The land swap, he said, should have ideally happened when the British were partitioning India, but then Partition was done in such a hurry – “What should have taken at least four years was completed in a matter of five weeks!” – that the future of the enclaves remained unsettled.

It drizzled steadily as we spoke. The woman I had encountered before – she seemed to be the domestic help – brought us tea. As I took a sip and put the cup down and looked up at Diptiman to resume the conversation, I was startled by a strange face, pressed against the grille, blankly staring at us. Moments later another face materialised, and then another.

In a matter of minutes there were about a dozen people clutching the grille like prisoners and listening to us, their faces weary and eyes blank. With every passing minute there was a new arrival. I gathered that they were all people from the enclaves, who had come all the way, in spite of the drizzle, to find out from their hero what the future held for them.

For all of them Diptiman had the same answer, often delivered in the form of a rebuke: “Your first priority should be to get the [Indian] citizenship, everything else comes later. How many times will I have to repeat that?”

The land swap required the residents of the enclaves to choose between Indian and Bangladeshi nationalities and relocate accordingly. While those living in Bangladeshi enclaves in India – a little over 14,000 people – are all staying back to become Indian citizens, nearly 1,000 of the 37,000 living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh have chosen to come to India.

For the 14,000 people awaiting Indian citizenship – they have never known governance and have always lived in fear – Diptiman is a father-figure they can turn to at this defining hour. Before Diptiman came into the picture, they had looked up to his father, Dipak Sengupta.

I observed the man sitting next to me. He had hazel eyes, so prominently hazel that you didn’t notice anything else about him. But there was something else as distracting as his eyes: his torn trouser that exposed a few inches of his thigh. Either he wasn’t aware of the tear or didn’t have a choice. The second was more likely because he, in spite of his handsome face and hazel eyes, was a picture of poverty. His name was Bashar Sheikh, thirty-one years old, who belonged to an enclave called Paschim Moshaldanga.

“Have you come from Calcutta?” he asked me.

“Yes, in the sense that I took the flight from Calcutta, but I live in Chennai. Heard of it?”

“Of course, but I have never travelled that far. I have been to Delhi, and I worked in Noida for a few months at a construction site. Then one day my landlord asked me for ID proof and I had none. He asked me to vacate. I approached other landlords, but they too asked me to produce ID proof. So I had to come back. Now I do odd jobs in the farms here,” Bashar said.

“Odd jobs such as?” I asked.

“Sometimes I work as a labourer, sometimes as a plumber, sometimes I drive the tractor. Only last month I was asked to take a tractor to Cooch Behar Town for repairs. The police stopped me and asked to see my licence. Now how was I to produce a licence? They let me off after I paid them a bribe of Rs 600. Fortunately my employer had given me sufficient money to get the repairs done.”

“That’s very sad,” I remarked.

“Why do you think we are so happy now? We have always lived in fear.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes. My wife is from the Indian side.”

“And her parents agreed to marry her off to someone living in a chhit?”

“The thing is her family is even poorer than us. One day the elders in my village and her village got together and told her parents, ‘Chhele ta bhalo, biye diye dao (he is a decent chap, get your daughter married to him).’ The parents had no choice but to agree.”

Presently we hit the bustle of a marketplace. “This is Nazirhat,” Bashar said, “the biggest market in this area. Everything we need to buy – from salt to clothes – we buy it here. This is also where we sell our produce. You can say that this market is our lifeline.”

By “our” he meant people living in the chhits. It would take him a while to get used to the fact that the Bangladeshi enclaves in Cooch Behar were now part of India and that he himself was an Indian citizen-in-waiting.

We left behind the market only to once again cut across ripening paddies, freshly washed in rain. The sun was out now and there was a sparkle in the crop. Only when you find yourself in the midst of the countryside do you realise how small our cities are – and how small the minds of people living in it are. I had thought Bashar Sheikh was seeking a free ride back home, whereas he was actually doing me a great favour by coming along.

All through the journey he told me about the pathetic life in the Bangladeshi enclaves: Bangladesh had no direct access to them, India ignored them, and the residents – poor, hardworking peasants – remained stranded in no-man’s land for several generations.

