Borderlands

All national borders are imaginary. But some are more imaginary than others. And perhaps some nations are more imaginative too.

India's Great Wall

Image courtesy of the author

An earlier version of this essay was published in French in the magazine GEO.

All national borders are imaginary. But some are more imaginary than others. And perhaps some nations are more imaginative too. Somewhere in the labyrinths of the New Delhi bureaucracy, tucked within the recesses of the Ministry of Home Affairs, is a bureau called the Department of Border Management. The DBM, sometimes with just the flourish of an ink pen, conjures the sinuous, unsteady line that separates the triangle of the subcontinent from the mass of Asia. India’s shortest border, according to the department, is its ninety-nine mile border with Afghanistan. This one is especially imaginary, since it’s been in Pakistani hands for the past seventy years. India’s longest border is the 2,545 mile line that encircles Bangladesh. This one is being drawn right now, with steel and electric light.

Travel along the border districts of the east and you will see it unfurling slowly through the simmering green farmlands of Bengal, turning the territory into a map at last. It is an improbable structure: a double fence, eight feet high, consisting of two parallel rows of black columns made of sturdy angle iron and topped with overhanging beams. The two rows of columns are draped in a tapestry of barbed wire, with spools of concertina wire sandwiched between them.

This imposing national installation is still a work in progress. It has been under construction since 1989; 1700 miles have now been erected, at a cost of approximately $600 million. There have been many delays and cost overruns, but when it is complete it will render precisely 2042 miles of the invisible border an impenetrable barrier, a gigantic machine for processing bodies—designed, in the words of the DBM, to prevent “illegal immigration and other anti-national activities from across the border.”

Whatever its inadequacies, it is already the world’s longest border fence by any measure.

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Whether this is an appropriate or proportionate response to India’s perceived problem with its smaller neighbor is less certain. The issue of Bangladeshi migration into India has become part of the background chatter of Indian political discourse in the quarter century since work began on the fence, though in times of political turmoil it has been amplified into obtrusive static. Both the partition of India in 1947 and the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan occasioned a massive influx of refugees into India. But migrants of these generations are now generally accepted as naturalized Indians. While the number of subsequent migrants is presumed to be significant, the figures most commonly cited are wildly divergent and unverifiable. In 2000 the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina famously asserted there were no illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India at all, while three years later India’s Intelligence Bureau pegged the figure at 16 million. The Indian press routinely cites more sensational figures, which expand impressively each year. The unlikely sum of 60 million was a popular estimate a couple of years ago.

Just last year, during his election campaign tour of Bengal, Narendra Modi promised to send all illegal migrants “back to Bangladesh”—although, he reassured his audience, those who worshipped the Hindu goddess Durga would be “welcomed as sons of Mother India.” Nobody knows, of course, what proportion of the unknown number of Bangladeshi migrants are Hindu. Like all the other numbers, it is likely to be impressive. But it seems doubtful that the extravagant net that India is casting around Bangladesh will be up to the task of sieving Muslims from Hindus.

Whatever its inadequacies, it is already the world’s longest border fence by any measure. The infamous West Bank Barrier in Israel, for example, will stretch for 454 miles when complete. The USA-Mexico Wall covers an estimated 578 miles so far. Even the murderous Zonengrenze, which once divided Germany from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia, spanned a mere 866 miles. The German wall is said to have claimed a thousand lives in its forty-year career. But according to a report by Human Rights Watch, the same number of people were killed by the Indian Border Security Force on the India-Bangladesh border in just one decade, between 2000 and 2010. The Bengal-based human rights organization MASUM, which contributed to that report, has documented hundreds of instances of the shooting, beating to death, and torture of Indian citizens by the country’s own armed forces along this border. Its website features a grisly gallery of photographs and even videos of victims, both Bangladeshis and Indians. Comparisons may be odious, but, inevitably, India’s long fence has acquired an ambiguous sobriquet, sometimes invoked with pride, more frequently with sarcasm: “the Great Wall of India.”

Journey along this border and you will occasionally see the proud steel fence falter. Sometimes it yields to a mighty shape-shifting river, sometimes to a sluggish creek. Or a stubborn hamlet of farmers and fishermen in mud huts who just don’t want to move from its path. Often it’s reduced to a ramshackle fence of bamboo or chicken wire. In the north it surrenders to an archipelago of land-locked political “islands,” an impossible territory, too complex to demarcate. And then it returns, all sturdy posts and glinting wire and blazing floodlights. But by then it seems less convincing. And in its place you begin to pick up threads of a more credible narrative.

