In 1971, Chunu Das and his parents, along with other settlers from Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and other parts of the central region of India, moved from Bilaspur, in MP, to Pyrdiwah, in the East Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya, near what is now the Bangladesh border. Today, Das is 70 years old, and he and his relatives work on a betel-nut plantation owned by local Khasi landowners. As with the rest of the roughly 60 percent of the Adivasi population that works on Khasi-owned plantations in Pyrdiwah, about 98 km from the state capital of Shillong, Das has neither the right to vote in India, nor a government-issued ration card. “My parents died here, and I am very much a citizen of India,” he said. “So why I don’t have voting rights, I don’t know.”
Voting rights are not the only grey areas in which Das and tens of thousands like him are forced to live. The international border between India and Bangladesh looks smooth on a map, but these territories are actually pockmarked, with hundreds of tiny bits of one country remaining lodged across the border. This situation is courtesy of pre-Independence machinations by local rajas and Cyril Radcliffe’s much-denounced 1947 demarcation of the borders of India and West and East Pakistan.
Pyrdiwah is one of 52 so-called adverse possessions, which lie within Indian jurisdiction but are claimed by Dhaka. In Bangladesh, there are 49 counterpart settlements that New Delhi maintains to be Indian. These locales range in size from five to 500 acres. Legally speaking, the more well-known ‘enclaves,’ also known as chitmahals, are the exact opposite of adverse possessions. Both are tiny pieces of one country found within the territory of the other, but the difference is whether or not the two countries agree on their legal status. Enclaves are agreed upon by both sides; adverse possessions are not. Currently, there are 111 Indian chitmahals in Bangladesh, totalling nearly 17,300 acres, and 51 Bangladeshi counterparts in India, covering almost 7100 acres.
Despite their differing legal status, residents of both the chitmahals and the adverse possessions along the Indo-Bangladeshi border share much in common, above all being almost completely cut off from their surroundings, particularly in terms of infrastructure. Now, in the face of an even larger cut-off, they are sharing something else: opposition to the 4095-kilometre fence that is being constructed along the length of the India-Bangladesh border. (The Meghalaya-Bangladesh border makes up roughly 423 km of this.) Like Chunu Das, inhabitants in these villages – on both sides of the border, but particularly in India – are currently demanding that the larger issues of adverse possessions and enclaves be dealt with before any further ‘sealing’ of the border takes place. While these cartographic oddities have led to significant difficulties for the communities within them over the years, the fencing of the border is set to make these problems much worse, particularly in terms of the economic impact on communities that rely on crossborder trade.
Many are now pushing for an updated land survey to be carried out before the border fencing continues. Fearing the potential forfeiture of their lands, they are also worried about the current rules governing where the fence can be constructed in the first place. Since 1974, India and Bangladesh have agreed to undertake border-fencing at a minimum of 150 yards away from the ‘zero line’, or the actual border. Because India is building the fence on its own side of the border, this is a stipulation that is threatening to dramatically eat up the lands owned by the border communities on the Indian side.
Over the past few decades, India has indulged itself in a fence-building frenzy. During the early 1980s, the New Delhi government started to seal its border with Pakistan. By 1985, it had turned its attention eastward, towards Bangladesh, which comprises its longest land frontier. Since then, these two projects – costing roughly USD 3 billion in the west, and USD 1.2 billion in the east – have proceeded quietly. As of February this year, nearly 2600 km of the India-Bangladesh fence had been completed, with an end date currently set for 2012. Meanwhile, along the 2308 km-long Indo-Pakistani border, more than 1900 of the 2000-plus km of planned fencing has been completed.
Claiming worries of militant infiltration, Indian officials have certainly ensured that the India-Bangladesh fence is imposing. It is made up of lines of eight-foot-tall concrete pillars, topped by floodlights, high-tech thermal imagers and various other technical aids. The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) also mans around 180 km of the border where the fence runs through rivers, utilising what are called ‘floating border outposts’, which the BSF says are essential to make their “vigil and deterrence more effective”. These consist of a mother ship and several speed boats, which can accommodate more than 50 BSF personnel.
