The Plight Of The ‘Nowhere People’ — Of Pain, Labour and Humiliation

Imprisoned by barbed wire, lacking basic amenities and rights, people trapped within the enclaves along the India-Bangladesh border lead wretched lives, writes filmmaker Aparna Sen
OPINION | The Plight Of The 'Nowhere People' -- Of Pain, Labour and Humiliation
No Land’s Men
For inhabitants of Karala 2 chhit, lives behind the barbed wire are bleak, with little hope in sight

She is in labour. Her contractions are coming faster, getting more intense! But she still has to walk the 500 yards from her home to the large black gate with barbed wire all around, and guards outside.  And when she reaches the gate and informs the guards, it will be a one to two hour wait before permission is granted for the gate to be opened, the big black gate to the outside world…and then, if she’s lucky, a car to take her to the nearest hospital 15 kilometres away. Can she make it? She must make it! She must!

I am watching Sacred Games sitting in my favourite armchair. My back just hurts a little from sitting so long, which all my doctors have forbidden me to do, but I just have to finish this engrossing episode!

She has barely reached the barbed wire fencing, when her baby decides to arrive with little regard for time, space or convenience. The women accompanying her crowd around, trying to shield the intimate process of birthing from the eyes of the male inmates of their prison. The baby slips out onto the earth amidst the dirt and the muck. Someone cuts the umbilical cord with a piece of split  bamboo. A makeshift surgical knife. Ingenious! Would it be better for the new-born to die? Or live to be brought up in the same prison as its parents, in a makeshift home without electricity or potable water, behind a huge black gate, outside which is the throbbing, pulsating, land of opportunities that they know as India?

I have finished binge watching Sacred Games and have now switched on to a discussion about NRC on television. A moment of panic! I don’t have a birth certificate! I was born in my grandparent’s home with a highly qualified doctor in attendance, but did anyone think to register my birth?

Ah! But I do have a passport! The date of my birth is imprinted clearly there along with the place – Kolkata, India. A sigh of relief. I go back, yawning a little, to the TV debate about NRC. It doesn’t really concern me. I think I’ll turn in now…but before that I must turn down the air conditioner. It’s a tad too chilly.

Munmun Bibi (Muslim) and Mumpy Burman (Hindu) lie awake with their husbands late into the night in enclaves known as chhit-s while their children whimper in the dark heat of their small rooms. No lights for them. No fans either. But that’s a minor issue right now for their parents. They are  worried about when they will be given their citizenship cards, as promised after Constitutional Amendment no 119 was made in 2015, and the historic LBA or Land Boundary Act passed in Parliament. 

But who are these people and where did they come from, these inhabitants of the fifty-one chhitmahals that are strewn all over Cooch Bihar? I am ashamed to say that I had never heard the word chhitmahal before. I learnt about them only after I was told the shocking story of the woman giving birth by the barbed wire. So, who are they?

They are the ‘nowhere’ people. 

Their ancestors were once the subjects of the Maharaja of Cooch Bihar whose kingdom stretched from Rangpur, now in Bangladesh, to Jalpaiguri and the Himalayan foothills. It was then a part of undivided India. Back in 1947, there were still independent kingdoms that had not acceded to the Indian state. Cooch Bihar was one such.

Radcliffe, who had no idea about the geography of India except in theory,  drew the boundary line dividing our subcontinent into India and Pakistan, and left as hurriedly as possible for the more temperate climes of England. The Maharaja of Cooch Bihar acceded to the Indian state two years later, in 1949. So his subjects, who had all along thought of themselves as Indians, were now  divided between India and Pakistan and lived in little enclaves or chhit-s on either side of the boundary line, not knowing whether they were Pakistani citizens or Indian. 

We had gone to visit them recently. Bolan Gangopadhyay, Mudar Patheria and I, aided by the NGO Masum.

