The ignominy of stateless existence has haunted them all their life. Young and old, men, women and children alike had been living like aliens in their landlocked islands within mainland India and Bangladesh. Virtually as the nowhere people in no man’s land. Devoid of identity. Devoid of nationality.
But the midnight of 31 July 2015 changed all that forever.
Their 68-year-long wait was finally over as the Tricolour was hoisted for the first time in Bangladeshi enclaves within India and the Bangladeshi flag fluttered high in the Indian enclaves across the border. For 54,000-odd enclave dwellers living on either side of the barbed wire fencing, it was Independence at last. Freedom at Midnight.
Jana Gana Mana on his lips, 21-year-old Jainal Abedin could hardly control the trickle from his eyes as the Tricolour unfurled itself at the stroke of midnight. Choked with emotions, the sprightly young man cried out aloud. “Freedom, finally we are free. I have heard so many stories about British occupation of India, India’s freedom struggle, creation of East Pakistan, the Mukti Yuddha leading to the birth of Bangladesh from my grandfather. He used to say he has seen so much, but never tasted freedom himself. Today his wish has been fulfilled. He is a free man in his own land,” quips Jainal.
His grandfather, 106-year-old Sk Asgar Ali, the grand old man of the village, is all smiles. “Today is the day I have been waiting for. Cannot tell you how happy I am. I finally have my nationality. I am an Indian. All these years, neither Bangladesh nor India stood for us. We never got our due,” he says.
The road to this watershed moment in history was riddled with multiple potholes. “My father started this movement to ensure that these people get their due. Today he is no more, but I am happy that I have been able to fulfil his dreams. Our sustained movement has finally paid off. There wwere 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh where nearly 41,000 people stay and about 13,000 dwellers live in 54-odd Bangladeshi enclaves in India. Today all of them have their own identity. Not a single enclave dweller from Indian side is crossing over to Bangladesh. About 979 dwellers living in enclaves within Bangladesh are crossing over to India,” says a beaming Diptiman Sengupta, the chief architect of the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC). The committee, incidentally, had been campaigning jointly to press upon respective governments on both sides to grant citizenship to enclave dwellers.
Not a single enclave dweller from Indian side is crossing over to Bangladesh.
For thousands of enclave dwellers who trooped down to Mashaldanga to be a part of this historic occasion, it is the promise of a new life.
“Can you feel our pain when to avoid arrest we have had to concoct names of our husbands as hospitals refused to admit us saying we are Bangladeshis? I have a son and in the certificate his father’s name is fictitious. But I am happy, very happy this time as now my child will get his or her father’s name,” says seven-month pregnant Zarina Bibi, a resident of Poatur Kuti enclave. Within Madhya Mashaldanga enclave, lies Mansab Seoraguri — a patch of India, on which stands Chitto Das’ house. Surrounded by Bangladeshi enclaves all this while, Chitto, though lucky to have managed EPIC and Aadhar cards, has been deprived of government assistance. “Where do we go, we are locked within Bangladesh. We get no help from the government whatsoever, be it for agriculture, irrigation or other welfare schemes. Hopefully, we have better days ahead,” he says living in hope.
The young and old have great expectations from the government. “For the first time in our lives possibly we will able to vote. It feels too good to be true. We will not be harassed and arrested by the police under Foreigners Act and accused of trespassing. We will be able to get admitted in schools and colleges with our own identity and won’t have to fake our parents’ names any longer,” says Saddam Hossein, holding up a torch, post midnight along with all others to signify their journey from darkness to light. A heart patient, 70-year-old Md Talif Ali’s eyes light up when he says that now they will be able to feel the breeze from an electric fan. “We have had no electricity, although electric poles crisscrossed through the enclaves for transmitting electricity to mainland India. Our children and grandchildren had no option but to study under kerosene lamps. But now all that will hopefully become history. We can even buy TVs,” he says.
With expectations running high and celebratory fireworks lighting up the moonlit sky, a few like Md Javed Ali Sheikh, Iman Ali, Suruzzamal and Azibar Rahman, however, look slightly lost.
“Our names are missing from the enumeration sheet, which was circulated where people were asked to choose their nationality. We have tin plates with our house numbers embossed in them, which was provided to us by the government post the 2011 Census. We continue to be where we were. Won’t India take us?” they ask.