SEPTEMBER 6th, 2011, marks a watershed in the annals of bizarre geography. It saw the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh sign an agreement that will consign a whopping 201 enclaves to the history books, leaving just 49 similar exterritorial patches, mostly in Western Europe and on the fringes of the former Soviet Union. The two South Asian neighbours will exchange plots, including a patch of Bangladeshi land surrounded by Indian territory itself improbably ensconced within Bangladesh, clustered on either side of the border between the Bangladeshi district of Rangpur and the district of Cooch Behar, in the Indian state of West Bengal (as discussed by Banyan in February).
The deal is long overdue. In effect disowned by both states, the enclaves are pockets of abject poverty. In his book "Stateless in South Asia: The making of the India Bangladesh Enclaves”, Wilhelm Schendel chronicles futile attempts by politicians and two “self-absorbed bureaucracies” to implement a plan agreed soon after partition: first to regulate the rights of passage of the residents and then settle the matter conclusively by exhanging enclaves. Most strikingly, in 1952, when what was then East Pakistan and India agreed to impose passport and visa controls for the first time, the two states forgot about the people living in the enclaves. This, writes Mr Schendel, created a “Kafka-esque situation”:
They could not acquire passports without acting against the law. Since there were no passport offices in the enclaves, enclave dwellers who wanted a passport had to cross foreign territory illegally to reach their parent state through one of very few official check posts. The authorities of the parent state would then have to allow them in without a passport, again illegally. Once admitted to the parent state, they could try to get a passport. If successful, they could approach the consulate of the other state, hundreds of kilometres away, for a visa to return home. Once the visa expired, the illegal procedure had to be repeated. In effect, by omitting the enclave people from the passport agreement, both India and Pakistan abandoned them as citizens.
Not much changed after Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. The Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Agreement in 1974 was meant to change all that. In it, the two countries resolved to exchange enclaves "expeditiously", and India agreed to forgo compensation for the additional area going to Bangladesh. Bangladesh's parliament ratified the treaty; India’s never did. The area of Indian enclaves on Bangladeshi territory is nearly 70 square kilometres; Bangladesh’s add up to 28 square kilometres. The agreed transfer simplifies the messy boundary but means a 40-square-kilometre net loss for India.
It might seem that this is a small price to pay for India to fix its wonky border. Predictably, though, India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has tried to present the enclaves as symbols of Indian territorial inviolability and an opportunity to flaunt its Hindu-nationalist credentials and to attack what it sees as the ruling Congress Party's weak spot—its perceived softness towards illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, most of them Muslims.
To the residents of Dohala Khagrabari what matters is an end to statelessness and access to basic services. Ayub Ali from Dohala Khagrabari, an Indian enclave in Bangladesh’s Nilphamari district, says there are no schools, no police and people don't have access to subsidised food or fertiliser. Mr Ali does not speak Hindi, only Bengali. Like other Dohala Khagrabari's denizens, he wants it be merged with Bangladesh. Yet identity has very little to do with the nation-state. “I am neither Indian, nor Bangladeshi," he quips. "I am a farmer."