They survived the seven long decades as non-entities largely because of the human instinct for survival – and sometimes because of the kindness shown by friends or relatives living on the Indian side. The kindness was dispensed mostly in the form of false address proofs and forged identity cards that showed the chhit-residents as Indian citizens and allowed them to meet the most basic of human needs: earning a living, sending children to school, getting treatment in a government hospital...The kindness also came in the form of illegal electricity connections – chargeable, of course.

Life for those living in the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, I presumed, must have been just as pathetic. Or maybe I am wrong. While all the 14,000 people living in Bangladeshi enclaves in India have decided to stay back and opt for Indian citizenship, only 1,000 of the 37,000 living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh have chosen to move to India. In other words, 36,000 Indians did not opt to move out of Bangladesh. Numbers always tell a story.

Right now I was overcome by the urge to give Bashar Sheikh some money so that he could buy a new pair of trousers. I even had enough cash. But what if he took offence? Worse, what if he was not even aware of the gaping hole? There can’t be a graver crime than pointing out to a poor man that his trouser is torn. Moreover, notwithstanding his poverty, we were equals: I the journalist and he the activist who, as one of the many faceless faces, had campaigned for the freedom of the enclaves.

Gautam presently brought the car to a halt under a tree where half-a-dozen men, smoking beedis, were seated in a circle. We had arrived in Paschim Moshaldanga, a hamlet of twenty-eight houses, in one of which Bashar lived. Close to where the men sat, lay a brick framework that had held up the mast when the Indian tricolour was unfurled here just days ago. Bashar introduced me to the men and slipped away.

I began by talking to Kadam Sheikh, thirty-six years old, who spends months away from home working as a construction labourer in cities such as Gurgaon, Noida, Amritsar, and Dehradun.
“I carry a fake voter ID because there is always the fear of getting arrested as an illegal migrant when I go to work in those places,” he said. “But the card is of little use to my children because it gives my age as twenty-five. My daughter is already nineteen and my son seventeen – they can’t have a father who is twenty-five, can they? Hopefully I should be getting a new voter ID soon – a genuine one this time.”

His neighbour Jamal Sheikh, fifty-five years old, chipped in: “Our very existence depended on fake documents. Even hospitals would turn us away if they came to know we are from the chhits. Why, even pregnant women have been turned away. You have no idea how difficult life has been for us. At least I never went to jail, but five people in our village did – for no fault of theirs. They were merely going to Dehradun to find work.”

“Can I meet them?”

“One of them was here until a few minutes ago,” Jamal Sheikh said, “wait, I will send for him.”

A young man who was part of the semi-circle that had formed around us set off on his bike to get the man who had been to prison. Meanwhile, tea arrived from one of the houses.

The man who finally appeared was elderly, bespectacled, and wore a long beard. He looked too distinguished to have toiled under the harsh sun at a construction site. He could have been the imam of a local mosque. His name was Amir Hossain, sixty years old. One night in 2006, he and four fellow residents of Paschim Moshaldanga were picked up by the Border Security Force from Nazirhat. They were on their way to the New Cooch Behar railway station, where they were to board the train to Dehradun. They expected to easily find work in the capital of the newly-formed state of Uttarakhand, which was witnessing a boom in construction activity at the time.

Hossain recalled: “The train was at two in the morning, and we were picked up around ten in the night. We were brought to the BSF camp at Digaltari, not very far from here, and beaten up all night. They even pulled our beards. Our crime: we had train tickets but no IDs. They told us we were illegal migrants from Bangladesh who were trying to sneak into India. The next morning they handed us over to the local police. We spent twenty-six days in jail before we got bail, thanks to our relatives living on the Indian side.”

“How were you treated in jail?” I asked.

“Wait, this is only the beginning of the story. After we were out on bail, the case dragged on for two years, and finally in 2008, the magistrate sent us to jail for two years and fined us Rs 10,000 each. Failure to pay the fine meant an additional two months in prison. We spent three days in Dinhata jail, then four days in Cooch Behar jail, then seventeen months in Jalpaiguri central jail, and finally nineteen months in the new jail at Alipurduar. That adds up to three years. Tree years in jail just because we did not have proof of identity!”

“Are you happy that you are now a part of India?”

“Happy? That’s an understatement. There is no limit to our happiness!”

Excerpted with permission from Gazing at Neighbours: Travels Along the Line that Partitioned India, Bishwanath Ghosh, Tranquebar.