Crowds cheer India, Bangladesh land swop

Residents of the Dashiar Chhara enclave, which belonged to India but has become part of Bangladesh, take to the streets in celebration yesterday. The Bangladesh government will roll out a "fast-track masterplan" to develop the enclaves, building new
Residents of the Dashiar Chhara enclave, which belonged to India but has become part of Bangladesh, take to the streets in celebration yesterday. The Bangladesh government will roll out a "fast-track masterplan" to develop the enclaves, building new roads, schools, power lines and clinics.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Residents in tiny enclaves belonging to the other country celebrate new citizenship

DASHIAR CHHARA (Bangladesh) • "This is where we are, see... right here on this map," said Mr Mohammed Mansoor Ali, jabbing at a frayed, yellowing parchment.

"This is Bangladesh, and that's India all around us."

Mr Ali, 74, was displaying a land record dating back to 1931 - the last time the Bangladeshi enclave of Poaturkuthi, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, was surveyed.

"We were part of British India then. I have our family's original title deed with the seal of George V, the Emperor and also one from East Pakistan and one from Bangladesh, but none from India," Mr Ali told the BBC on Friday.

He was just one of an estimated 50,000 residents living in isolated little enclaves of land situated in India and Bangladesh, but belonging to the other country.

That all changed yesterday.

Jubilant crowds celebrated as Bangladesh and India swopped the tiny islands, ending one of the world's most intractable border disputes. As the clock struck one minute past midnight (2.31am Singapore time), thousands who have been living without schools, clinics or power for a generation erupted in cheers of celebration for their new citizenship.

"We have been in darkness for 68 years," said Mr Russel Khandaker, 20, referring to the period since the partition of British India in 1947.

He was dancing with friends in the Dashiar Chhara enclave, which belonged to India but has become part of Bangladesh.

"We've finally seen the light," he told Agence France-Presse.

A total of 162 tiny islands of land - 111 in Bangladesh and 51 in India - were officially handed over to the countries surrounding them after Dhaka and New Delhi struck a border agreement in June.

In Dashiar Chhara, thousands defied the monsoon rains to celebrate. They marched through muddy roads, singing the Bangladeshi national anthem and shouting: "My country, your country. Bangladesh! Bangladesh!" Officials from Bangladesh and India also hoisted their respective national flags over their new territories yesterday in formal ceremonies.

Mr Shafiqul Islam, chief government administrator in the northern district of Debiganj, said the Bangladesh government would now roll out a "fast-track masterplan" to develop the enclaves. The plan includes building new roads, schools, power lines and clinics.

The enclaves date back to ownership arrangements made centuries earlier between local princes.

The parcels of land survived partition of the subcontinent in 1947 after British rule and Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence with Pakistan. Bangladesh endorsed a deal with India in 1974 in a bid to dissolve the pockets, but India only signed a final agreement in June when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dhaka.

In the final hours before the handover, villagers held special feasts and joined prayers in mosques and Hindu temples.

Mr Prodeep Kumar Barman led his troupe near a temple at the main bazaar in Dashiar Chhara, singing: "Oh what a joy, what a joy!"

Plans for more lavish festivities have been scaled back as India is observing a period of national mourning for former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who died last week.

"This is the biggest celebration of my life. I can't describe how I feel today," said Mr Parul Khatun, 35, a resident of the Indian enclave of Kot Bajni.

Both India and Bangladesh conducted surveys last month asking enclave residents to choose a nation. The overwhelming majority living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted for Bangladeshi citizenship, but nearly 1,000 people on the Bangladesh side opted to keep their Indian nationalities. They now have to leave their homes by November for India, where they will be resettled in West Bengal.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Crowds cheer India, Bangladesh land swop'. Print Edition | Subscribe