Freedom at Midnight

No title could perhaps been more appropriate to describe the events leading up to the exchange of the adversely possessed enclaves inside Bangladesh and India long after the partition of India in 1947 than to borrow the title of once bestselling Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s book ‘Freedom at Midnight’ where the authors narrate the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947 and its subsequent fallout. As per the pre-set dateline the practical transfer of the enclaves would have begun on the strike of zero hour of July 31, 2015 and sovereignty of both Bangladesh and India would have been established over each other’s enclaves situated within the national boundaries of both countries. From today the map of Bangladesh is complete and the people who lived in these enclaves in both countries for more than 68 countries can proudly call themselves as citizens of either Bangladesh or India. The choice is theirs. They would remain grateful to the extraordinary statesmanship shown by Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh and Smt. Indira Gandhi – the then Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India respectively – who in 1974 signed the historic Indira-Mujib accord in New Delhi to transfer these enclaves. As the transfer needed handing over possession of territories of one country to another the accord needed ratification in the National Parliament of both countries which Bangladesh did immediately but India failed to do so until recently. The credit for the completion of the final phase of the accord also needed the farsightedness of India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Bangabandhu’s daughter Sk. Hasina. Both the Prime Ministers need to be congratulated for the courage and decisive action after a lapse of about 40 years since the signing of the accord in 1974.

The enclave and most of the problems that still haunt the people of the subcontinent was the creation of the departing British rulers, especially those created by Cyrill Radcliffe the British lawyer who headed the Indian boundary demarcation committee in 1947. Radcliffe had no knowledge about the history, culture and heritage of the Sub-continent. His partition plan and drawing of the lines to create the states of India and Pakistan at best was arbitrary. Bengal, Assam and Punjab were divided creating some of the greatest human tragedies in recorded history. Part of the blame must also be shared by India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Founding Father of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah. If the all concerned parties showed little bit of patience, statesmanship and farsightedness these tragedies could have been averted and even the Burmese province of Arakan could have been added to the then East Pakistan. Burma (now Myanmar) was still part of the British Empire. If done that current catastrophic and tragic problems prevailing in Arakan could also have been averted. The enclave problems could also have been put to rest and the thousands of people who were virtually stateless and devoid of all kinds of citizen rights, until the zero hour of July 31, 2015 could also be averted.

During the tenure of Dr. Manmohan Singh led UPA government in India attempts were made to ratify the Indira-Mujib accord in the Indian Parliament but due to the opposition of the then leading opposition party BJP in the parliament and the Paschimbanga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party Trinamool Congress the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) deal could not be passed in the parliament. Once Modi formed government in 2013 he changed his earlier stand on the issue and pursued Mamata Banarjee also to support the LBA deal in the parliament for greater interest of both the countries. In May 2015 finally the accord was unanimously ratified in the both the houses of the Indian Parliament. Modi visited Bangladesh in the following month and the documents were exchanged. Thus, a new era of co-operation between the two countries began.

The final phase of the practical transfer of the enclaves actually began in 2011 when Bangladesh and India jointly conducted a census in July 14-17 to determine the total population residing in the enclaves. The total number was found to be 51,549 of whom 37,334 were in Indian 111 enclaves within Bangladesh while 14,215 people were residing in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within India. So long all these people were living in these enclaves without any lawful citizenship of either country. After the transfer of enclaves has been completed, the land area of Bangladesh will increase by 10,050 acres. India will concede 17,160 acres to Bangladesh whereas India will get 7,110 acres from Bangladesh. Due recognition must also be given to India for the territorial sacrifice it has made for the greater interest of the people living in these pockets. Not many people who have lived for generations desire to leave the home and property of their forefathers though both countries promised resettlement for those who opts to become citizens of the ‘other country’ whose enclaves they belonged to, as they would not like to face a new bout of uncertainty. Those who want to move number only few hundreds. Some have even changed their option at the last moment.

Once the exchange is complete and the sovereignty of both countries established in newly acquired territories the real challenge of providing the basic facilities including public utilities will begin. For decades these wretched people were devoid of basic education, health care, safe drinking water, protection of law, employment opportunities, free movement and social contacts. These must be provided without wasting any time. Providing basic education must be prioritised.

Already some media has reported that in some of the enclaves the half educated self-styled mullahs have started the preliminary work of establishing madrasas. If not checked in the early stage, this may later prove to be a basic social and security problem. The government should immediately begin to establish primary schools for hundreds of children, most of whom have no idea what a real school looks like. It is not unlikely that some NGO’s would like to rush into these new territories but some of them may do more harm than good. All NGOs need to be screened. Employment opportunities must be provided so that the inhabitants do not fall victim to human trafficking or become hostage to militant organisations.

There are also reports that some land grabbers are waiting in the wings to grab lands who opted to go to the ‘other country.’ The law enforcing agencies and the civil administration will need to take extra precautionary measures to protect the life and property of all, irrespective of whether they chose to live in Bangladesh or settle in India. So far the governments of both countries have shown extraordinary sense of maturity to solve the outstanding problems of the enclave dwellers. Now is the time to help the new citizens of both countries to merge into the mainstream population with due honour and dignity. We do not want a mini tragedy of 1947 to be enacted again either in Bangladesh or in India. Now it is time to look forward and resolve other outstanding problems that still exists between the two countries.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.