indians. Tell me, for how many more generations do we have to live like this?" What made her take the decision of contesting the elections? "The governments are not bothered in the humanitarian crisis that we have been facing for such a long time. If I am elected, I'll be able to change things," said young Mayamana.

Image 5. Chaiter Daha, a large water body situated at the border of the Poaturkuthi enclave. The other side of this huge pond, or daha, as it is known as in local language, belongs to India. The enclave residents claim that for years, their right to use the water body has been restricted by the Indians, who do not allow them to fish there, or use it for irrigation.

5. As of 2014, there were 162 Chhitmahals-- has anything changed in your view from the statist viewpoint?

As far as the history of the Indo-Bangladesh diplomatic relations in terms of the enclave issue has been, I am afraid that things might not change drastically in the next few years. Starting with the Nehru Noon Agreement in 1958, there has been repeated attempts to resolve the enclave issue by integrating the enclaves with their host country (integrating the Bangladeshi enclaves with India, and vice versa). The latest Land Border Agreement (LBA) between Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh in 2011 announced an intended exchange of the enclaves, where the residents will be given an option to choose their nationality. Though approved by the Parliamentary Committee, it is yet to be operationalized.

My lack of confidence about the execution of LBA comes as much from this long history of negotiation as from the role the Bharatiya Janta Party, presently in power at the Centre, had in the Tin Bigha Corridor issue in 1992. The Tin Bigha Corridor was a 15,130 square meter land corridor made to link the Bangladeshi mainland with one of the Bangladeshi enclaves closest to the border - Dahagram Angarpota. The Indian government intended to lease this piece of land to Bangladesh in perpetuity for 999 years. The BJP actively resisted the formation of the corridor to allow the enclave residents access to Bangladeshi mainland and hence, to available resources as citizens, with the logic that it was tantamount to ceding sovereignty in those areas to Bangladesh. There was added tension by the visit of LK Advani in the region, who had declared that the citizens of India will be protected, even if violence was necessary. Scholars like Jason Cons have shown how BJP pamphlets related to the Tin Bigha corridor had equated the event with territory loss due to partition in 1947. With this history in mind, it seems not too likely that BJP will be too eager to take the LBA to completion.

However, one factor that can influence the state position is the long movement for integration by the Indo-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Committee for the last decade with the demand to assimilate them with the host country. At the ground level, this movement has been successful in organizing the residents and holding regular protests, demonstrations and politically making their voice heard. This has had a significant impact on the local politics of Cooch Behar district in particular and in Bengal at large. As a result, enclaves have come up repeatedly in the bilateral dialogues held in recent times.

6. What would you say is the biggest problem (apart from the nature of conflictual zones and spaces) encountered by residents of chhitmahal-- is there a difference if the question turns to women residents of these spaces?

When we talk about problems, or lack of access to resources, we need to keep in mind the fact that we are talking about an extremely sensitive border area. In terms of basic facilities, the Indian villages around the enclaves are not very different from those within them. It is a population predominantly dependent on agriculture, and very minimal access to state services. However, if I had to locate the worst of all the denials enclave residents face, from my interactions, I would say it is education. There are no schools within the enclaves. With no citizenship, the children of the enclaves are not allowed to attend the schools located in the surrounding Indian areas. Hence, the systemic oppression and exclusion that the residents face are continued over generations, with no respite in sight except the formal integration. I need to also mention here that though the enclave residents are mostly small farmers in occupation, their crops are always sold at lesser prices than their Indian counterparts in the local markets, since their movement and hence choice of buyers are limited. But lack of education also means there are few or no alternative livelihood options.

The endless struggle to relieve themselves from this unending situation has led some residents to take drastic steps to provide education to their wards. Birth certificates are made with the name of the parents replaced by the names of Indian citizens. Bribery and blood relations are the two most potent ways to make this possible. Can one ever comprehend the despair parents go through that can make them take such dire measures? Getting access to education is one of the principal reasons behind the demand for integration.

When resources are scant, prioritizing becomes a human response to efficient use of those resources. This is true in the case of the enclave residents as well. And gender becomes one of the prime attributes by which such a process takes place. In a patriarchal society like ours, boys are given greater access to better education than girls. In situations like those in the enclaves, it is the boys mostly who are given the chance to go the nearest Indian schools. Girls, thus, face a double exclusion: first exclusion from rights of citizenship as enclave residents; and second, as part of the patriarchal social setup that provides primary access to resources to men. This might sound like a very rudimentary gender analysis, but to see it in practice in the enclaves brought in the harsh reality that when difficult choices are to be made, people do think in such broad terms.




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