Crowds cheer B’desh-India land swap

Dashiar Chhara, August  1

Jubilant crowds celebrated today as Bangladesh and India swapped tiny islands of land, ending one of the world’s most intractable border disputes that has kept thousands in limbo for nearly seven decades.

As the clock struck one minute past midnight, thousands of people who have been living without schools, clinics or power for a generation erupted in cheers of celebration for their new citizenship.

“We have been in the dark for 68 years,” said Russel Khandaker, 20, as he danced with friends in the Dashiar Chhara enclave, which belonged to India but has now became part of Bangladesh. “We’ve finally seen the light,” he told AFP.

A total of 162 tiny islands of land — 111 in Bangladesh and 51 in India — were officially handed over to the countries surrounding them today after Dhaka and New Delhi struck a border agreement in June.

The land-swap means some 50,000 people who have been living in the isolated enclaves since 1947 will now become part of the countries that surround their homes.

In Dashiar Chhara, thousands of people defied monsoon rains to celebrate, marching through rain-soaked muddy roads singing the Bangladeshi national anthem and shouting: “My country, your country. Bangladesh! Bangladesh!”

Officials from Bangladesh and India hoisted their respective national flags over their new territories today morning in formal ceremonies.

India has added more than 15,000 new citizens to its population, while over 36,000 enclave residents took Bangladeshi nationality under the historic agreement.

Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal where most of the enclaves were swapped, hailed the agreement in a tweet.  “Thousands of people will get new identities. Congratulations to them,” Banerjee said on Twitter.

The enclaves date back to ownership arrangements made centuries ago between local princes. The parcels of land survived partition of the sub-continent in 1947 after British rule, and Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.

Bangladesh endorsed a deal with India in 1974 in a bid to dissolve the pockets, but India only signed a final agreement in June when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dhaka.

Both India and Bangladesh conducted surveys this month asking enclave residents to choose a nation. The overwhelming majority of people living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted for Bangladeshi citizenship, but nearly 1,000 people on the Bangladesh side opted to keep their Indian nationalities.

They now have to leave their homes by November for India where they will be resettled in the state of West Bengal.

The decision has split some families, with ambitious young people moving to India and leaving behind parents.