The Tin Bigha corridor 15 years on
Jason Cons provides the unofficial perspective
This past June 26 marked the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Tin Bigha corridor, a land bridge that connects the Bangladeshi chhitmahal (enclave) of Angarpota/Dahagram (AGDH) with mainland Bangladesh. June 26 is usually a day of celebration for AGDH's 16,000 residents. This year, the day was marked by a sour mood of discontent and resentment.
"We spoke to the UNO," a friend told me, "and decided that because of the emergency, this year we wouldn't have any public events." And so, while activist groups from the surrounding Indian village of Mekhliganj gathered in the corridor to protest the existence of the Tin Bigha, shouting slogans of: "United we stand, united we fight" and "Leave Bharat!" AGDH residents gathered in tea stalls and grumbled.
The discontentment this year was not only about the lack of celebrations and the failure to answer the Indian protesters with rally cries of their own. Over the past 2 months, a rumour had been circulating that finally, after a long fifteen-year wait, the corridor would finally open for a full 24 hours a day. Currently, the corridor is open for only 12 hours, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., allowing AGDH residents to access local markets and resources in Patgram. The corridor, which is controlled by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF), remains closed during the night, presenting a range of complications for residents. But now it sounded as though things might change.
One resident excitedly told me: "About two months ago, the BSF started construction on two new buildings in the corridor. The BDR [Bangladesh Rifles] immediately protested and stopped the construction. The BDR told them that construction couldn't continue until the corridor is open for 24 hours. But two weeks ago, construction resumed …"
Though there was limited basis for such rumours, they still served to ignite optimism in even the most sceptical of AGDH residents. When no concrete action was taken by the 26th, it served to further dampen spirits within the enclave. The hopes of AGDH residents had been dashed. Again. Reports that the corridor would be opened full time, and that the remaining enclaves within India and Bangladesh would finally be exchanged, emerge almost annually. Yet, little changes for the residents of these complicated spaces along the northwestern border, and the enclaves remain one of the sticking points in India-Bangladesh relations.
Throughout the past 60 years, debates over the chhitmahals have arisen as a series of puzzles. What are these odd spaces that are both part of, and separate from, their home countries? What country do their residents "belong" to? Is it constitutional for India or Bangladesh to "give" a piece of their land away? Can India provide passage through their sovereign territory for Bangladeshis to move from one part of Bangladesh to another? Yet, posing such questions as policy puzzles makes it difficult to see the enclaves as spaces where people are regularly denied basic rights of citizenship. Viewing them as such shifts the debate away from which state the enclaves "belong" to towards how people within the enclaves have defined the terms of their own belonging. The past 60 years have demonstrated that the questions of the corridor and of enclave exchange are issues that cannot be easily sorted out between the two states. What might happen if, instead of territorial exchange, the debate was shifted to securing citizenship for enclave residents? Such a shift in perspective can transform the debate over how long the Tin Bigha corridor is left open, from one of state sovereignty to one of basic human rights. To approach the question of the corridor and AGDH from this perspective, it is first necessary to understand their peculiar history.
Brief official history of the chhitmahals
The enclaves are small pieces of Bangladesh completely bounded by India, and vice versa, and are concentrated along the Lalmonirhat/Cooch Behar border. Their residents must illegally cross two borders simply to reach their home countries. Official counts put the number of these enclaves at 51 Bangladeshi enclaves inside India and 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh. Though the chhitmahals date from Mughal times, the particular complications for those living within them began with Partition and became acute in 1952, with the implementation of a passport/visa system between the two countries.
In 1958, there was an official agreement to exchange all of the enclaves in the Nehru-Noon Accords, though deteriorating relations between East Pakistan and India and a series of court cases in India prevented this from being implemented. Another attempt to resolve the enclave issue was mounted in 1974 under the Indira-Mujib Accords. The accords make specific provisions to exchange all of the enclaves with the exception of AGDH and Berubari Union, a disputed area along the border with Jalpaiguri. As the Accords have it: "India will retain the southern half of South Berubari Union No.12 … in exchange Bangladesh will retain the Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves. India will lease in perpetuity to Bangladesh an area … to connect Dahagram with … Bangladesh."
