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Nowhere is this more apparent than in the enclaves of Cooch Behar. The story, as it was repeatedly told to me by various BSF officials, goes like this. The Raja of Cooch Behar and the Nawab of Rangpur, the rulers of two minor kingdoms that faced each other near the Teesta River, staked games of chess with plots of land. To settle their debts, they passed chits pieces of paper representing the territory won or lost back and forth. When Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the law lord who partitioned India, drew the 1947 border, Cooch Behar went to India and Rangpur to Bangladesh including the people who lived on the two kings' 162 "chit mahals," or paper palaces. Their villages, caught on the wrong side of the border, are now small islands of India surrounded by Bangladesh or vice versa. Elsewhere in this same stretch of border are villages that simply refuse to accept the lines drawn by Radcliffe's pen. New Delhi backs those that want to stay in India, despite the legal claim of Bangladesh, and Dhaka does likewise. There are 1,696 acres (690 hectares) of these "adverse possessions," where India and Bangladesh effectively occupy each other's territory. That means 21 miles (34.5 km) of border that cannot be fenced, cannot be floodlit or gated and in many cases is simply not policed at all.
There is a poetic name for the population in these disputed areas: "nowhere people." As India and Bangladesh fight over the land they live on, their status remains in doubt. Despite sporadic diplomatic efforts the most recent one last September the two countries have never been able to agree on exchanging the territory or even just accepting the de facto border as it is. "For Bangladesh, every inch is important," particularly as it loses ground to rising sea levels, says Sreeradha Datta, a political scientist at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. Bangladeshis in the area understandably bristle at the idea of being fenced in. "There are 17 companies of BSF here," says Mohammed Nazrul Islam, 37, a Bangladeshi who lives in one of the enclaves. "If the fencing is erected, in 20 or 30 years, then what will they do? Will they also build a wall?"
India, for its part, is unlikely to allow people in the disputed areas to simply choose a side. A referendum there would inevitably renew demands for the long-promised plebiscite in Kashmir. But political parties on the border have not been shy about using these residents to swell their vote banks. Subhasis Ghosh, the Cooch Behar official in charge of dispensing development funds, says he received 10,000 applications for voter ID cards last year and rejected 8,000 for dubious family and residency ties to his district. "A voter card is the most valuable thing in this area," he says. It makes sure that holders get at least a share of what they're entitled to: not just a vote but also access to rural employment schemes, monsoon relief, health clinics.
At a time when separatist movements and Maoist groups are calling on the poor and dispossessed to reject or undermine the Indian state, that simple lesson bears repeating. Nothing secures loyalty to a country as effectively as a share of its wealth. I asked Surumara Rai, who married into a home in an adverse possession, whether she feels part of India or Bangladesh. "Indian," she says proudly. One of her neighbors adds, "She's eating the food of the Indian government. Of course she feels Indian."
A Shifting Border
The word I hear most often to describe this boundary is porous. It twists through all kinds of terrain, from the mangroves on the western end through the fierce currents of the Brahmaputra River in the north to the thick jungles of the Chittagong Hill Tracts on the eastern side, all of which serve as natural barriers. At its most developed, the border looks like Petrapole, the channel for the vast majority of legal migration and one of the largest land crossings in Asia. More than 1,000 people pass through every day, most by bus and some on foot, along with about 400 commercial trucks. They walk through a metal gate several meters wide, accompanied by a bizarre set of rituals. The Indian bus lets its passengers off on one side of the checkpoint, and they board a bus owned by a partner company on the other. The luggage passes from the hands of Indian porters to their waiting Bangladeshi counterparts. The new train service linking Kolkata with Dhaka goes through Petrapole with a similar bit of theater. It spends five hours within one kilometer of the border, disgorging passengers and luggage and subjecting them to immigration and customs twice.
Like everywhere else on this border, mistrust lies just beneath what is meant to be an open exchange. In that way, Petrapole is no different from Panidhar. Here, the suspicion is out in the open. After dark, no one leaves their houses, or they risk getting stopped by the BSF, who have orders to shoot if threatened. On my way back to the main road with my BSF escorts, two men cross our paths. "They're Bangladeshi," one officer says. And they send them on their way. There's an unusual feature of the Ichamati River here: every six hours it changes course. Once, people moved across it freely. Now, only the water does.