What Makes A Citizen: Everyday Life in the India-Bangladesh Enclaves

The Indian parliament ratified the 119th Amendment to the Constitution on 11 May 2015, swapping hundreds of enclaves scattered along the India-Bangladesh border. State discourse often overlooks the ways in which the enclave dwellers create spaces of their own in their state of abandonment, negotiating with international borders and challenging fixed ideas of citizenship. 

Me: Which place is this?  

Kaushinmoi: Andie!

Me (perplexed): NDA? Do you mean BJP government?

The boatman: No, she says India.[1]

On 8 October 2016, my friend and I reached Chhit Bangla (officially known as Chhit-Tiloi), which used to be a fragmented territory of Bangladesh that fell within India. This place can be currently located inside Char (a term used in Assam and Bengal to refer to a sandbar or riverine island) Balabhut which falls under Tufanganj, a subdivision of Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. Char Balabhut was further fragmented at places in Dhubri district of Assam. The char is separated from the mainland by the “international waters.”

A View of Chhit Bangla
A View of Chhit Bangla

Here, we were introduced to a lady named Kaushinmoi Bewa, the sole inhabitant of the region, by a border guard named Deepak Kumar (name changed).[2] Kaushinmoi lived with her daughter in a house which was a cluster of three make-shift rooms made of bamboo. A boatman from the “mainland” had taken us across the “international waters” to reach this place. We had to hand over our identity cards to the Border Security Force (BSF) before we set off for this place. Interestingly, the identity cards that they wanted from us could be a voter card or any such, but not a passport or visa which the constitutions of the two states demand for crossing international borders. The “international waters” were, thus, more of an “alert border” (as the BSF called it) to inform that there was an international border ahead.


Me: Where is your daughter now?

Kaushinmoi: She has gone to Jhaukuthi (nearby Indian market).

Me: Do you vote in India?

Kaushinmoi: I voted here for the first time in this election.

Me: Does the Indian government take care of you?

Kaushinmoi: The government gave us two chickens: Sarkari Murgi (government chickens)!

In everyday life, nature had certain demands of its own. Kaushinmoi was the sole inhabitant of a former Bangladeshi enclave, because her fellow people had shifted long ago. In search for shelter and a place to call home, and to escape the annual floods in the region, crossing international borders was not an uncommon phenomenon (Sengupta 2017). Probably, the feeling of homelessness was more feared than being disloyal to a state and its borders. Or, rather, overlooking borders was more natural to them, than abiding by a Westphalian idea of state sovereignty that had emerged in Europe and imposed on the subcontinent in the mid-20th century (Schendel 2005).

Me: Can I stay here with you?

Kaushinmoi (spontaneously): Yes, why not?

Me: If not today, next time when I am here, this would be my place to stay?

Kaushinmoi: I will not be here. We shift before the monsoon rains flood the place. (Sengupta 2017) [3] 

Chhit (or enclaves) are tiny pieces of land which belonged to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) but remained in India, and vice versa. After the partition of 1947, and the advent of the modern concept of boundary, the villagers had to take note of the new state borders in their daily engagements, as crossing those boundaries became an illegal activity. To add to their helplessness, the borders nastily ran through villages, markets, rivers and even through people’s houses (Schendel 2005). 


On 15 October 1952, Pakistan and India introduced the passport and visa system in order to demarcate and regulate their eastern borders, because of which certain groups automatically became outsiders and their mobility was controlled thereafter (Banerjee: 2010). For the people living in the Chhit, the situation was more complex since they were outsiders in their own far-located homeland. They lived inside the territory of a different state. The agreement rarely made any mention of them and, as a result, these people were left landlocked in those enclaves. Eventually, the district officials were also hassled and arrested by the host state’s police and border guards when they tried to access information from the Chhit for surveys and censuses. This complicated the situation to the extent that by the mid 1950s, the states had surrendered trying to establish their authority over these territories (Schendel 2002). 


With no voting rights, no primary health centres, and no access to the public distribution system (PDS) or rehabilitation packages for the displaced people or refugees from the home states, the Chhit people were citizens only on the official papers of their home states (Kaur 2002). The legal bond of membership between the state and its members was unavailable for them, and they could be considered de facto stateless. But, then, they were not refugees, since they lived in the territory which belonged to their home state (Ghosh 2015).


