Tales of People Divided By Two Partitions, in 1947 and 2015
DEBAYAN ROY | AUG 14, 2017
MEKHLIGUNJ: LIFE IN A FORMER ENCLAVE
In scorching heat we walk through the muddy roads lined with tin houses, each with a tulsi plant in its backyard. Sapna Rani guides us through the street at Mekhligunj Settlement Camp near Cooch Behar.
As we reach the end of the road, which is marked by a barbed wire, Sapna points to the other side. “Bangladesh still has my husband,” laments the former enclave dweller.
Sapna Rani Roy hails from Rangpur in Bangladesh and was previously at the enclave (Chitmahal) located at 112 Banskatha. It was a land without country prior to 2015, but is now under Bangladesh since the land boundary exchange between the two countries.
The Teen Beegha Corridor is a strip of land that India leased to Bangladesh so that it can access the villages of Dahagram–Angarpota which were previously encircled by India and were enclaves.
It has been 70 years since the Partition divided Bengal into East Pakistan and West Bengal, but the scars continue to burn.
Located about 20 kilometres from the Changrabandha border, the Mekhilgunj Settlement Camp has 47 tin houses which cannot be distinguished from each other.
The families here gained an Indian identity in 2015 along with many other enclave dwellers. Sapna Rani can hardly recall her age but settles for 55 after a causal discussion with kids. A stout woman, who is having to live without her husband, is a victim of two ‘partitions’ – first in 1947 and then in 2015.
Inside the core territorial boundary of Bangladesh, there were 111 Indian enclaves (17,160.63 acres); while inside India, there were 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (7,110.02 acres). India received 2,777.038 acres of land and transferred 2,267.682 acres to Bangladesh in 2015.
After the partition in 1947, Cooch Behar district merged with India and Rangpur went to the then East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971.
In Mekhligunj, many like Sapna found a home. Unskilled and semi-illiterate, the dwellers depend on farming for livelihood. The backyards of tin houses are full of crops on small square-shaped lands. So small are these farms that their yield is hardly enough for the locals. Sapna, too, has one.
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The BSF checkpost at the end of Nazirhat on the entry to the Chhoto Gorul Jora Village.
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The Mekhilgunj Settlement Camp near Madhya Mashaldanga in Cooch Behar, West Bengal.
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People living on the other side of the fence often have to wait for the BSF to open the gates.
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Sapan Roy, a Bangladeshi national who came to India by breaching the border.
In November 2015, Sapna came to India along with her younger daughter, leaving behind her husband, son and two other daughters.
“In 2010, the Bangladeshis wanted to forcibly take control over our agricultural land. Since we did not have citizenship, they could do whatever they felt like. Our homes were destroyed and we were tortured. My husband and daughters ran away to save their life,” says Sapna.
As you stand near the Teen Bigha corridor, though boards and men in uniform help demarcate the two different countries, but GPS seems unmoved by such an arrangement. As Indians and Bangladeshi’s cross each other’s path, News18 speaks to travelers and clicks pictures with them which constantly show Bangladesh as the location.
In 2011, when the terms and conditions of the enclave exchange were drawn between the two countries, only Sapna and her younger daughter’s name appeared in the list of legal enclave residents.
“Soon, however, my son and two daughters managed to enter India somehow. We had to bribe government official to get identity cards. But even now, when I hear police sirens, I fear they would take my children away,” she says, looking across the horizon.
“I am with my children but my husband is languishing somewhere without a home. I wish I could see him again,” she rues. She looks at me and says in a broken voice: “He doesn’t even know how to cook.”
When I hear police sirens, I fear they would take my children awa.
We are interrupted by her son, Aninda (name changed), who walks in with his young child. The 22-year-old, who works at a local garage, says he is confused whether he is an Indian or a Bangladeshi.
When asked, how he managed to enter India, Aninda explains: “One of our relatives in India helped us. First, in Bangladesh, we took shelter at a middleman’s house. He demanded Rs 3,000, but we negotiated for Rs 2,500. After paying him, we were taken near the border at Chenaghata. From there, a vehicle brought us in India,” says Aninda.
Villagers in CG Jora who have shops complain that the BSG hardly allowes them to carry enough supplies to keep the shops running. Seen here is a page where BSG gives sanction for a specific amount of goods needed.
“The security now is strict and patrolling guys often shoot when they see you crossing the border like this. This ID card is only hope for me and my sisters,” Aninda says, holding an Indian voter ID card in one hand and his baby in the other.
The thought of losing her children, once again, makes Sapna cringe. She stretches her leg and shows me a deep scar on her leg. “A mob of 700-800 people had barged into our old house in what is Bangladesh today to claim our farmland. My children were tied against bamboo pillars and were abused. All we wish for is to forget this pain,” she says.
It’s getting dark and the lamps have been lit.
Kusum Das, mother of a six-month-old says “The infants in this camp and women who were expecting were supposed to get certain financial benefits at hospitals, but nothing of that sort has happened. Now with men doing meagre jobs, who will feed our kids?”
