x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Cut off for 64 years: thousands trapped in enclaves along India-Bangladesh border

There are 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi ones inside India, with a combined population of 51,000, all of which date back to the partition of 1947, and all suffering in their isolation, with neither country willing to offer them proper services and infrastructure.

Villagers from the Dahagram enclave near the India-Bangladesh border. A victim of absurd map drawing during the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, the enclave has been all but abandoned by both nations.
Villagers from the Dahagram enclave near the India-Bangladesh border. A victim of absurd map drawing during the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, the enclave has been all but abandoned by both nations.

DHAKA // The village of Votbari is a tiny island of India surrounded by a sea of Bangladesh.

The enclave has been all but abandoned by both nations - a victim of absurd map drawing during the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent.

It has no paved roads, electricity, hospital or schools. Its destitute residents get no aid from either side. Years of regional tensions have kept it in limbo.

Resident Jober Alisaid: "There is nobody to look after us. We have no country. I do not have any identity. I am nowhere."

A visit to Dhaka by Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, that started yesterday could end the suffering for tens of thousands of people trapped in dozens of such enclaves on both sides of the border.

With India's links to its rival Pakistan to the north-west frozen in enmity, it has turned its attention toward smoothing out its bumpy relationship with its north-eastern neighbour.

The two nations are expected to tackle tensions over water resources, trade barriers and transit links. They also plan to resolve disputes over their 4,096-kilometre border - and with it, the enclave conundrum.

There are 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi ones inside India, with a combined population of 51,000, according to a recent survey jointly conducted by the two governments.

The residents have been compared with stateless people, without any of the services offered in either country and no one to take responsibility for them.

"We've lived here for decades," Mr Ali said. "But nobody bothered about us. We are human beings. They do not keep that in mind."

Bangladeshis living in enclaves surrounded by India suffer a similar fate.

Mr Ali, 58, has no land for farming, no education and no hopes of a permanent job.

His family of 13 squeezes into a single straw hut because they have no extra land to build another home. He supports them with irregular work as a day labourer.

The village of 3,000 has almost no infrastructure save for a few narrow, muddy roads - plied by bicycle rickshaws - that Bangladeshi authorities built for them as a humanitarian gesture.

Officially, Votbari residents are not allowed to leave their village and enter Bangladesh without a visa. But there is no fence and since they have never been given Indian passports, Bangladeshi authorities look the other way and let them pass.

They do their shopping in Bangladesh, use Bangladeshi currency and rely on Bangladeshi hospitals in case of emergencies.

Asir Uddin, 60, said he often sneaks out of the village to find work as a day labourer.

"We cannot give our identity. We lie to people when someone asks where we're from," he said.

The situation is worse at the border of their own country, India, 1.2km away.

There, Mr Ali said, Indian guards open fire at them if they try to cross. Human rights groups have accused Indian forces of routinely shooting those trying to enter illegally from Bangladesh.

New Delhi has complained of millions of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and accused Dhaka of giving sanctuary to myriad insurgent groups leading violent rebellions against Indian rule in its north-eastern states.

Dhaka complained of its massive trade deficit with India and accused New Delhi of stealing its water.

Mr Singh and the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, have been working to fix this over the past two years.