Interestingly, the enclave borders had largely remained unfenced and scattered which made the international borders illegible and difficult to control for the BSF stationed there. From my visit to Chhit Bangla in early October, I witnessed that the other side of the “international waters” was a land composed of sands which made the river shorter as compared to times of high floods. This distance kept changing as rainfall submerged the sand bar, making this piece of land only a temporary phenomenon. This meant that the natural border created by the water kept fluctuating, making the borders even more difficult to control. A fluid border had troubled the calculations of distance and time needed to cross it. 


To settle these geographical complexities, India and East Pakistan decided to exchange the enclaves as a part of the Noon–Nehru Agreement in 1958, but discontent from the opposition benches of the two states delayed it until a fresh agreement, the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), was signed in 1974. However, disagreements between the two states continued and the LBA was only passed in May 2015. In accordance with the agreement, India transferred 111 such enclaves to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh transferred 51 enclaves to India.


On 31 July 2015, India and Bangladesh swapped these bits of territories with a hope to “mitigate the hardships that the residents of the enclaves have had to endure” for living in a non-state space. Hence, a year after the agreement came into force, when I visited Kaushinmoi on 8 October 2016, her home had become a part of the Indian territory, her daughter could legally access the Indian market, and she voted in India in the last election. The two Indian chickens represented the new bond of belongingness. However, the term Chhit (for Chhit Bangla) was still being used to refer to that portion of Char Balabhut by the locals.


In light of the land border agreement, this article seeks to understand the sociopolitical and economic dimensions of life situated in this space that was considered stateless. Keeping Kaushinmoi’s words in mind, the paper seeks to make an effort to rethink the fixed spatial notions of state, sovereignty, and citizenship that have been imbibed in our everydayness, be it our speech, access, or movement. In particular, the article shall seek to address the following questions:

1. How do activities in the enclaves shape their moments of citizenship?

2. Do these moments of citizenship in the enclaves provide certain spaces of freedom?

3. What are the possibilities of locating the enclave outside the binary of state/non-state spaces, but as a space of its own—as a Chhit space?


Fixing the Spaces the Right Way

For British officials, variations were a major source of irritation, be it in speech or pronunciations. Uniformity was a blessing simply because it created a legible human community that facilitated manipulation and experimentation. The essence of this can be found in Bodhisattva Kar’s article, “The Tongue Has No Bone,” which explores the politics of envisioning a regional language for Assam during the 19th and early 20th centuries (2008). The article highlights how, by setting up a printing press in the region, a linguistic knowledge was produced that deliberately overlooked the heterogeneous and fluctuating speech practices of the region. Therefore, the divide between the language and the dialects, the mainstream and the margins, are not pre-historical residues or technical errors, but a deliberate effort to create a uniform and standard structure of language. Therein, the British collection and codification of information of the subcontinent contributed to a cultural hegemony and political control. 


Their control was not only limited to creating a written language, but also to sketching the British empire onto paper. The 19th century witnessed the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) which was introduced as a project to measure and map the region with scientific precision. This survey has long been seen as a triumph of rational imperialism because, for first time, the subcontinent was truly understood because it had been measured and mapped. But, the GTS was flawed in two ways: first, the GTS was not the complete survey of India because it was plagued by cash shortages and conflicting ideological concerns; and second, it was a highly negotiated process involving the differences in interests of surveyors, military overseers, the governors of India and the East India Company Board in London. They often did not visit places when hit by a “jungle fear” (Edney 1997). In spite of these shortcomings, the GTS was supported by the Royal Society, as they had used mathematics and Newtonian mechanics (Schendel 2005).


On the other hand, the notion of a fixed and a well-demarcated boundary did not hold much value for the rulers of the region. The Mughal Empire did not see the enclaves as unusual and problematic since they used feudal relations to control the outlying provinces. The unavailability of accurate maps and stable demarcated borders made the enclaves less obvious. In 1772, the British expedition invaded and conquered Cooch Behar, but the region continued to exist as before. The princely states remained autonomous, but the British decided to rule them indirectly. The Maharaja and his administration were retained under the control of a British political agent with the development of an indirect colonial rule in the region (Whyte 2002).


The company, however, seems to have been ignorant about the Cooch Behar enclaves until 1848, when a letter from the Acting Magistrate of Rangpur recorded his discovery (Whyte 2002). The letter pointed out that in many police jurisdictions, patches of land were discovered, and though they were surrounded by the Cooch Behar Rajah’s estate, they had long remained independent of the company. The letter further alarmed the company that the magistrate’s authority was not exerted over those isolated spots, either in general superintendence or even when people involved in notorious activities had taken refuge there to hide from the police. In 1932, an initiative was taken to exchange the enclaves for administrative benefits, but this plan had to be abandoned due to strong local opposition. Although the rationale behind the opposition was not clear, it can be interpreted in two ways: life in enclaves was not troublesome as the people chose to continue to live with their enclave status, and managing the enclaves was not problematic as the British continued to rule by the decision of the enclave dwellers.


