Life in the Enclaves and the Land Boundary Agreement: A Long Overdue Solution

Parvin Sultana

and Bangladesh shared a peculiar history of enclaves. It is a long twisted tale
of certain areas finding themselves in trans-territorial setting. Enclaves are
fragments of one country totally surrounded by another. The trans-territorial
setting means an area being geographically located in one country but
politically and legally belonging to another. While the world does not have too
many enclaves at present, the most well known ones are the Baarle-Nassau and
Baarle-Hertog enclaves  Belgium and the
Netherlands respectively. While the Belgium –Dutch enclaves are only 30 in
number, there were 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi
enclaves in India.

situation within the enclaves has always been grim. Ever since independence and
the partition that followed, the enclave dwellers numbering around 50,000 have
been languishing in a situation of statelessness. While theoretically they are
citizens of one country or the other, in practical terms they are not given the
basic amenities which are supposed to be part and parcel of citizenship rights.
surrounded by the territory of another country, to travel to their home state,
people have to cross international borders and take necessary permission for
doing so. Along with this, due to the absence of access to the home country the
people have been systematically denied of basic amenities. They are practically
prisoners in these enclaves as they cannot procure documents required for
travelling to their so-called motherland.
the formation of enclaves, local legends hold that these enclaves were pawns in
a game of chess between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Fauzdar of Rangpur.
They wagered villages from their respective domains in the game. When one lost
a part of his area, he gave up control over these land islands. In this
process, the enclaves were created. However, a more plausible explanation
according to Brendan R Whyte is that the enclaves were a result of a number of
treaties signed in 1713 by the Mughals and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar which
gave the control of some lands in Mughal territory to Cooch Behar chiefs. This
1713 treaty is regarded as the beginning of the enclave problem.
the princely state of Cooch Behar merged with India in 1950, the enclave problem
of Cooch Behar became the problem of India and East Pakistan. With the
formation of Bangladesh, it became an Indo- Bangladesh problem. What
accentuated this problem is the pathetic condition of the enclave dwellers.
They live in a stateless limbo. Their lives have become a resultant of
historical and geographical anomaly.
drive home the absurdity of their situation, for many across the footpath from
home is a different country. They are physically the inhabitants of one country
while their so called ‘allegiance’ is to another. They are the citizens of no
country in practical terms. The villages do without basic public services like
electricity and roads. Their children are denied education due to
unavailability of required documents. Many are forced to forge documents to
send their children to school. They have no right to vote. Without identity
documents they are vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment for being illegal
problem of enclave dwellers began with the introduction of passports and visas
in 1952. They lost their limited mobility and were allowed to pass through only
designated check points. They ran the risk of being arrested for not carrying
passport while crossing the international border. As the enclave dwellers had
no voting rights, both India and Bangladesh lost interest in their cause.  
terrible story of enclave dwellers has pointed to the nullification of the
enclave residents’ citizenship because of their trans-territorial setting.
While the enclave dwellers are excluded from the state judicial system and
citizenship rights, they are subject to the host country’s law and mechanisms
of exploitation. Vulnerabilities of enclave dwellers abound. There is no
mechanism to regulate rape and murder cases. The enclave dwellers have no birth
certificate, national ID card, passport or access to any state facilities
including electricity, policing, schools and hospitals. Enclave life is
entirely dependent on the benevolence of the host country for economic, health
and educational facilities.  
life of the enclave dweller is subject to law but is unprotected by the law.
They are left invisible in the eyes of the state. State machinery is present as
a punitive force in these enclaves but never as an agent of development. During
the bird flu epidemic of 2009, poultry owners whose chickens were destroyed
were compensated. But this benefit was not extended to the enclaves. However
border guards often enter these enclaves to catch anti-social elements who use
this area as a hideout.
of these enclaves have no tube wells, no medical facilities, no markets, no
water. The residents travel to the neighbouring country to buy and sell things
and hence risk themselves being caught. Unemployment was high in the enclaves
as getting job without documents is next to impossible.
India nor Bangladesh have institutionalized their legitimate sovereignty in
these enclaves. Administrative absence in the enclaves deprives residents from
their due citizenship rights. There is a lack of law and order. In case of violation
of rights of one, justice is rarely done. While enclave dwellers suffered from
exclusion and exploitation of various kinds, the worst victimized are the
female enclave residents.
enclave residents are victims of certain gender-specific traumatic experiences
besides the general experience of a life of exclusion and exploitation. They
are abandoned from all kinds of citizenship rights, human rights and are denied
