The nowhere people

URVASHI BUTALIA

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FOR most people who live alongside it, the border between India and Bangladesh is a chimera. Flat, green fields stretch over a wide terrain. Dotted across them you can see men and women bent over in work, a stray goat or cow lazily grazing alongside. It’s difficult to tell from their appearance which side of the border the human beings, or indeed the animals, belong to.

Somewhere between one field and another lies an imaginary line that marks the territorial boundaries of two nations: there is no fence or barricade to give it materiality. Every now and again a small, triangular concrete pillar, dirtied and worn, a number and an arrow etched onto it, announces the international boundary. In the normal course, there is no one to stop you walking across this so-called border.

Even the occasional watchtower is not manned, except at night, as if to say that border crossings in darkness are somehow more of an offence than those attempted in daylight. Or, if you want to cross ‘legitimately’ (that is, still without a passport but with the confidence that you will not be troubled once you are over the other side) there’s a tout, popularly known as the ‘borderia’, who helps you cross for a fixed fee (Rs 800, approximately US $20).

The guardians of the border, the Border Security Force, turn a blind eye to such crossings because the borderia ensures they get their cut. The most difficult crossings are those you make at the properly set up border – which is not really a border at all – inside airports and railway stations and bus terminals, for here you need passports, visas and official stamps.

For the residents of small enclaves called chitmahals, however, the border has other meanings altogether. Abdul Siddique is one such resident. In 1994 his home, on Indian territory inside Bangladesh, was raided and burnt along with 700 other houses. The people of the area call this the agnikand – the great fire. Abdul lost everything and decided to cross the border into India where he and others were lodged in a rehabilitation camp for some months.

One day, while in the market, Abdul was arrested on charges of being an illegal immigrant – a Bangladeshi inside India. He was jailed, and then released on bail. Abdul’s plea that although he had been living inside Bangladesh he was technically an Indian, for the territory he lived on belonged to India, cut no ice with the police who refused to believe that such a thing could be possible. And the courts have yet to rule on it.

 

 

Standing in the village of Berubari in India I could see, in the middle distance, the hamlet where Abdul and many others like him had lived. This, by a quirk of history, is a piece of Indian territory inside the Bangladesh border – a chitmahal. There are 128 such Indian chitmahals inside Bangladesh. They cover 20,95,707 acres of land. Bangladesh has 95 chitmahals inside India which cover 11,00,000 acres of land. People who live in these enclaves are, even today, stateless people, without an identity, without documents, without any rights or privileges. They do not belong to anyone. India does not want to have anything to do with its citizens who live in chitmahals inside Bangladesh, and vice versa.

In the Bengali language, a chit means a fragment, something that is part of a whole, but not integrated into it. Mahal is land from which revenue is collected. The Indian chitmahals that now lie inside Bangladesh were once the property of the Raja of Cooch Behar prior to the time of Indian independence. In 1947, when the British finally left India after two centuries, they created two countries, India and Pakistan, out of one. In order to partition the country they brought in a little-known lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, to demarcate the boundary between India and what was to become Pakistan.

At the time there were, in India, a number of princely states – states ruled by kings and princes that had not come under British rule. Now that a sovereign nation was coming into being, these small principalities were given the option of joining one of the two new republics or remaining independent. On the Bengal/East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) border, two such states, Cooch Behar and Rangpur, opted to stay independent. Radcliffe drew his boundary anyway – he had a deadline to meet – leaving one on one side and the other on the other.

Three years later, both decided they no longer wished to remain independent, and each chose to stay with the country inside whose borders it now was: Cooch Behar came to India and Rangpur chose Pakistan. This was all to the good, except that each had been, over time, conquering territories from the other and these territories, chitmahals, remained, theoretically in the possession of the conquering state, housing its subjects.

 

 

The result? Small enclaves (for that is what they were) of India inside Pakistan and small enclaves of Pakistan inside India. At first, it did not matter too much for very few people actually believed that the drawing of a boundary on a piece of paper would have any direct impact on their lives. But then, India and Pakistan introduced passports and visas, and their troubles began.

The residents of Indian chitmahals inside Bangladesh suddenly found themselves surrounded by people, usually hostile, of the other country who saw them as fair game. They began to live in terror of attacks, of murder, theft and rape. And worse, they had no recourse to law, nowhere to turn to for help. If they were robbed, if the women were raped (and this is a common occurrence), they could not go to the police – for that would mean crossing the border into India to file a report and getting the police to cross the border into Bangladesh to take action. How can the police of one country take action against the people of another country?

 

 

Many, like Abdul Siddique, are land owners and live in constant fear of losing their lands. Often, they are forced to hand over their documents. The land registration office is located in Haldibari, inside the Indian border. It is here that fraudulent sales are registered, with one person posing as the owner and another as the buyer. Once this is done, the actual owner is presented with a fait accompli and his lands are taken over. If the owners resist, there’s a simple next step that’s followed: gangs of hooligans are hired to terrorise residents and burn down their homes. This is what happened to Abdul Siddique.

For the women, things are worse. They cannot even afford to venture out of their homes. If they do, they will almost certainly invite rape or abduction – or both. And once they have been taken away and raped, there is no coming back, for now they have crossed the borderline between purity and pollution, they are tainted by their contact with the ‘other’.

‘That’s why we came away,’ says Milan Burman, a young woman from a chit called Dahala Khagrabari. ‘It wasn’t safe even to go out to the fields to relieve yourself (to shit) – any time they saw a young woman, they would simply whisk her away. Sometimes she was returned and sometimes not. And if they were sent back home, often the families would not want anything to do with them – they saw them as polluted.’ But what happened to these women? Milan doesn’t know. Neither do women like Minara Begum and others from the neighbouring chits. ‘Perhaps they went into prostitution. What else could they do?’

