The chitmahals or India-Bangladesh enclaves were located in Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya. Enclaves in Bangladesh despite being geographically located there owed political allegiance to India and vice versa. Citizenship for the enclave dwellers conceptually was clear but in practical terms mired in confusion. In 2015 the enclave issue was resolved at a political level and citizenship was regularized.
The Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University under its UGC CAS III programme in 2017 took up a project entitled Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies through the Prism of the Border where among many border-related issues, the study of the life and culture of the erstwhile enclave-dwellers was taken up in an attempt to understand the uniqueness of enclave-life and its difference from that of the mainland one.
The researchers are Dr. Sucheta Bhattacharya, Dr. Sujit Kumar Mondal and Dr. Parthasarathi Bhaumik of the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
However strange it may sound, some parts of India and Bangladesh tasted ‘freedom’ for the first time only on July 31, 2015. The chhitmahals or enclaves (pockets of land surrounded completely by the sovereign territory of the neighbouring country) in both countries were released from their curse of forced passivity by the same states which had held them in thrall for 68 years after the 1947 partition of India.
The very strange case of the ‘chhitmahal’ (enclave)’ population of India and Bangladesh was replete with not only political problems, of issues pertaining to concepts of statehood and nationality, of legal implications, of human rights issues, but also with irony and paradoxes and a certain anxiety about their future. It also constitutes an uncomfortable example of how states can in a seemingly legal manner suppress the rights of their own people.
These enclave people became refugees without moving a single step from their native land. They constituted the counter to the diaspora in their inability to move anywhere, trapped in the vicious network of international politics and law, as they were. Their disempowerment as citizens became manifest in their constantly changing identities in their ‘homeland’, based on religious, national, ethnic ones according to the political necessities of the day. The Chhitmahals / enclaves were remnants as well as constant reminders of India’s conflict-torn partition of 1947. The pains and tribulations of the chhitmahal people bore testimony to the unjustness of the principles along which India was trifurcated into West and East Pakistans and India. It also proved that the concept of modern nation-state with clean borders is often a myth and another proof that the logic along which the partition of India was conceived of and executed was basically a high-handed and arbitrary one condemning a large section of people to deprivation of citizenship and the rights that accompany it for generations.
How the Indo-Bangladesh chhitmahals came to be:
Modern day Cochbehar is a district in the north of the state of West Bengal in India, one of the those bordering Bangladesh. However till 1949 Cochbehar was a quasiindependent princely state, which was given options by the just-born Republic of India to join Pakistan or India, or to remain independent. It opted to attach itself to India. The royal family of Cochbehar was established in the late fifteenth / early sixteenth century by one Vishwa Singha, who came from a village in Assam. The kingdom grew vastly in power and territory during the reign of the next king, Naranarayan Singha who was assisted very ably by his general Shukladhwaja or Chilarai. The relationship of Cochbehar with the Mughal empire was always tension-fraught as the state become stronger in time and regular skirmishes and temporary truces between the armies of the Mughals and the Cochbehar state, marked the history of the subsequent years. But things became particularly serious in the middle of the seventeenth century when the Mughal dynasty in Delhi was being torn asunder over the question of inheritance of the empire. The then king of Cochbehar exploited the political instability of the Mughal empire to occupy a couple of politically strategic areas for the Mughals in the east, one of them it is believed, being Dhaka (capital of modern Bangladesh). Emperor Aurengzeb who wrested the throne of Delhi from his elder brothers, once he sat firmly in Delhi, sent Mirjumla, one of his most trusted generals to teach the Cochbehar kings a lesson for their audacity. Mirjumla’s attack marked the beginning of a new kind of conflict which would lead to the creation of the chhitmahals or enclaves. Mirjumla’s attack changed the whole equation between the Mughals and the state of Cochbehar with far-reaching effects. He conquered the capital city of Cochbehar as well as some other territories, established a mosque in the capital and settled some of the soldiers there. But for the Mughal emperor it was becoming increasingly difficult to rule one of the easternmost territories from the west of the country. Mughal occupation therefore was not absolute. The farmers loyal to the King of Cochbehar rebelled against the Mughal administrators and conflicts between the two sides became regular affairs. Political instability and lack of a clear locus of power bred internal rivalry and the local leaders, among whom the most prominent was the nawab/faujdar of the neighbouring Rangpur (initially installed by the Mughals but turning into an independent ruler in all practical senses), who became more and more powerful putting the Koochbehar royal family into more political trouble. An uneasy truce was reached with the Mughals when three separate districts loyal to the Cochbehar king were recognized as the territory of Cochbehar and three districts comprising population sympathetic to the Muslim faujdar of Rangpur were awarded to Rangpur. These districts, which even then became enclaves, were the tax-paying subjects of the respective ruling states and thus they remained till 1949. 