Why, I ask myself, did we bother to fly to Bagdogra, take a car to the New Jalpaiguri station, board a train to Cooch Bihar and then drive out the next morning to Dinhata, more than an hour’s ride away, to find out about these people who were no concern of ours?  Our group Citizenspeakindia has no political affiliations. I, personally, have no political ambitions whatsoever. What drew me there? A possible subject for a film? We filmmakers are notorious for using people as ‘subjects!’ But searching deep within, I find that that is not the answer. It is the plight of that pregnant woman that haunted me, haunts me still. As a woman. As a mother myself. And I believe that image haunts Mudar and Bolan as well.

We don’t find her anywhere when we get to the chhit that is known as Karala 2, even though the local women tell us that the incident actually happened.  Dinhata is the nearest town to Karala 2. It took us 20 minutes  by car to get there. But we are not allowed inside. “The area is sensitive,” the BSF guards explain politely, and they  can’t possibly allow us in without written permission. Fair enough. We should have thought of that. We did inform the DIG (BSF), the SP and the DM of Cooch Bihar of our visit on that particular day attaching a route map of our tour. Receiving no reply from any of them, we assumed that we were not forbidden to go. After all, there is no wartime emergency now, and we were not planning to cross over to Bangladesh, only to visit the inhabitants of the chhit to see what their living conditions are like. We were not planning on having a picnic there, or going on a shopping spree as someone from the BSF pointed out rather sarcastically! In any case, according to article 19 of the Constitution, all Indian citizens are allowed to travel freely anywhere in India. We thought we were too.

Well, we are proved wrong. No matter.  The cooperation of the BSF guards (who are after all, simply obeying orders) cannot be faulted. They allow some of the inhabitants to come out and talk to us. 

We learn a lot from them. We learn that the big black gates of their ‘prison’ are opened twice a day. Once in the morning and once in the evening. 

According to the Geneva Convention of 1945, to which India was a signatory, the barbed wire fencing is supposed to be only 150 yards away from the pillars at an international border. The area between the pillar and the fencing is no man’s land. But at Karala 2, the fencing is 500 yards away. So the enclave falls within the no man’s land from which entry and exit are strictly regulated. If only the fencing were shifted to 150 yards from the border, the enclave would fall within Indian territory and the inhabitants would be allowed to move about freely. No barbed wire. No gate. No guards. It is a small demand to make, is it not? No rickshaws or vans are allowed inside the enclave either. Munmun bibi, a young inhabitant of Karala 2 tells me that she had to walk 500 yards to her home after her caesarean operation. 

None of the children at Karala 2 like going to school. Why?  Because they get hungry! School ends at 2 PM, but they have to sit outside on empty stomachs until the black gate re-opens at 4 PM to let them back in. Don’t they get mid-day meals at school, I wonder.

There are eleven families living in this enclave, fifty-one residents in all, a negligible number in a nation of 133+ crores. But these eleven families have been intermarrying amongst themselves for years! Brides who would agree to enter the world behind the barbed wire fencing are impossible to find. No point worrying about what kind of genetic effect this kind of inbreeding is bound to have  on their future generations sooner or later… 

Children don’t like school—it gets over at 2 pm, but hungry students have to wait till 4, when the big gate opens.

This is just Karala 2, the worst of all the chhits we visited. The others are marginally better. At least they are not enclosed by barbed wire. Thanks to the Pradhan Mantri Sadak  Yojana and the efforts of the State Government, the roads in the district of Cooch Bihar are fairly smooth and well-paved. But inside the chhit called Paschim Bakhali’r Chhara, the scene is entirely different. During the monsoon season, the roads in the enclave are nothing more than a mire of knee-deep mud!  Now, even after a few weeks of strong sun, they are still difficult to traverse! We see a narrow earth road in the middle of the chhit. It is framed by two large ponds on either side. When the rains come, the ponds and the road become one – a large and treacherous body of water that is impossible to negotiate! Some children had fallen into the pond by mistake and drowned, we are told by Mumpy Barman who is married to one of the men in this chhit,