Milan and her husband lost their lands to raiders in the chits and came away to India nine years ago. ‘We crossed over stealthily,’ she said. ‘If they’d come to know we were going, they would have killed us.’ Milan’s parents and other members of her family still remain in the chits but she has no communication with them: ‘There are no postal services there you see, so how can we remain in touch?’

 

 

Clearly, for the residents of the chitmahals, the international border between India and Bangladesh is not the one they fear, it’s the border between their small hamlets and the outside world. It is here that danger lies. ‘We live in constant fear of crossing this border for once we are out, we can be arrested for being illegal immigrants into Bangladesh! Even when we need to go to a doctor or a hospital, we have to go under cover of darkness. And if the doctor finds out where we are from he’ll keep us waiting till he has treated everyone else, and only then look at us. Sometimes they just turn us away.’

For several months in the year the river Teesta that runs through North Bengal in India is dry. Fugitives from Indian chitmahals, who make it across the border and settle on the river’s rocky banks, earn a meagre living by breaking stones collected from the riverbed. ‘Eight hours of breaking stones,’ says Sushil Chandra Ray, once a rich farmer in the Salbari chit in Bangladesh, ‘earns you some eight to ten rupees a day. This is our life now. We make do. We’ve lost everything, but at least we have peace. We can walk out into the city, and know that no one will raid our homes or rape our women in our absence. The most we have to fear is ordinary crime.’

 

 

In Berubari village in India, the village headman, Jagdish Babu, walks me through the BSF checkpost to one edge of the village. ‘Look there,’ he says, pointing to one side, ‘that is Bangladesh, and where we are, that’s India.’ We move a little further and stand by a tree at one edge of a small, winding road. ‘This tree is in India,’ says Jagdish Babu, ‘and the one across the road, the banana tree, is in Bangladesh.’ We get into a car and drive down the small road. Some distance away, a thin cycle path cuts across the road – you can barely see it in the dust. ‘That,’ says Jagdish Babu, ‘is the boundary that demarcates Bangladesh and India.’ He laughs and tells me a tale that the villagers of Berubari enjoy telling.

‘You see how this border curls and winds,’ he says? ‘Which person in his sane mind would draw a boundary like that? You know that Radcliffe? What did he know about anything? He was so confused by what he had to do that he decided, forget it, I’ll just get drunk! The bastard drank all night, and then in the morning he woke up and picked up his pen, and naturally he couldn’t draw a straight line! So he went this way and that – and botched the whole thing up. And of course we have to live with the consequences!’

Jagdish Babu has reason to complain, for while the creation of chitmahals was not something that could be laid at Radcliffe’s door, the situation in which Berubari village finds itself certainly can. The village lies in an area that is known as ‘adverse possession lands’. These are pieces of land that should, if the boundaries had been drawn geographically, been part of one country. But because the boundary in this case was a political rather than a geographic one (and perhaps because Radcliffe was drunk!), these lands fall into another country.

Berubari village, for example, borders the river Teesta. If Radcliffe had drawn the boundary along the line of the river, Berubari would have fallen into Bangladesh. Instead, it came on the Indian side of the river – legally Berbari belongs to Bangladesh, but in actual fact, it lies inside the Indian boundary.

 

 

Unlike the residents of the chitmahals, however, people who live in adverse lands are not denied facilities, rights and privileges. The state too is aware of their existence and has tried to address the problem: as early as 1958 Indian and Pakistani leaders met and signed a treaty that half of Berubari should be given to what was then East Pakistan. The people of Berubari protested and refused to accept this treaty.

‘We did not ask to be made into another country,’ says Jagdish Babu. ‘Why should we accept their decision just because some strange Englishman drew a crazy boundary?’ Berubari residents formed a committee for the protection of the village and took the case to court. The court ruled that the prime minister of a country (in this case India) had no authority to exchange any part of state territory. This needed a constitutional amendment.

In 1989, the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman, signed another treaty – this time after a constitutional amendment had come in – but the people of Berubari refuse to accept this too. They have their own solution to offer: ‘Various political parties have spoken of an exchange of territories,’ says Jagdish Babu, ‘but this will mean an exchange of citizens as well. Why should we do this? No government,’ he goes on to say, ‘has the mandate to ask its citizens to change their citizenship. Instead, all they need to do is to demarcate the border in a more rational way, draw a straight line instead of this drunken one, and our lives will be very much simpler.’

More than half a century has passed since India and Pakistan came into existence. By drawing a border that was based not on geographical features but on religious difference – Hindus on one side and Muslims on another – they thought they were solving the problems that exist between the two communities in India. But borders are never intractable, and for people who live alongside them, they can be easily transgressed – as the evidence of the ‘borderia’ in Bangladesh shows.

And yet, borders bring with them other problems – as those of the people of the chitmahals. The international border means little to them, except as a place that might promise relative safety. But home lies inside another border – the chitmahal – and this is the border that constrains them, one they cannot easily move out of. It is this border too that denies them their rights as citizens, denies them a nationality, denies them an existence.

For all intents and purposes, the people of Indian chitmahals inside Bangladesh do not exist: the enumeration teams of the Indian census have never visited them. Thus they do not exist statistically. They have no passports or identity cards. They cannot vote in the Indian elections. ‘You’re talking of borders and nationality,’ they say, ‘we’ve never had any doubt about our nationality. We’re Indians. Why should it matter that a line drawn by a crazy Englishman defines us differently. The problem doesn’t lie with us; it lies with the Indian state. For the state, we’re the nowhere people living in no-man’s land.’

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