Saddam Hussain, the Mashaldanga enclave youth, shows his voter card.
Picture by Main Uddin Chisti
Mashaldanga, July 23: The Indian voter identity card is Saddam Hussain’s most precious possession, because he is not an Indian to begin with.
Saddam is a resident of Mashaldanga, a Bangladeshi enclave in Cooch Behar district. The territory is Bangladesh’s but around 5,000 people in the enclave have procured fake Indian voter ID cards. Saddam, 21, was born in the enclave.
Mashaldanga is in Dinhata II block. Being a resident of a Bangladeshi enclave makes him ineligible for any benefit of the panchayat system in India. But Saddam fears that if he does not vote, his card may be taken away and then the only chance of becoming an Indian citizen will be shut to him.
“I am a Bangladeshi citizen but have never seen the real Bangladesh. We are landlocked in India and want our enclaves to be merged with this country. The voter identity card that I have is my most important possession as it saves us from getting arrested or harassed by authorities,” said Saddam, who is in second-year in an Indian college.
India has 102 enclaves inside Bangladesh and Bangladesh 71 inside India, in Bengal and Assam.
India and Bangladesh had signed the Land Border Agreement to swap enclaves in 2011, but New Delhi needs the Parliament to ratify a constitutional amendment to enforce the pact.
The UPA government had introduced the amendment bill in the last session, but frequent disruptions meant that it could never be taken up.
Till the Indian Parliament ratifies it, Saddam will have to keep clutching his voter card close to him.
Saddam is not too keen to vote on July 25, but if his name gets deleted from the electoral rolls, he would have a tough time.
“Several other residents of Bangladeshi enclaves have voter cards. The card to us is the sole identity proof. We have no reason to vote as our enclaves are beyond the jurisdiction of India, but we will have to go and vote,” he said.
The Bangladeshis — over 14,000 of them reside in these land locked territories in Cooch Behar — are forced to use to fake addresses of neighbours and relatives who live in the adjoining Indian villages and obtain the voter cards.
“There is no alternative other than to obtain the card by using fake addresses. We use similar addresses also to get our children enrolled in schools,” Nauser Ali, Saddam’s father, said.
|future in the enclave?
|Rizwan, a two-and-half-year-old boy, at the Mashaldanga enclave in Cooch Behar. Picture by Main Uddin Chisti
“We have to vote. Representatives of different political parties are approaching us, including candidates contesting in the two lower rungs of panchayats as such a huge number of votes matter. They blatantly threatened us that if we did not turn up at the booths on the polling day, they would inform the administration that we have fake voter cards,” said Raju Bhattacharya, another resident of Mashaldanga, who earns a living by farming and occasionally working as a priest in the enclaves.
“We are left with little option but to cast the votes as we cannot afford to have our names deleted from the voter list or hand over voter cards to the administration,” Raju said.
“Two-three generations have been born in these enclaves. They have obtained voter cards only to safeguard their future,” said Mansur Ali, a 73-year-old resident of Poaturkuthi, another Bangldeshi enclave about 40km from Cooch Behar town.
Mansur, who does not have a voter card, said his sons have them.
Saheb Ali, a resident of the same enclave, spoke on similar lines.
“Political parties are coming to our doorstep regularly and asking for our support. Some leaders and workers are also making remarks like if we want to keep our voter cards with us, we better vote. We cannot afford to antagonise them,” he said.
Ali’s neighbour Abul Hussain Mian said: “It is disappointing that our enclave, despite being surrounded by four panchayats, is never included in the development process. Yet, we will have to go and vote.”
The enclave residents, who have been harping on the demand to merge their areas within India, urged for an initiative from the state.
“The erstwhile Left government never took any interest in the issue. The new Trinamul government, too, is silent and not pressuring the Centre to settle the dispute,” Abul Hussain said. “When India and Bangladesh governments are discussing the issue, a thrust from the state may expedite the process.”
Political leaders are not ready to speak much on the enclaves. “Whoever has his name in the electoral roll and is from rural Bengal has the right to vote in the panchayat elections. It is the administration’s task to check the identities before issuing the cards,” said Rabindranath Ghosh, the Cooch Behar district Trinamul president.
“The chief minister and our government are sympathetic towards enclaves and want an early solution.”