I ask them about their toilet facilities in ‘Swachh Bharat’ and am shown a faded pink slab, which has the Mahatma’s name engraved on it in faint lettering. It is part of the Swachh Bharat campaign. “So where is the shauchalay?” I ask. The lady of the house points to a space behind the pink Mahatma slab, curtained off with a torn sari. No door to it, so I take a peek. There is an earthen platform with several haandi like vessels on it, and a sacred tulsi mount close by. I still don’t get it. Where is the shauchalay then? Someone patiently explains that the haandi-s have to be removed for the shauchalay to be used. I am left wondering whether the same haandi-s are used for cooking, but refrain from asking. It seems sad enough to see the Mahatma reduced to a shauchalay in this manner

The next day we meet the representatives from the various chhits and ask them what their main problems are, so that we may try to present them to the State and Central governments. It is exhausting to write down all the details. Bolan does that. Mudar talks to one group while I start taking video shots of another as they relate their woes. They  actually believe that we will be able to help them. Their faith in us brings me close to tears, because all I can really do is listen. Reassurances ring false even to my own ears.

“Which is our Independence day?” one of them asks me in all seriousness. “Is it 15th August 1947? Or is it in 1949, when the Maharaja of Cooch Bihar joined India? Or in 1974, when Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi signed a pact for exchange of land and residents? Or is it in 2015 when the Land Boundary Act was passed?” 

I have no answer. 

These people are like pawns being shifted around by pacts, which they can’t even begin to understand. All of them are Barmans –  Rajbanshi-s, they tell us proudly. Is that Hindu or Muslim, I ask in my ignorance. Hindus, I am told.

“I have papers of the East India Company from my forefathers’ time, and documents from the Maharaja of Cooch Bihar to prove that the land I am tilling is mine” complains an elderly resident of Phalanapur chhit, “But I don’t have the right to sell any of it. I have no papers from this side of the border to prove that the land is mine!”

Phalanapur is actually more affluent  than the other enclaves and the inhabitants have a fair amount of land that they have always known as theirs, except that they don’t have papers from India to prove it. There is a river called Buri Dharala that runs in the middle of their chhit with people living on either side. One of their demands is that a bridge be built over it to facilitate the movement of the inhabitants, but despite repeated pleas to concerned authorities, nothing seems to have happened. 

We hear varying reports about the amount of money that was allotted by the Centre for the development of the chhit-s after 2015 – 30,000 crores…3,000 crores…1,000 crores… Whatever the actual amount, the general complaint seems to be that a good part of it has been  spent on projects that have nothing to do with the chhits….a stadium was built somewhere…another bridge was built somewhere else…

All seem to agree that the Land Boundary Act of 2015 was a good move, but that the process was left incomplete. Land and  residents have been exchanged between India and Bangladesh, but there has been no follow up. At the time the Act was passed, they had been promised mainly three things: Citizenship. Rehabilitation. Development. None of which they have got.

They all have voter cards. That’s the first thing they were given. Most have Adhaar cards as well, though many of these have been made under false names – names of Indian acquaintances, friends, relatives or in-laws who are passed off as parents or husbands. There was no other way they could go out and earn a livelihood or send their children to school. Now, after 2015, those names need to be corrected.  Up until recently, they had been assured by various agencies that their voter and Adhaar cards were proof of citizenship. It is only now that they have woken up to the fact that they will need valid citizenship cards in order to stay on in India – cards that were promised to them when they were exchanged like so many sheep by two governments. An exchange in which they had no say. 

In the one hundred and eleven ‘chhitmahals’ in Bangladesh, the erstwhile subjects of the Maharaja of Cooch Bihar don’t have citizenship rights either.

They are the ‘nowhere’ people on both sides of an international border, with no country to call their own.

I realise that I am an Indian citizen just by an accident of birth. And because of that accident, no guard can stop me from going back to my apartment in Kolkata tomorrow and resume watching a debate about NRC on television.

This article by well known film artiste, Aparna Sen was penned after a visit to the Chhitmahals and was also published in the Outlook. It is being published here with permission from the author.



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