The United States of Nowhere: The Cooch Behar Enclaves on the India-Bangladesh Border Are a Fascinating Quirk of Political Geography. but for Those Who Live There, They Are a Source of Insecurity and Hardship

By Edward, Olivia | Geographical, February 2013 | Go to article overview

The United States of Nowhere: The Cooch Behar Enclaves on the India-Bangladesh Border Are a Fascinating Quirk of Political Geography. but for Those Who Live There, They Are a Source of Insecurity and Hardship


Edward, Olivia, Geographical


There's a farmer in India whose fields are entirely surrounded by Bangladeshi land, which in turn is surrounded by Indian land, which in turn is surrounded by Bangladeshi land. Dahala Khagrabari is the world's only counter-counter enclave (an enclave within an enclave within an enclave), the cartographic equivalent of the old woman who swallowed the fly.

Over the years, as states morphed into their current forms, small islands of land were sometimes left behind in neighbouring countries. Today, there are around 256 such enclaves in Europe, the former USSR and Asia, but 80 per cent of the world's enclaves, most of the world's counter enclaves and the world's only counter-counter enclave, lie along the Bangladesh-India border in a territorial complex known as the Cooch Behar enclaves.

The area consists of 162 enclaves: 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within India. These range in size from 1,868 hectares to the size of a football field. They cover more than 2,800 hectares in total and contain about 51,OOO people. Most aren't fenced off, small wooden posts sticking up out of the fertile fields loosely pinning the cartographic onto the actual.

TANGLED ROOTS

A local myth tells how the Cooch Behar enclaves were created by two rulers gambling away their land during a chess game. But most now agree that they were born out of a 1713 peace treaty that ended centuries of feudal scuffles. Lying just north of the Gangetic plain in the foothills of the Himalaya, in an area where Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all meet, they have long witnessed conflict between opposing factions.

During the period of British colonisation, the enclaves survived as autonomous princely states and local people moved in and out of them relatively freely, with the intricacies of ownership largely only pertinent to taxation. But following Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan (1947) and Bangladesh (1971), many of these states found themselves on the wrong side of an increasingly securitised international border.

Today's enclave residents do have a nationality in the loosest sense, but find themselves caught in a Catch-22 situation--they can't travel to their countries' 'mainland' without an ID card, but as there aren't any administrative offices in the enclaves, they can't obtain ID cards without travelling to the mainland (and even then, IDs aren't issued without a birth certificate, which few enclave residents possess). Technically, they are citizens of either Bangladesh or India, but practically, they are stateless and citizens of absolutely nowhere.

As a political geographer, it's easy to perceive these enclaves as an interesting quirk, but on the ground, there are real human consequences to such territorial arrangements,' says Professor Martin Pratt, director of research at the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University One of the unit's geographers, Hosna Shewly, recently spent more than seven months in the area documenting the difficulties faced by the enclaves' residents as part of her PhD research.

'They are left very helpless,' says Shewly. 'In order to gain access to any services within the host country [within which their enclave lies] they must produce an ID card.' Without one, it's extremely difficult for them to obtain anything from medical attention to education. 'The residents are very innovative, and try all sorts of techniques, from marrying mainlanders to borrowing relatives' cards, but they are all temporary fixes and don't give them any security.'

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Sometimes, they will try to obtain a favour from local leaders through shared religious affiliations. And campaigning political parties sometimes hand out ID cards during the run-up to elections in order to increase their chances of success at the ballot box.

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