You will meet activists who complain about the border guards’ brutality and farmers who complain that the guards don’t shoot at infiltrators anymore. Soldiers with bandaged eyes who complain that the villagers are hand in glove with criminals and villagers who tell you that the soldiers are in cahoots with smugglers. Small-town politicians will complain that the border floodlights are keeping the crops awake at night.

And you will realize, sooner or later, that they were all right. Theirs are all true stories, inscribed on a fiction, the one that no nation-state can live without: here is the border, a long line without width. That is Bangladesh. This is India.


That particular distinction dates back only to 1971, but the border itself has an older history—older in fact than either country. It can be traced to the 1905 partition of the Bengal province by the British colonial viceroy George Curzon, which created two administrative units: a Muslim-majority East Bengal and a Hindu-majority West Bengal. But this stroke of the imperial pen was so unpopular—widely regarded as a cynical act of divide et impera—that it proved counterproductive, stirring Indian and Bengali nationalist sentiments rather than fracturing them. As a result the division was eventually rescinded, and the line erased from the map of Bengal in 1911.

It had left an enduring mark however, and, later, as the anti-colonial movement for national independence gathered momentum, the subcontinent fractured along precisely the lines Curzon had foreshadowed. As the moment of independence approached, it became clear that British India would be rendered into two nations: the Hindu-majority country we now know as India and an overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. The latter would take shape in 1947 as an unusual dominion, comprising two distinct and distant territories, one sandwiched between the western fringes of India and the eastern borders of Afghanistan and Persia, the other virtually encircled by India’s eastern provinces of Bengal and Assam. The territory of East Pakistan was in fact practically indistinguishable from the failed experiment of East Bengal.

Pakistan’s two halves were an anomaly, perhaps even an absurdity, but not entirely without precedent: consider Alaska—or Hawaii for that matter. However, within a quarter of a century East Pakistan’s Bengali population revolted against the rule of the less-populous but politically dominant West Pakistanis. A brutal military crackdown by the Pakistani Army in March 1971 provoked an armed uprising in the East. The bloody civil war led to an exodus of millions of refugees into Indian Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. In early December the Pakistani Air Force, anticipating Indian intervention, launched preemptive air raids on Indian air bases—only to be overwhelmed by Indian forces, who, in conjunction with the East Pakistani Mukti Bahini rebels, secured the surrender of some 90,000 Pakistani soldiers stationed in the east. The war was over within two weeks of India’s intervention, and the new nation of Bangladesh replaced theerstwhile East Bengal and East Pakistan on maps.


 Sixty miles northeast of Kolkata, the Petrapole (India)–Benapole (Bangladesh) border is officially designated a “Land Port,” less an oxymoron than an irony given the  surrounding landscape, a delta full of tidal rivers. No ships dock here, but it is the most significant point of contact between the two countries. So they do their best. There is a ceremonial plaza linking the two nations. India’s contribution is an oversized sculptural rendition of its fence posts,in granite. Bangladesh has huge a mural depicting its founding father, Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in a military coup in 1975. In the courtyard between, porters dressed in national livery—red jackets for India, green for Bangladesh—exchange loads, passing them mostly from Indian backs to Bangladeshi backs. Overseeing them are platoons of soldiers from the Indian BSF (Border Security Force) and the Bangladeshi BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh) armed with automatic weapons. Every evening the BSF and the BGB stage a public show of martial prowess with synchronized goose-stepping marches before their flags are lowered and folded for the night. It’s modeled on the wildly popular “retreat ceremony” held at Wagah on India’s Western border with Pakistan—an elaborately choreographed pas de deux of martial pomp staged by the BSF and their counterparts the Pakistan Rangers at a border post between Amritsar and Lahore. But while the Wagah show is charged with aggression and the passionate and sentimental rivalry of two nations separated at birth, the Petrapole affair is an insipid dance. It reaches a low point when the national anthems are played over the loudspeakers, since Amar Sonar Bangla and Jana Gana Mana were both written by the same “national poet,” Rabindranath Tagore.

Petrapole is a strange town consisting mostly of an incongruously wide divided highway lined with monumental rain trees. But its true renown comes from its reputation as “Asia’s largest customs station.” And this achievement is manifest in the endless jam of trucks being slowly processed by the Customs and Excise Department. Here “Clearing and Forwarding Agents,” as they are called, make a good living, supervising the safe passage of Indian steel billets and machine parts to Bangladesh through thickets of bureaucracy. Their business has recently been streamlined, the paperwork eliminated by online processing, and shipments are cleared in seven days. But the clearing agents must still make the rounds to customs officials and border guards to lubricate their transactions. “It was actually faster without computers,” one of them tells me.

Outside the customs station a small convoy of Indian-made vehicles waits to be processed: three of the most patient ambulances in the world and a funeral hearse with a glass coffin in the back. What Bangladesh sells to India is much more modest, these days: some jute from the mills; hilsa fish used to be a big thing, but now it’s been banned; one perennial exportis human hair for the wig industry in India—itself a net exporter in hair—where Bengali hair is particularly prized for its quality.

According to a World Bank report, Bangladesh imports around $1.7 billion worth of goods from India each year. Its exports are a fraction of this, around $78 million. But the same report also acknowledges that “illegal trade between the two countries amounts to 3/4ths of regular trade.” In other words, $1.3 billion worth of goods are smuggled through that $600 million fence each year.


Sudip Haldaris a fisherman.1 He lives in a small hut on the edge of an Indian village called Jhaudanga on the banks of the turbid Ichamati river. Just an hour’s drive from Petrapole, the scene is idyllic: there are bright green paddy fields and craning, deferential coconut and date palms, and on the other side of the slow moving river the same scene resumes. Small figures sit on the opposite bank, idly watching the river flow. Like all border landscapes, this one is filled with symmetries. Half the time the river is sweet and half the time it is salty, Sudip says. It changes with the moon. And half the river is in Bangladesh. “We only go as far as that sandbank,” he says, pointing at an island in the middle of the stream.

It is in the middle of the Ichamati, while Sudip adjusts his oars to keep the boat in place, that he talks about his other job, the one he does at night: herding cows across the river to Bangladesh. “It’s much better money,” he says. “I can make more than a thousand rupees in a night.”

Sudip is just one of thousands employed in the biggest industry on the border. It is estimated that up to 10 million Indian cattle are smuggled into Bangladesh each year. The trade is said to be worth at least $500 million annually, and like all trade it is a matter of supply and demand. India has a surplus of cows but relatively little demand for beef. In Bangladesh it’s the other way around. The price of a cow in India can range from Rs 500-3,000. In Bangladesh: Rs 20,000-40,000. And this astonishing price difference is preserved by the strangest of market mechanisms: the border fence and the 70,000 soldiers of the BSF who guard it. They maintain yet another national fiction: that the cow is sacred to Hindus and its export for slaughter is prohibited.

Sudip’s moonlight career is one of the worst-kept secrets in India. The highways to Bengal are thronged with trucks ferrying cattle from distant states like Rajasthan and Punjab. And out here on the border it is an organized business, with its own hierarchies and designations. There are the ghatials, or buyers, the dalals, or brokers who arrange the deal, and the rakhals, or cowboys, like Sudip, who actually herd the cattle across the border. The fourth and arguably the most crucial player is the BSF. Their job is to provide the element of risk, without which the whole business would collapse. And so they catch cows some of the time and then auction them off again to the dalals. Or they turn a blind eye, for a fee. There are two ways to cross, Sudip says. “Line open,” when the BSF has been paid. Or the more difficult maneuver of a “pass” which usually involves releasing a couple of cows to divert the sentries in one direction while the rest of the herd crosses on the other side. “The dalals always draw up a game-plan for us,” he says.

“It’s like football every night,” says Ajay Kumar, a young BSF sentry back on the shore in Jhaudanga. He smiles wryly as he displays his sporting injuries, livid cicatrices on his arms. “This is what we do, catch cows all night, every night. Ask your friend Sudip, he know all about it.” And Sudip smiles with mild embarrassment. “But what can these people do?” the young soldier continues. “They have to make a living, just like me. And what can I do? There’s so much unemployment back home in Uttar Pradesh, this is better than nothing. But I have to stand around in the sun half the day and then run around like an idiot all night.” Doesn’t he ever use that gun? “Well, we beat up the Bangladeshis when we catch them, of course—why should they make all the money? But we can’t shoot. After all, Bangladesh is a mitr desh, a friendly nation,” he says with a sly smile. “But now Modi has been elected . . . so who knows what the hell will happen?”

At a local BSF outpost an older officer simmers with a mixture of caution and resentment when asked about the cow problem. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to legalize the cattle trade? “It would make our lives a lot easier,” he concedes. “But it’s never going to happen; the politicians can’t handle it. At the end of the day, this is a Hindu country.” But it’s not his problem anymore he says: he’s just completed a grueling course to join the National Security Guard or NSG, an elite unit popularly known as the “Black Cat Commandos” who are deployed primarily as bodyguards for senior national politicians in the capital. “The selection course was hell, but it’s better than being stuck here,” he says. “Now all I have to do is sit tight for the next two weeks. If I break a leg or even a finger, I’ll lose my place in the NSG. So no smugglers for me. I’ve done my tour. They can have their cows.”