This agreement, too, remains only partially fulfilled. While Bangladesh ceded South Berubari shortly after the agreement was signed, the corridor only opened 18 years later. Despite regular discussions, there has been no move to exchange the enclaves themselves.1
It is not clear exactly why the two countries cannot come to an agreement on this seemingly simple problem. In official documentation, each side seems to blame the other for the failure to resolve the issue. Border working groups and joint-forces committees regularly agree to "discuss the matter further at a future date." Viewed from this perspective, the enclaves may help to maintain an open dialogue between the two countries' border security forces. However, the lack of resolution of the Tin Bigha issue continues to pose both practical and conceptual difficulties for those living in both AGDH and the other enclaves scattered along the border.
View from inside Angorpota/Dahagram
To understand the situation in AGDH, one must understand its history leading up to the opening of the corridor. AGDH is unique amongst the Indian and Bangladeshi chhitmahals. Its access to the Tista river, its size (approximately 4,000 acres), and the political struggle fought at both local and national levels over the opening of the corridor distinguish it from other areas. Yet many of the difficulties its residents have faced over the past 60 years are similar in kind to other enclaves'. Before the opening of the corridor, the lives of AGDH's residents were, to a large extent, governed by the tide of relations between India and East Pakistan and, later, Bangladesh.
When relations were good, residents were able to go to Mekhliganj, the surrounding Indian thana, to sell crops and buy essentials. But even during these periods of relative calm, residents faced numerous kinds of exploitation. As one resident described it to me: "We had to go through the camp, where the BSF man would note our names, inspect the goods we were carrying, and suggest, 'Okay, you can go to market later, first come inside the camp and cut the grass, or clean the lavatory, or so on.' They used to force us to pay in labour for around one hour. Afterward , we were allowed to bring rice, or wheat, weighing at most 5 kg."
When relations between the two countries were less good, residents had to risk crossings at night to reach the village of Patgram to buy and sell goods. They were subject to periodic blockades where conditions inside AGDH often reached near famine states. Many residents shared experiences with me of having to survive by eating shrubs while staying trapped in the enclave for months on end. "We had to bury our dead in rags or banana leaves," many told me. Looting was a constant problem, as was cattle theft and even abduction of women. Many residents complained of communal tensions that frequently escalated into outright conflict amongst residents of AGDH, the BSF, or residents of Mekhliganj.
One of the most serious incidents took place in the months before the India-Pakistan war in 1965. One night in March, members of surrounding Indian areas burned the village to the ground. Many of the villagers remember the horror and confusion of that evening. One man described the event to me. "We noticed some hasty movement of villagers and noticed fire on the north side. Most of the men returned home, shutting their shops … We saw people north of the village crossing the road. Everybody was carrying bundles, gripping their children, and walking fast. The fire in the north was widening … My father rushed to the cow-shed and untied all of the cows, so that they could save their lives … My father took hold of the rice pot. We kids were walking alongside my mother. We reached Tin Bigha …Then the population of the enclave was around 12,000. Around 3000 stayed at their homes. These were non-Muslims (Hindus). The rest of the mass gathered there. When we arrived at the Tin Bigha, the BSF weren't allowing us to pass. I remember hearing a few gunshots. The BSF was firing to prevent people from crossing Indian territory, but we were desperate, and by 10 p.m. we passed Tin Bigha and reached the mainland."
The bulk of the refugees sheltered in makeshift camps in Patgram thana, staying there for three weeks while cross-border tension remained high. Eventually, residents were allowed back into the enclave and received nominal compensation from the Indian government, including a cow for each family and other household essentials. Many residents report that they were forced to eat the cow to survive during the ensuing months of hardship, while houses were rebuilt and crops re-sown.
Such experiences were certainly not unique to AGDH. Indeed, many residents of Indian also reported incidents of looting, land grabbing, cattle theft, burning, and blockades, particularly during the East Pakistan period. However, AGDH's size and politics have made it a particular focus of conflict and tension since the Indira-Mujib accords.