Predictably in such a sensitive situation, recent years have seen occasional skirmishes between villagers, the BSF and the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). Although the fence has gates to allow Indian farmers to access lands that have been cut off, this does not always function perfectly. (Bangladeshi farmers in general do not suffer from similar problems.) Inevitably, the local reaction to any perceived slight in this regard is immediate. In January 2008, for instance, around 20 people were hurt when villagers in Kathalia, in western Tripura, clashed with the BSF over the entry and exit times at the gates, which are supposed to remain open for 12 hours every day. The BSF claimed that the gates were being opened and closed punctually; the villagers felt otherwise.
Thus far, the most violent border conflict in the area has been in Chunu Das’s home village, the contested locale of Pyrdiwah. In 2001, this relatively nondescript village suddenly made international headlines after Bangladeshi troops swooped into it in the early evening of 15 April. They held the village for four days. The flare-up was evidently triggered when the BSF had started to construct a footpath within a disputed area in Meghalaya. Dhaka objected and asked the BSF to withdraw, but the latter refused. Around 700 Bangladeshi security personnel subsequently entered the village and took control of a nearby BSF camp.
Thousands fled. The BDR and Bangladeshi villagers looted the homes of those who had left, and covered them with graffiti warnings stating that the land belonged to Bangladesh. Thanks to BDR for our struggle for independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dream Bengal and similar slogans were reportedly found written on the walls of a local church and school. Chunu Das says that he vividly remembers both the looting and vandalism. “As the BDR and the Bangladeshi villagers occupied our land, houses and belongings, we had to leave everything behind to take shelter in the nearby jungle,” he said. They stayed there until the troops and villagers from across the border were eventually forced to take a step back following diplomatic pressure from New Delhi.
That experience understandably scarred the Pyrdiwah villagers. But seven years later, they also say that the April 2001 Bangladeshi ‘intrusion’ was something of a blessing in disguise. After Pyrdiwah appeared on the national and global stage, the district administration was forced to step in and provide villagers with much-needed basic facilities, including water, electricity and phone lines – all of which had not been available previously due to Pyrdiwah contentious status as an adverse possession.
The BSF has also stepped up its own support. Indeed, villagers say that it is not the state government, but rather the BSF that is offering them the most important aid. “The BSF provides us medical help,” confirms Fernando Tynsong, another Pyrdiwah local. “They have also constructed tube wells, as there is a scarcity of drinking water. They have built trails, and also provided textbooks and school uniforms for our children.” Other villagers add that the BSF often arranges vehicles to bring the sick to nearby clinics. In so doing, the BSF has been able to build up a positive image in Pyrdiwah. “There are no more theft cases here, especially of cattle, betel nuts or other products, due to the increased presence of the BSF,” said Simol Khonglah, a local resident.
Perhaps most tellingly, following the 2001 incident, Pyrdiwahis were also given voting rights. On technical grounds, those living in adverse possessions had long been denied this right. There are still problems on this front, however. Forty percent of the village’s population is composed of local indigenous tribes of Meghalaya – Khasis – while the rest are Adivasi settlers, like Chunu Das, which have come from Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and other parts of India since 1971. Now, although most in Pyrdiwah can vote, some Adivasis, amongst them Chunu Das, remain left off of the voter list. They allege that the administration has refused to register them.
Subject to security
Today, Pyrdiwah has been lucky, but even now most other adverse possessions in India remain largely off of the official radar of New Delhi. The village of Lyngkhat, for instance, just eight km from Pyrdiwah, is also claimed as Bangladeshi territory. But as was the situation with Pyrdiwah prior to 2001, Lyngkhat still lacks the most basic amenities.
Meanwhile, the security-related presence of the BSF remains problematic vis-à-vis greater development for this area. Worries about health care, drinking water and electricity aside, the major complaint here is the non-existence of roads. To reach Dawki, a border town near Pyrdiwah, both the BSF and villagers have to trek seven km through the jungle. While a scheme to construct a 10-km road between Dawki and Lyngkhat was submitted in 2002 to the Transport Ministry, this area’s immense strategic importance has gotten in the way of constructing the road. The matter has instead been referred to the Ministry of Defence, where the INR 210 million project awaits approval. A border road running along the fence, which was planned in 2002, would indeed help matters, but its implementation likewise remains on paper only.