However, when the time of partition arrived, the British government appointed an Englishman to divide the Indian subcontinent. Cyril Radcliffe, who headed the Boundary Commission, was a stranger to India. He arrived in July 1947 and carried out the “superhuman feat” of dividing a state he had never seen before (Banerjee 2001). He drew a straight line that ran between rivers, villages, houses and marketplaces. The formation of the enclaves was inevitable, because Radcliffe did not have “the right map to do it with” (Mosley 1967). Thereby, the enclaves ceased to exist on the country’s formal maps. In spite of Radcliffe’s failed operation, the rulers of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh considered this surgery holy and sacred. Following this, partition not only divided the Indian subcontinent, but it was also a partition of human relationships, and a call for merciless bloodshed in the name of nation-making.


Reminiscing the Colonial

Immediately after the formation of India and East Pakistan as two separate political entities in 1947, the borderlines were not precisely demarcated. Gradually, the newly built nations of South Asia made every effort to demarcate and manifest their power over their territories (Schendel 2005). Some ways through which they claimed the borders were by celebrating national events, manipulating the language and body codes (say, dresses), introducing the passport and visa system, and, thereby, inducing differences in social, political, and legal form. The sole intention behind creating these differences was to instill a feeling of “us” and “them”, creating a relationship of “insider” and “outsider,” a “citizen” and “foreigner”/ “alien” (Banerjee 2010).


For a member of a state, celebrating the national events and symbols that are embedded in its constitution is important in order to be called a citizen. Citizenship is about performances and about embodying the state structures. Butler (1988) refers to the words of Foucault, “a stylistics of existence,” to explain that the style is never fully independent, for living styles have a history, and that history conditions and limits possibilities by subscribing certain practices. While a citizen has to practise the rules and regulations embedded in the constitution, to do so means reproducing the entire history embedded in it. The refusal to do so may mean that the person could be exposed to punishments of different forms. Hence, when Kaushinmoi, who lived in a place detached from the “mainland,” said that she lived in “Andie” (not “India” as we are trained to pronounce it) without any hesitation, I realised that it was a space which the boatman and I did not enjoy; space which was not fixed by political tools, grammar or language, maps or surveys, in order to create a nation’s imprint. The following section tries to explore this particular space.


Locating the Chhit space

H J Shewly reports that Sam Poran, a resident of a Bangladeshi enclave located in India, covered the border pillar that marked their national identity with the bamboo fences of his property’s boundary. He was not worried about building a house in between two states’ territories and declared, “no border between my inherited property.” Literally, one of his rooms sat on the mainland and his tube well pumped ground water from India for Bangladeshi household work. He kept the border pillar inside his house. He could become an Indian or a Bangladeshi according to his convenience (Shewly 2012). 


Be it Kaushinmoi Bewa or Sam Poran, it was not uncommon for the people in the Chhit to overlook the international borders. Deepak, the border guard, informed us that his relationship with Kaushinmoi was on friendly terms. He further said that before the LBA was signed, Kaushinmoi had to walk a longer distance to walk into Bangladesh for her daily exchanges. However, both Deepak and Kaushinmoi were hesitant to respond clearly about her movement to her home state when she did not have a Bangladeshi ID of her own. Their hesitation suggests that the relationship between the border guards and the Chhit people was an important aspect in their everyday pursuits across international borders. I learnt that this relationship was neither uniform nor static. Jason Cons began conducting research in Dahagram and, in 2007, he reported that a Bangladeshi enclave located 200 metres away from the Bangladesh border and connected to its home state by the Tin Bigha corridor, was a “palpably uncomfortable place.” He reported that, “Tensions over the corridor were high and disagreements between India and Bangladesh (and between Congress and the Bangladesh National Party) were escalating—particularly in conjunction with the building of the border fence with Bangladesh and with the regular shooting of Bangladeshis by Border Security Force troops at the border” (Cons 2014). 