In the early 1980s, several young activists inside AGDH formed a Dahagram Movement Committee to advocate for the implementation of the '74 treaty. This group staged public awareness campaigns and activist events to call attention to their cause. As one former member described it: "We printed hand-bills informing people of the condition in Dahagram, asking for help. We stuck these hand-bills in railway compartments to inform the country. We used to meet with the DC and suggest ways to solve our problem." Among other things, the committee organised a long "funeral" march to the Tin Bigha. As another member recalled: "We performed janaja [funeral rights] prayer in Dhaka. Then we began the Long March. We said that we would go through the Tin Bigha, as it should have been Bangladeshi land according to the treaty … It was a huge procession, looking like it was just waiting to explode. We were stopped, however, by Bangladeshi authorities short of the border."
At roughly the same time, in Mekhliganj, an Anti-Tin Bigha Movement Committee was also formed, pursuing a parallel campaign to try and prevent the corridor from being opened. For the Anti-Tin Bigha activists, the issue was also one of complicated geography. Committee members argued that ceding the Tin Bigha to Bangladesh would cut off a large portion of Mekhliganj thana, effectively making it into an enclave itself.2 Activists from each group took constant risks, defying the authority of both border security forces and frequently ending up on either country's wanted lists.
The activities of the two committees did succeed in attracting attention to the issue in both countries. In India, the cause of the Anti-Movement Committee was championed by the Bharatiya Jananta Party (BJP), which fought bitterly against the opening of the corridor, locally and in the Lok Sahba. On the Bangladesh side, in 1986, then president Ershad made the first of two visits to the enclave, becoming the first head of state to visit the chhitmahals. For many, this visit was a long-overdue acknowledgement of AGDH's belonging to Bangladesh. As a resident recalled: "After Ershad's arrival, we were quite speechless. It was as though we helpless folks got our father. We began weeping before him." Ershad's visit became a rallying cry for AGDH members, both encouraging them that the Bangladeshi central government was aware of their suffering and giving them hope that some resolution to the issue would be reached.
Ershad proposed a number of solutions to the AGDH problem, including constructing a flyover so that residents could cross the Tin Bigha corridor without ever touching Indian soil. However, it was not until 1992, under the BNP, that the corridor was finally opened amidst strong protest from the Anti-Movement Committee. "At last, we got it," said one resident. "Now the corridor is open for 12 hours a day. Even if it were for 1 hour a day, still we would be happy, because we have suffered a lot, which embittered our heart so much that I never wish to step in India. Now, by God's grace, everybody's lot has changed."
Current state of affairs
The opening of the corridor was undoubtedly a positive step for AGDH members. The existence of the corridor means that residents can access markets, services, and resources in Patgram every day, which has provided a stable basis for agricultural trade and growth. As importantly, the corridor facilitates access to services inside of AGDH, including micro-credit and government aid initiatives. Further, the BDR has established camps in both the north and south of AGDH. Residents can bring border issues to the BDR, who can mediate with the BSF through Flag-meetings, often allowing for peaceful resolutions to tense situations.
In addition to this overall improvement of security and well-being for residents, the creation of the corridor has wrought a number of social changes as well. The most dramatic of these is an influx of new people. Following the opening of the corridor, the majority of Hindu residents in the enclave moved to India, creating a surfeit of cheap land. A number of people living on chars and erosion prone areas along the banks of the Jamuna purchased this land. These new residents, who the locals call Bhatiyas, now compose roughly 50 percent of the population. This has radically redrawn the political landscape of AGDH where, now, elections tend to be fought not along party lines, but between "original" inhabitants and the newcomers.
Beyond these changes, the corridor has served to formalise the border. While many residents used to conduct business in Mekhliganj haats, less then one km from the northern end of AGDH, now they report that going to India is no longer possible. All business is conducted in Patgram. This proves a significant difficulty for some residents, particularly those who live in Angarpota, situated in the north of the enclave. These residents are forced to travel 12 km south to the Tin Bigha, before reversing direction and traveling another 12 km north-east to Patgram. The BSF has virtually surrounded AGDH with camps, and from most places inside the enclave it is possible to see, and be seen, by the many BSF watchtowers.
Marble trading between AGDH children and Indian children standing across the borders.
Further, the fact that the corridor is under sovereign control of the BSF means that residents themselves do not control what goes into, and out of, the enclave. Last September, the BSF implemented a "cattle ceiling" to combat what they claimed was illegal smuggling of cattle to the slaughter markets in Patgram byway of AGDH. This ceiling limits the number of cattle that can be taken to market on any given haat day to 10, a ludicrously small number for an impoverished village of 16,000. Many AGDH residents posses no significant assets other than their cattle, and the ceiling, which is monitored and governed by the local UP Council, makes raising money for everything from land purchases to medical emergencies next to impossible.