550 yards further inland, the black fence has reached Jhaudanga. Across the road from it lives a very angry farmer called Hori Pada Biswas. “The cow smugglers are ruining my crops. They barge through the fields every night with herds of thirty or forty cattle, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” And the fence just doesn’t help, he rages; the smugglers cut through it in minutes. “In any case, my fields are on the other side of the damn fence!” Equally useless is the BSF: “The smugglers often beat up the BSF sentries, but mostly they just outsmart them.” The old farmer begins literally to shake with fury as he curses the Indian government. “Two years ago things were much more peaceful. The BSF used to kill people. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Bangladesh and promised to stop the firing. But we want them to shoot! That’s why I voted for Narendra Modi.”


Ninety-five miles to the north, still in India, in Murshidabad District, near a village called Char Paraspur, the border follows a very different river, the Padma, less placid than the Ichamati. In 2005 the river washed away thousands of acres of farmland. The riverbed here is so wide that Bangladesh is just a distant glimmer from the Indian shore. Staring across it is Golejaan Bibi, a woman of 40 whose eyes are filmed with a haunting, tragic glaze, making it difficult to look at her directly. Her husband, Kauch Sheikh, worked as a casual laborer and occasionally as a cattle smuggler. “We were sleeping when the smugglers came,” she says. “They called for my husband and said they needed another hand. We needed the money, so he went. He didn’t know they hadn’t paid off the BSF. So the guards caught him and beat him with their rifle butts. And then they shot him in the chest.”

She clutches the papers that document her search for justice. The “Disposal Certificate” for Kauch Sheikh’s body. The “First Information Report” filed with the police. But no one has been punished, and there has been no compensation. Now Golejaan struggles to provide for her three children and her ancient in-laws by turning strips of ragged cloth into beautiful kantha quilts of the kind you can buy in New Delhi’s boutiques. There’s one lying on her sewing machine, the eloquent swirls of embroidery looping like an unfinished fable. “Poverty is what killed her husband,” someone says sagely. The family poses stiffly for a photograph in front of their house, a neat hut with patkuti walls made of jute reeds. They are bathed in the rich light of afternoon and an antique aura. It may well be poverty. But they will not accept any money until I surreptitiously slip some notes into the small hands of the youngest child, a little boy of about nine years. He has a delicate face and muscular shoulders. “He’s so small,” Golejaan Bibi says, “but he has to work all day in other people’s houses…”

The visit to Golejaan Bibi’s home is part of a “victim tour” organized for me by local human rights activists. I blanched at the original itinerary, which covered six victims: “One rape case, one murder case, one starvation case, one abandonment, two torture…” Four was more than enough, I said. But it feels like three too many.

I interview the “abandonment case,” Golejaan Bibi’s neighbour, Sharifa Khatun, a woman whose marriage to a BSF soldier ended when he moved to another posting and left no forwarding address. A little while later I do the same with the starvation case, a family whose infant daughter perished after she was reduced to eating dirt in the famine that followed the 2005 floods of the Padma river. They flourish the paperwork documenting their complaints, and I take notes and shake my head, marveling silently at their flat, emotionless narrations and how fatigue is diminishing my own reserves of empathy.

They used the English word “torture” to describe the harassment and intimidation they faced.

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We ride on to visit the final victim of the day, our motorcycle parting the peaceful silence of the paddy fields at dusk. Driving along a raised embankment we see two men wading stealthily through the standing crops, with large bags balanced on their heads—smugglers headed for Bangladesh. When I ask my companion what they might be carrying, he suggests Phensedyl, a cough syrup. Or Erazex, a “correction fluid” used to redact typing errors. But here both liquids serve as remedies to correct yet another national fiction: Bangladesh is an Islamic nation where intoxicants are outlawed. Phensedyl is a potently alcoholic elixir and Erazex can be sniffed for a toluene high.