At the same time, Sam Poran’s story suggests that they could not be completely dependent on the border guards’ empathy in order to access the other state’s services, and hence they had strategies of their own too. In another instance, H J Shewly reported that, immediately after the 11 September attacks of 2001, Mustak Ahmed, a resident of an Indian enclave, went to seek the border guard’s permission to go to India, but he was turned down. Instead, the border guard asked him if he was Osama Bin Laden’s brother (Shewly 2012). These stories show that the primary problem the people faced was not one of territorial dislocation, but of the national anxieties that came with the new borders which had problematised their lives.


However, the Chhit people also showcased a third way of thinking about themselves: as enclave people. A shared sense of lawlessness and problematic identity had brought them together to form an enclave identity. Willem Van Schendal (2002) reports that there were times when they stood united to utter these words in resilience: “We people of the enclave can cope with anything.” This also indicated times when they challenged the home/host state for their reluctance to provide them with any services. They had established a citizen committee to look after their own needs. Dohala Khagrabari, Barapara Khagrabari, and Kotbhajni, three contiguous enclaves together, made the largest Indian territory in Bangladesh and formed three elected Chhitmohol Nagorik Shomiti (enclave citizens' committees). These committees, which consisted of a chairman and members from different village neighbourhoods, were formed with the purpose of acting as courts, and they organised public works, and conducted negotiations with the mainland on behalf of the enclaves (Van Schendel 2002).


Free Space: A Retrospection  

In spite of the tough life in the enclaves, the people not only engaged themselves in informal social, economic, and political exchanges from across international borders, but in this way, they also defied and challenged the notion of a fixed state space which has long been stuck in a “territorial trap” (Shah 2012). They refused, challenged, and constantly negotiated with the statist ideas of citizenship which had been suffocated inside the model of a nation state. On the other hand, if one sums up their experiences with the states, it is evident that they were performing certain acts of citizenship, but from across the international borders. Thereon, their acts of citizenship consisted of a free space which allowed a Bangladeshi to walk across the Indian border to access Indian markets, pursue education from Indian schools, and engage in both temporary and permanent employment in the Indian territory, or vice versa, without paying allegiance to any of the state constitutions. In other words, their state of abandonment provided them with a free space which helped them to think beyond the fixed nationalist terms.


Therefore, though the enclaves might not have had the direct presence of a state, the enclave experiences suggest that there was no power vacuum. The people were in relation with both the states, although in the form of exclusion (Agamben 1988). As Deepak Kumar, the border guard at Chhit Bangla, had joined us, Kaushinmoi started preparing food for all of us. Her interest subtly changed from discussing life in a stateless zone to her role of preparing food for us, a responsibility which was assigned by gender. I felt in that moment that the woman’s voice was silenced, and the “friendly” relationship which the border guard informed me of was typically loaded with a power bias. On the other hand, when Shewly reports the story of Sam Poran, she also adds how his parents had managed to get Indian ration cards for the whole family in the early 1980s, which provided him the power to keep the border pillar as an interior artefact or private property. This was a moment of dilemma for me when I gave a second thought to Kaushinmoi’s silence. Kaushinmoi was not as economically or politically affluent as someone like Poran, and hence her silence was a strategy, a part of her well-calculated risk-taking capacity. I felt her silence was not a result of mere powerlessness, but a rationally made decision. 


Spaces cannot be decontextualised from the power relations that prevail in the form of caste, class, religion, and gender identities even inside the enclaves. The border guard’s denial to let Mustak Ahmed access India because of his religion shows that these spaces of freedom were in constant interplay with the two states and their stand at the international level. At the same time, the Chhit experiences also suggest that this space remained fluid and kept changing in accordance with the shifting demands of the hour. These spaces of freedom need to be acknowledged, for they have provided the Chhit people with a chance to not only negotiate with the interests of the two sovereign states, but to also claim a third way of life for themselves (Shewly 2012).



In most discussions over the enclaves, the primary questions have been on their political status that has been set in binaries:citizen or non-citizen. On the contrary, their acts of citizenship shift the attention of the debate from “who is a citizen” to “what makes a citizen.” These acts are not restricted to the strict patterns of voting, taxpaying, or being loyal to the state to be called a citizen. In particular, they troubled the notions of state, sovereignty, and citizenship that were fixed inside a territory, when they reached out to create new relationships with the border guards or with the people from across the borders.


However, when one gets to hear of these enclaves, it is only from the narrative of the state, that the enclave dwellers were vulnerable and powerless. What frequently gets overlooked is the role of the border people as negotiators and mediators between the interest of two sovereign states. For a comprehensive understanding of life in the India–Bangladesh enclaves, one needs to look at these zones not as state spaces or non-state space, but instead as spaces of their own—Chhit spaces.

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