The most pressing issues facing residents are electricity and access to Bangladeshi mainland during evening hours. Many residents blame this for continuing underdevelopment within the enclave, suggesting that any new business ventures inside AGDH are stymied by a lack of electricity. The absence of electricity also prevents a hospital built during the Ershad period from opening its doors, leading to limited medical facilities for enclave residents. For most medical procedures, residents must make the journey to Patgram. Thisis particularly problematic in medical emergencies that take place during the night when the corridor is closed.
A BDR officer in charge of handling frequent local negotiations with the BSF, highlighted this issue. "Yesterday morning, just after the morning prayer [before dawn], my sentry knocked at my door to inform me that there was a critical patient with a baby who needed to go to Patgram. I ordered two jawans to take her up to Tin Bigha and make a request to the BSF. They allowed her to pass. These sorts of necessities frequently occur and we have to play our part. The problem happens during the night. If it is 9 p.m. or more, the BSF has many formalities … and these processes swallow one hour or more of time, which is critical for a patient or someone in medical emergency or labor pain. They dilly-dally and sometimes they just don't allow. They don't categorically deny passage because they may be condemned for violating international law. But they pretend to talk to other authorities, and after some time come out suggesting: "Our company commander isn't available now, so we can't allow you."
From states' rights to human rights
A white-paper available on the India High Commission for Bangladesh's website titled: "Tin Bigha: A Proper Perspective," observes: The importance of the Tin Bigha question involves much more than leasing of a particular piece of land. Its resolution symbolises, above all, the will of the people of India and Bangladesh to live together in amity and good neighbourliness. The leasing reflects the shared resolve of the two governments to eliminate a long-standing and major irritant in bilateral relations, thus setting the stage to bring about a mutually beneficial upgradation of Indo-Bangladesh relations." If this is so, then the partial fulfillment of the '74 Treaty and the ongoing difficulties faced by residents of the enclaves are also symbols of the incompleteness of this "upgrade." Yet, I would suggest that part of the difficulty faced by enclave residents is the result of seeing the Tin Bigha corridor and the enclaves as "problems" or "issues" to be sorted out: territorial oddities that are a feature of the uneven and incomplete border between India and Bangladesh.
Understanding the enclaves not as territorial puzzles and rather as the homes of beleaguered residents helps to reposition the enclaves as absurd and easily remediable impediments to residents' rights as citizens. The official history of the enclaves begs a series of questions: Which country do the enclaves belong to? Who should control the Tin Bigha corridor? What are reasonable terms of a lease from one country to another? These questions are abstract and debatable. However, the questions have more immediate answers if instead one asks: how can we ensure the enclave residents' rights as citizens? What does it mean to prevent someone from accessing their home country for 12 hours a day? What are reasonable restrictions on what goods a citizen can bring to market?
Indeed, as I have tried to do in this essay, it is critical to view the chhitmahols not as policy puzzles but as places where people live their daily lives in the face of complicated and at times dangerous institutional and political configurations. From this perspective, the various different stumbling blocks in resolving the enclave issue and the Tin Bigha corridor by both India and Bangladesh appear as petty squabbles over small and strategically unimportant pieces of land. Residents of AGDH repeatedly expressed their pride at being citizens of Bangladesh and their desire to be fully integrated into the country. As long as both countries continue to view the enclave issue in general from the perspective of territory and sovereignty, as opposed to citizenship and rights, their desire and their long struggle, not to mention two treaties and numerous promises, will remain.
1. The sketch history presented in the previous two paragraphs is well known. For a more complete history, see Willem van Schendel's excellent article “Stateless in South Asia: The Making of the India Bangladesh Enclaves.” 2002. Journal of Asian Studies 61(1).
2. This issue was resolved by posting a West Bengal traffic policeman in the corridor, making sure traffic moving from India to India did not interact with traffic moving from Bangladesh to Bangladesh.
Jason Cons is a doctoral candidate in the department of Development Sociology, Cornell University. He has been conducting research in and on the chhitmahols over the last year. This research was generously supported by a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship.