Gung-ho over first vote, Bengal’s enclave dwellers also cry out for facilities

Dinhata (West Bengal, May 3 (IANS) Mohammad Asgar Ali is 103-years-old, but his enthusiasm matches that of a youth of 18. However, he is not alone. There are many more like him animatedly engaged in a countdown for May 5 when they will be casting their first-ever votes and letting their voices be heard.

Having lived nearly seven decades of stateless existence and treated as aliens in the very country they lived, Thursday will be the day of redemption for the 9,776 dwellers of the erstwhile enclaves in Cooch Behar when the polls for the sixth and final phase of the West Bengal assembly elections will be held.

Following the implementation of the historic Land Band Agreement, Bangladesh and India exchanged 162 adversely-held enclaves on August 1, 2015 as 14,864 residents of 51 Bangladeshi enclaves became Indians citizens.

While over 37,000 dwellers in the 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh became citizens of the neighbouring country, 922 of them opted for Indian citizenship and have been living in Enclave Settlement camps in Dinhata and Haldibari in Cooch Behar.

The total electorate of 9,776 which includes 567 from the erstwhile Indian enclaves are spread across five constituencies – Dinhata (5,486 voters), Mekhliganj (988), Sitai (1,396), Sitalkuchi (1,898) and Tufanganj (8).

“The feeling cannot be described in words. It can only be experienced. Our four generations have lived a stateless life but on Thursday all that will change forever,” Joy Prakash, one of the 567 voters from an erstwhile Indian enclave, told IANS.

Residing in the Haldibari settlement camp, Joy Prakash would be exercising his right as a voter under Mekhliganj constituency.

While the excitement in these erstwhile enclaves has been palpable, since the delimitation exercise began in February, the politicos’ bid to reach out to the “new voters” has given hope to these dwellers of getting heard.

“From being stateless to becoming an Indian citizen, we have come a long way but it is just the beginning. We are still without the basic necessities – be it guaranteed employment, drinking water, education and healthcare. But we are increasingly becoming hopeful because the politicians now realise our vote counts,” added Joy Prakash, who now earns his livelihood as a labourer.

Having witnessed the election as a bystander all these years, 77-year-old Mansur Ali feels it may be his last opportunity to participate in the festival of democracy.

“Since my youth I have had this dream of casting my vote. Having waited for so many years, it could well be my last opportunity,” said Ali of Poaturkuthia, the largest of the enclaves that comes under Dinhata.

Notwithstanding the general excitement surrounding the new voters, there are some who are ready to shun their democratic right as a mark of protest against unfulfilled promises.

Under the banner of Amra Chitmahalbasi (We the Enclave Dwellers) and led by Masum, a human rights organisation, over 100 of the ‘new voters’, mostly under Dinhata constituency, have been demonstrating for the past few days demanding the basic facilities accorded to a citizen.

“They’ve neither the rights, facilities available to a citizen nor any documents to fight for their rights. Forced to live in camps, they are still stateless,” Mausam secretary Kirity Roy told IANS.

Claiming that the enclave dwellers were being enlisted as voters without being provided with citizenship, Roy even moved the Calcutta High Court seeking its intervention.

“The division bench, in its judgement, wondered how a person could be issued a voter card without having become a citizen of the country. The court order was communicated to the district administration, but it has remained unmoved,” said Roy.

However, Dinhata MLA Udayan Guha asserted Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’ commitment towards the welfare of the enclave dwellers.

“The implementation of the LBA has been possible mostly because of the efforts of the chief minister,” said Guha, who won in 2011 as an All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) nominee before switching allegiance to the state’s ruling Trinamool.

Countering Guha’s claims, Akshay Thakur of the AIFB accused both the BJP-led central government and the Mamata Banerjee regime of “betraying the aspirations of the enclave dwellers”.

Diptiman Sengupta, who has been fighting for their cause for the last two decades, admits the enclave dwellers have still miles to go but is opposed to the idea of a vote boycott.

“Yes, the dwellers are still without basic facilities and it’s miles to go before they can avail even the minimum infrastructure. But that can be achieved only when they have a representative to voice their concerns. All the enclave dwellers are eager to vote and elect the representative who will fight for their rights,” Sengupta of the Citizen Rights Coordination Committee told IANS.

(Anurag Dey can be contacted at anuag.d@ians.in)

–IANS

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