specific health needs in maternity. They are also abandoned from any legal
rights. The state of lawlessness not only situates life as unworthy in a nation
state but also enhances sexual violence and private patriarchy. Public forms of
patriarchy involve degradation from citizenship when women from the host
country get married to men living in the enclaves. Women face health hazards on
a daily basis. The risk of maternal mortality and stillborn in enclaves is
increased manifolds.
enclave situation simmered for a long time. Political compulsions often pushed
this problem to the backburner. Bangladesh had more Indian enclaves. Any talk
of land swap meant India and Bangladesh would give up their claims on the area
of enclaves within their territories. This meant India would have to give up
claim on more land. This did not go down well with states like Assam and West
Bengal. Another aspect of the Land Swap Deal was to give option to the enclave
dwellers on choosing their country. They could accept the citizenship of the
host country or move to their home country. Hence the residents of Indian
enclaves could travel to mainland India and be given Indian citizenship. Many
showed concern that this would pave way for illegal immigrants to move into
India. This was accentuated by the fact that the question of illegal
immigration continues to be an important one in the political discourse of
logical solution of exchanging enclaves continued to be in the backburner of
the tumultuous Indo-Pakistan relationship. This simple issue became
intractable. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Feroze
Khan Noon did arrive at an agreement in as early as 1958. But the 1965 Indo-Pak
war made it impossible for the two countries to go ahead with the treaty.
However after the formation of Bangladesh with an active support from India, a
solution to the enclave problem seemed possible. A chance came in 1974 and the
Indira- Mujib Agreement talked of a swap of enclaves. While the agreement was
ratified by the Parliament of Bangladesh, it became a victim of internal
politics which pushed the law into a limbo.
opportunity came with the Dhaka Agreement of 2011. It included minute details
about the swap. However the BJP, then in opposition, opposed this bill
dismissing the plight of the enclave dwellers. For mere reason of scoring
brownie points, BJP opposed this bill tooth and nail in the Parliament. It
quoted ambiguous reasons for doing so by saying that everyone, from the Indian
Security Force to farmers are in the dark about the agreement. 119 amendments
introduced by the Manmohan Singh government failed to take the opposition on
board in addressing this humanitarian issue.
conveniently played up the panic of sub-nationalist groups like All Assam
Students’ Union (AASU) that Land Swap Deal would mean Assam losing land. However
many have pointed out the need of such a treaty to address the problems of
enclave dwellers. The land that Assam and West Bengal was scared of losing is
already inaccessible to the Indian government without permission from the
Bangladesh government. Rather land swap deal would give the country access to
enclaves of Bangladesh which are territorially situated within India.
Boundary Agreement (LBA) is the first step to addressing other problems of the
Indo-Bangladesh border. Better trade relations, transport corridors, Look East
policy would be difficult without the support of the Bangladesh government. BJP
once in power decided to go ahead with the same deal which it thwarted in 2011.
A solution long overdue, the Land Boundary Agreement is expected to let the
enclave dwellers live with dignity. Concerns for domestic politics overlooked
the humanitarian crisis that enclave dwellers faced for almost seven decades. As
opposed to the concern of many, it is unlikely that once enclaves are
dissolved, the enclave dwellers will move to their home country. Having lived
their lives in the host country, many preferred staying there along with a
renewed hope of citizenship and a life not marked by deprivation on every
the passage of the bill and the signing of the treaty have a potential to
address the problems of enclave dwellers after all these years, the unnecessary
delay showed how political parties undermined the problems of enclave dwellers
in front of electoral compulsions. The real test of the LBA will lie in how far
it can help in regulation of Indo-Bangladesh border and in turn help in a
realistic evaluation of the influx situation. This is important so that people
belonging to particular cultural stock are not demonized as ‘infiltrators’ and
‘potential foreigners’.
most other problems of the region, a genuine crisis failed to get notice of the
governments at the centre for close to seven decades. A humanitarian crisis was
undermined by concerns of the emotive issue of losing land which was not even
accessible in the first place and concerns of national security. The region
continued to be seen through the prism of national security. And the utterly
long delay in signing the Land Boundary Agreement further re-entrenched this
1.    Shewly,
Hosna J. “Abandoned spaces and bare life in the enclaves of the India-
Bangladesh border”, Political Geography,
Vol 32 (2013).
“41 Years in the Making”,  The
Indian Express
, May 12, 2015.
Bhattacharya, Ananya. “India-
Bangladesh enclaves: Life in the islands on land”, Daily O, May 30, 2015.
Daniyal, Shoaib. “ India- Bangla Land
Swap: was the world’s strangest border created by a game of chess?”,,  May 8, 2015.
“Breakthrough in India- Bangladesh
ties”, The Hindu, May 11, 2015.
“A settlement long overdue”, The Hindu, August 13, 2013.
“At India-Bangladesh Border, Living in
Both and Neither”, The New York Times,
Oct 9, 2011.
author is Assistant Professor at Goalpara College, Gauhati University, Assam.