The situation surrounding the Dawki-Lyngkhat road illustrates the ongoing lack of political will to resolve the matter of adverse possessions in general. According to the 1974 Land Border Agreement between India and Bangladesh, these and related contentious issues were to have been put to rest by the end of 1975. Article 2 stipulates that both governments would exchange adverse possessions by that date, after signing off on a mutually agreed-upon map. Article 3 states that, in transferred areas, residents would have the right to stay where they are, but as nationals of the state that received the territory. Indeed, the agreement was even to take into account the possibility that this exchange did not take place right away: perhaps the most crucial line in the treaty emphasises that even while border demarcations and territorial exchanges were pending, “there should be no disturbance of the status quo and peaceful conditions shall be maintained in the border regions.” More than 30 years later, however, neither government has taken even a single step forward, and the peacefulness of local conditions is highly debatable.
Hand-in-hand with this political inertia is the ways in which the new fencing is impacting on the local economy. The border has cut off the haat markets that thrived on both sides of the border prior to 1971, particularly in villages surrounding Dawki. Most of the commerce coming from Meghalaya is made up of oranges, pineapples, betel leaves and nuts, broomsticks and bay leaves; in return, their Bangladeshi counterparts sell biscuits and fresh and dry fish. But farmers and traders are now unable to engage in crossborder exchange without official licenses. And, once they are regulated by obtaining a license, they are not allowed to cross into the other country, but have to stop at the ‘zero point’.
Voting for change?
Not all political pressure has gone unheeded. In early 2007, the Meghalaya government bowed to local opposition, and suspended fence construction in ‘disputed areas’ along the border. The state government formed a committee to look into the villagers’ grievances, and to further study the exact location of the border. The National Building Construction Corporation and the Border Roads Organisation, which had been contracted to build the fence and roads, were directed to cease work in anticipation of the committee’s report.
That document finally came out in December 2007. In it, the committee suggested that, in areas through the Jaintia Hills, the fence should be constructed at the zero line, rather than at the stipulated the 150-yard distance. It further recommended that a land survey be carried out through the East Khasi Hills, to discern the exact location of the border. “We want the international border to be surveyed again. This is the only way these problems can be settled once and for all,” said G H Kharshanlor, a spokesperson for the committee. Although the state government subsequently gave assurances that it would take the committee’s recommendations into consideration, it has yet to carry out any further action.
In the face of this stagnation, the people seem to be taking matters into their own hands, at least those who can. On 3 March this year, 78 villagers in Pyrdiwah utilised their newfound political powers to elect a new representative to the eighth state Legislative Assembly. The villagers say that by casting their votes, they have affirmed their ‘Indian-ness’, and their assertion that the land they live in is indeed a part of India. But the villagers also cautiously note that whoever comes to power will need to protect their lives and livelihoods, and strive to improve their living conditions.
After the votes were counted, that responsibility fell to a rank newcomer. An independent candidate, Don Kupar Massar, defeated the sitting Congress party legislator, Khan Kong Dkhar. Now, Massar is in charge of border-area development, and he says that safety and roads are his foremost responsibilities. He also confirms that Pyrdiwah had long been overlooked prior to the 2001 BSF-BDR clash, but suggests that things are now changing. “It’s true that some of these villages were neglected, and needed help in terms of development,” he said. “But it is now one of my top priorities to ensure that all assistance is given to them.” He added: “The fencing work should not be carried out before the disputes are solved. I will try to convince New Delhi on this.”
But will Massar be able to do anything differently from his predecessor? After Simol Khonglah, the Pyrdiwah local who informed authorities of the BDR’s seizure in 2001, cast her vote, she said, “We took part in the election, and now the new government should pay more attention to the borders areas, especially in providing a health centre and constructing good roads in Pyrdiwah. Although we are safe now, we aren’t sure what the future holds.”
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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