If we looked at the world’s maps a crazed array of boundaries cuts Bangladesh out of the cloth of easternmost India, before slicing up the surrounding Himalayan area and India’s north-east into most of a dozen jagged mini-states. It is to be found floating along the northern edge of Bangladesh’s border with India. Struggling over territory and terrorism, rather than the exchange of goods and goodwill, Bangladesh-India have dominated its relations with its mega-neighbour. Forty-two years on, both countries appear to be nearing an agreement to solve the insoluble—by swapping territory.
The planned exchange of parcels of each other’s territory is concentrated around some 200 enclaves. These are like islands of Indian and Bangladeshi territory surrounded completely by the other country’s land, clustered on either side of Bangladesh’s border with the district of Cooch Behar, in the Indian state of West Bengal. Surreally, these include about two dozen counter-enclaves (enclaves within enclaves), as well as the world’s only counter-counter enclave—a patch of Bangladesh that is surrounded by Indian territory…itself surrounded by Bangladeshi territory.
Folklore has it that this quiltwork of enclaves is the result of a series of chess games between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur. The noblemen wagered on their games, using villages as currency. Even in the more sober account, represented by Brendan R. Whyte, an academic, the enclaves are the “result of peace treaties in 1711 and 1713 between the kingdom of Cooch Behar and the Mughal empire, ending a long series of wars in which the Mughals wrested several districts from Cooch Behar.”
That was before the days of East India Company rule, before the British Raj and long before the independence of South Asia’s modern republics. These places have been left as they were found by both India and Bangladesh: in a nearly stateless state of abandonment. They are today pockets of abject poverty with little or nothing in the way of public services.
There is now talk that a land swap might be sealed when India’s prime minister will visit Bangladesh. If it goes ahead, India stands to lose just over 4,000 hectares of its territory, or about 40 square kilometres. It has 111 enclaves of land within Bangladesh—nearly 70 square kilometres. Bangladesh has 51 enclaves of its own, comprising 28 square kilometres surrounded by India. The transfer proposed would simplify the messy boundary immeasurably—and entail something like a 10,000-acre net loss for India.
Meanwhile, construction of a border fence, 2.5m high, on India’s 4,100km border with Bangladesh, the world’s fifth-longest (due to all its zigging and zagging), continues unabated. It is a bloody border, too. Indian soldiers enforce a shoot-to-kill order against Bangladeshi migrants caught making their mundane way from one side of the line to the other.
The people who actually live in enclaves (and counter-enclaves) in a certain sense “don’t see” the borders. They speak the same language, eat the same food and live life without regard to the politicians in Dhaka, Kolkata and Delhi. Many of them cross the border regularly (the bribe is US$6 a trip from the Bangladeshi side).
A few years ago, away from Cooch Behar, on the eastern border with India, I met a man who lived smack on the border between Tripura state and Bangladesh. His living room was in Bangladesh, his toilet in India. He had been a local politician in India, and was now working as a farmer in Bangladesh. As is typical in such places, he sent his daughters to school in Bangladesh, and his sons to India, where schools, he thought, were much better. To his mind, the fence dividing the two countries was of little value. But, he conceded, “at least my cows don’t run away anymore.”