Shanti, one of the dwellers at the Mekhilgunj Settlement Camp, refuses to believe that they were being shifted to an area far away from the town. For her and many like her, the settlement camp is a home like no other
The government wants to relocate these dwellers to Panishala, an area 25 kms away from town which is surrounded by water bodies and forests. The flagship resettlement project is costing the government Rs 1,005 crore. “Somehow we have gotten used to living here. How will we survive when we move?” asks Shanti.
Sapna says, “When we were in Bangladesh, we used to live close to the river. Every flood season, we lost children to the feisty river. Why will we want to live near a river again? …We are fine with our tin houses here. This is our home now.”
CJ JORA: AN INDIAN VILLAGE DIVIDED BY BARBED WIRE
It’s early in morning and Imran, a frail 14 years old, walks out of his tin house, donning a damp rugged shirt and brown trousers. He frantically searches his pocket for voter ID card. “This is first thing I check after getting up. One can forget his pant, but not the document,” he says with an animated smile.
It takes about two hours to travel from Mekhligunj to Mashaldanga, another enclave settlement. Mashaldanga had been the focal point of enclave exchange in 2015. Imran and his friend agree to escort us till Chhoto Gorul Jora or CG Jora, the last Indian village on border.
Cooch Behar town is dotted with enclave settlements and beyond these enclaves are a few villages, right at the border.
The entry to CG Jora was an arduous task with Border Security Force (BSF) officers manning our movement. After spending hours at the BSF camp in Digaltari for permission to visit CG Jora, we were on a road both sides of which fell in Bangladesh.
At first glance, CG Jora is like any other village in rural Bengal with huts that have thatched tiled roofs, banyan trees peeping from every corner and small fish ponds after every few houses. But beyond the usual flora and fauna, the barbed wire makes its presence felt.
CG Jora, surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides, was fenced only a decade ago after the border fencing began in the mid-1980s. On the way to the village head’s house, a group of men sitting at the corridor of the only primary school rue about how the village has got eerily accustomed to the BSF rules.
“Most of us work as contractual labourers in Bihar and Maharashtra. It is not possible to earn anything here. Most men have left the village and it’s only women, children and elderly who been left behind,” says Rahat Hussain, who works in Gaya and is at home to meet his family.
One might get shot at if she ventures out night
- Rehmat Bibi
The entry and exit to the village are manned by the BSF and what irks the villagers the most is the strict control over timings and food supplies. Rehmat Bibi, an octogenarian sits nonchalantly at the verandah of her mud house which overlooks a heap of meshed iron wire fencing. Married at the age of nine, she has been living at CG Jora since then.
Bibi had been an expert swimmer when she was in Patgram in Bangladesh and it did help her when she came to CG Jora. “Previously there was no fencing. We could swim across to the other side or even take a boat. Fetching supplies for daily needs from Bangladesh was easier than sourcing them from Dinhata (India). But now things have changed. One might get shot at if she ventures out,” she says.
Barely a few houses from Bibi’s, we see children climbing up an old dilapidated building with protruding iron rods from the bare walls. This is the secondary school of the village with two teachers and 150 students. Just next to the school is Moinudin Akram’s ration shop.
Every morning Akram opens his shop along with three others in the village. But today he is a sad man. “I need to travel to Dinhata to get the supplies. Now the BSF does not allow us to purchase more than the specified limit. How long can the shop run with 5 kg sugar and 2 kg washing powder? And god forbid if we are late beyond 8 pm, then we have to spend the night outside our own village,” says Akram.
BSF officials, however, say that such checks are necessary so that the essentials are not transported to Bangladesh.
At Pradhan’s house we see a group of women waiting for the local physician, who doubles up as someone who can help people with government documents and approvals from the BSF.
Birajuddin (name changed) looks quite unlike others from the village. Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, the physician says the villagers are being deprived of a normal life.
“Whenever someone is sick, they have to travel to Nazirhat which is 8 km away. Village gates are not opened after the official timings, sometimes even during medical emergency,” says Birajuddin.
He points towards a barbed wire fence which cuts the village in two parts. Ironically, the territory on the other side is also in India but as per rules fencing is done 150 yards away from the international border. This means 80 Indian families stay on the other side of the fence.
Several children, men and women often stick their heads out of the barbed fence to speak to their friends and relatives on this side. Razia Begum, who lives on the other side of the fence, usually comes on this side at permitted hours to work in her agricultural land.
This place has not given us anything
“Many of us have agricultural lands on the other side, but such restricted entry does not allow us to take care of our crops. Often the cattle destroy it and we are only mute spectators. Although we are Indians, every time we cross this fencing, we are made to produce identity cards and it is hell if there is an emergency at night,” says Razia.
But for the BSF such restrictions are mandatory. When asked, BSF Commanding Officer Harish Kalja says often the jawans have to fight armed cattle smugglers at night. “As we cannot use weapons, we only have non-lethal means to fight them. But they attack us in huge numbers with anything from axe to knives. We can’t look the other way even for a minute,” says Kalja.
Smuggling or not, the villagers feel helpless. “We hardly feel a part of India. If given a chance; we will happily relocate somewhere else. This place has not given us anything,” laments Birajuddin.