1949 was the year however, which was to change for the enclave-dwellers, life as they knew it. 1949 was the year in which the state of Cochbehar opted to join the two year old sovereign state of India. It joined India with all its prosperity and all its political difficulties not the least of which were the chhitmahals or enclaves. The chhitmahals which belonged to Cochbehar but geographically were part of the new-formed East Pakistan in 1947, were still seen as belonging to the erstwhile state but as Cochbehar now became a part of India, its vassal areas also came to be regarded as Indian territories. On the other hand the land pockets held as belonging to Rangpur, (which had in 1947 gone to East Pakistan), became chhitmahals of East Pakistan, though they geographically were located firstly in Cochbehar, and subsequently went to India. After 1971, when the Republic of Bangladesh was established by cutting ties with West Pakistan, the East Pakistan chhitmahals within the political boundary of India came to be known as Bangladesh chhitmahals. The enclaves / chhitmahals therefore were buried into foreign territories and owed political allegiance to states to which they were not physically attached. An Indian chhitmahal situated in Bangladesh would not be governed by Bangladesh, but had no connection with India either, as entry to the mother-state would be negotiated through a foreign land, which itself would be difficult as the residents had no papers testifying to their Indian identity, and vice versa. The desire to "de-enclave" most of the enclaves was manifested first in a 1958 agreement between Jawaharlal Nehru and Feroz Khan Noon, the respective Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, for an exchange of enclaves between India and Pakistan without considering loss or gain of territory, which bore no fruit. The second attempt at de-enclavanization was through the signing of a Land Boundary Agreement on 16 May 1974 between Indira Gandhi of India and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the newly created Bangladesh. which provided for the exchange of enclaves and the surrender of adverse possessions. Under the agreement, India retained the Berubari Union No. 12 enclave while Bangladesh retained the Dahagram — Angorpota exclaves with India providing access to it by giving a 178- by-85-metre passage, called the Tin Bigha Corridor. In September 2011, India signed the Additional Protocol for the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. Both nations announced an intention to swap 162 enclaves, giving residents a choice of nationality. Under the agreement, India received 51 of the 71 Bangladeshi enclaves that are inside India proper while Bangladesh received 95 to 101 of the 103 Indian enclaves (111 out of 119 chhits) that are inside Bangladesh proper After the exchange enclaves, India lost around 40 km²(10,000 acres) to Bangladesh. According to July 2010 joint census, there were 14,215 people residing in Bangladeshi enclaves in India and 37,269 people residing in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh. The people living in these enclaves without a nationality were allowed to choose their nationality. Finally in July 2015, the formal exchange of enclaves was complete, with the dwellers of the chhits choosing their preferred states. Till 2015 July, India had 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within its boundary whereas Bangladesh had 111 enclaves which belonged to India. A footnote to this: the terms enclaves, exclaves and counter enclaves frequently crop up during any discussion on the chhitmahals. The Bangladesh-owned enclaves in India were also known as exclaves for Bangladesh and similarly the Indian enclaves within Bangladesh were Indian exclaves. A counter-enclave is an enclave within an enclave. Dahala-Khagrabari in Cochbihar was a third order Indian enclave.
The team from Jadavpur University, Department of Comparative Literature in the February-March of 2017 visited the erstwhile chhitmahals and the residents of Indian chhitmahals in Bangladesh who had migrated to India and temporarily accommodated in camps. Exactly one and a half years had passed after the exchange and we wanted to explore if emotionally and culturally they had been able to accept the change. Our first visit was to the Mekhligunj Block Agricultural Research Centre where some residents of the Gotamari and Lotamari enclaves in Lalmonirhat in Bangladesh had been accommodated after crossing the border. Later in the day we met with Mr Diptiman Sengupta the moving force behind the resolution of the enclave issues and the leader of the Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC) since 2008 which spearheaded the exchange. The transcription of his interview puts into focus the very complex and fascinating process through which the enclaves came to be and also were dissolved apart from a few, which could not be absorbed into the states they were geographically located right away because of their strategic closeness to the border.