An agreement reached last month between India and Bangladesh has given citizenship to 50,000 previously stateless people who lived in disputed territory.
COOCH BEHAR — This is the first time the Indian national flag has been hoisted in Cooch Behar, near the India-Bangladesh border. People have been celebrating by setting off firecrackers, shouting slogans and lighting candles.
Diptiman Sengupta is among those jubilant after a landmark agreement signed between India and Bangladesh last month ends a border dispute dating back to 1947 that rendered some 50,000 people stateless.
"Today we have an identity," Sengupta said at a recent celebration. "We have a country now, and our right to be counted among humans has been established. We had no country, so we were not considered human."
When India was partitioned and Pakistan created in 1947, what is now Bangladesh was also included in Pakistani territory. The boundaries were drawn by British authorities and left parts of one country surrounded by another. Known as enclaves, the areas were impossible to control. As a result, tens of thousands of people living in the areas couldn't enjoy any benefits of citizenship.
In the wake of the recent Land Boundary Agreement, the two countries have exchanged thousands of acres of land, and those living in the enclaves were given the right to choose their citizenship.
Most people in the enclaves are Muslims, and about two-thirds of them chose to become formal citizens of Muslim-majority Bangladesh. The others chose India. The agreement is being hailed in both countries as groundbreaking, and both have welcomed their new citizens and assured them that they will receive help to become integrated.
On the other side of the border, in Dashia Choda, hundreds of people also marched in the streets, waving Bangladeshi flags and cheering.
"We thank Allah that we have finally been freed," says Mehfoozur Rahman, who helped lead the celebrations on the Bangladeshi side. "Now we will be independent citizens of this country."
Journalist Nilova Roy Chaudhury, who has covered the plight of the previously stateless people, says that they didn't have access to even the most basic civic services such as education or health care, much less the right to buy property.
"These people were essentially in an enemy territory," Chaudhury says. "So you had Indians living in the territory of Bangladesh and vice versa. It was a mess. They were just left there to their fate."
In 1971, Bangladesh broke free of Pakistan with help from the Indian military. The two friendly neighbors then agreed to resolve the border dispute in 1974, but political compulsions in both countries delayed that process for more than four decades.
Asma Bibi was in labor when an Indian hospital refused to admit her five years ago. "The doctors said, "Go away, you are a Bangladeshi and we won't admit you,"" she recalls. "I told him I live in an enclave and needed his help, but he didn't listen. When I refused to leave the hospital, he demanded our documents. We had none, so he threatened to have me arrested."
After hundreds of people protested in front of the hospital, Bibi was allowed to give birth there. But she has not yet been able to get a birth certificate for her child.
Rashid Ali had a similar experience. He couldn't admit his son into an Indian school until one of his Indian friends agreed to pose as the boy's father. None of the children from the enclaves uses the real names of their fathers in school records.
"It's so painful to see your son naming someone else as his father, but we had no options left," Ali says. "This is the only way we can give our children an education. I'm illiterate, but I don't want this to happen to my son. He must study at any cost."
Zauqi Ahad, Bangladesh's Deputy High Commissioner in India, says, "The India-Bangladesh relationship has to be taken to new heights. So I think it's the beginning of that journey that we are now witnessing."
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has characterized the agreement as an historic event for both countries. "Some people have compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I think they are quite right," he said.
But Modi is upset by what he has described as a "cold response" from the international community. "Had this event taken place anywhere in the developed world, it would have been celebrated the world over as a historic moment and would have certainly qualified for a Nobel Prize," he said. "But since we did it nobody will talk about it because we are poor nations."