We dismount in a village called Debipur and walk to a small compound where three rough huts frame a mud-floored courtyard. But our “victim” is not here. Beauty Sarkar was a young woman making her way from her in-laws’ home in Bangladesh to her parents’ home in India in 2010, when she was apprehended by a BSF sentry and raped. I hear this story from her parents, who were themselves originally from Bangladesh. They left in 1988 they said, because life had become difficult for them as Hindus. They used the English word “torture” to describe the harassment and intimidation they faced. Their eldest daughter Beauty married another Bangladeshi Hindu who was working in India but then decided to return home with his new bride. After her rape Beauty gave birth to a daughter in India and left her here with the grandparents. Beauty’s father says he has crossed the border three times to visit his daughter, and although the situation of Hindus, at least in that corner of Bangladesh’s Rajshahi District, seems to be better, Beauty is having a hard time with her in-laws because of the rape. He produces sheaves of paper detailing the complaint the family has filed against the BSF. They have little hope that anything will come of it. Their teenaged son, Beauty’s brother, who has been silent so far suddenly speaks up, his voice breaking with adolescent resentment. It’s high time they came to a “compromise” with the BSF he says. He has a good reason: he wants a job when he leaves school and dreams of being a soldier.


Scattered through the Indian district of Cooch Behar and three adjacent districts in Bangladesh on the northern border is a territorial and cartographic absurdity that has somehow survived from (at least) the Mughal era, through the rise and fall of the British Empire, the Partition of India, and the liberation of Bangladesh. It is called the chhit mahals which means something like “the droplets,” or “the crumbs of land.” There are some 200 chhit mahals in all,  approximately106 pockets of Indian territory inside Bangladesh and another 92 the other way around. Some are “counterenclaves”: an island of Bangladesh surrounded by India, surrounded by Bangladesh (or vice versa), and one, called Dahala Khagrabari # 51, is an Indian counter-counterenclave or, in the jargon of border management, an “adversely held third order enclave.” India inside Bangladesh, inside India, inside Bangladesh.

How they came into existence is a mystery, although popular legend has it that the maharajas of Cooch Behar and neighbouring Rangpur lost these lands to each other as forfeits in an extended game of cards or chess. What is even harder to believe is that India and Bangladesh—or Pakistan before it—never bothered to resolve this bizarre anomaly, preferring to accept and ignore these holes in their respective national fabric. Nobody knows (of course) the precise population of the chhit mahals but official estimates run from 50,000 to 150,000, and they cover an area of approximately 25,000 acres.

If you set out from the town of Jalpaiguri and ask for directions to the chhits you will find one soon enough. It helps to pinch open Google Maps on your phone. As the image zooms in, the windingline of the border unravels like severed concertina wire, snagging you in a cartography of fractals. The border that defines Bangladesh, virtually an enclave within India itself, reveals more Bangladeshes, other Indias. And just ahead of Mekliganj (a town on the Indian side), you will see yet another semi-circular patch labelled “Bangladesh” with an Indian road, your road, running right through it. If you see the familiar border fence running along to the right of the road, you’ve gone too far. Go back and ask at the first roadside shop. This is it, the man will tell you. This is #125 Kharkharia, part of Bangladesh. And you might feel, for a moment, like a human counterenclave, a foreigner, in Bangladesh, in India.

People here have lived their entire lives “in India,” but they aren’t entitled to ID cards, rations or any of the rights of citizenship: water, electricity, schools. And of course they have no contact with Bangladesh, which is a mile away. They have no way to register their property in Indian courts, so the value of land in the chhits is one tenth of the usual local rate. All real problems, caused by an utterly imaginary border. There are small advantages of course. Some chhits specialize in the cultivation of marijuana, since no one is watching. But if a chhit-dweller’s luck is bad or they’ve annoyed a cop, they could be arrested and languish in jail for years under the “Foreigners Act.” Some tell stories of people who linger in the jails of Calcutta long after they’ve served their term because neither India nor Bangladesh will acknowledge them as citizens. The local word for this purgatory of stateless incarceration is Jaan khalaas, or “Life Finished.”

There are no markers to tell you when you’ve emerged from #125 Kharkharia back into India proper, but as you drive on you will see the famous fence spring back to life. And if you look at your phone again it’s likely you’ll find that you are on a Bangladeshi network—on Indian soil. Ten minutes along the road you’ll approach an incongruously elaborate crossroads. There are pavements edged with carefully painted curbstones, ornamental plants, and streetlights and a small traffic island with a cement umbrella. Crossing the main road is another narrow but well macadamized lane with the now familiar black fence bracketing it on either side. A scattering of freshly painted statist follies: pavilions, benches and plaques proclaim the importance of this spot, the “Tin Bigha Corridor”—possibly the brightest star in the perplexing constellation of the chhit mahals.

Standing at the crossroads you can see a gate marking the “mainland” of Bangladesh less than a hundred meters down the road to your left and another gate marking the start of the largest of all the Bangladeshi enclaves, Dahagram-Angarpota, another hundred meters to your right. An intermittent stream of vehicles trickles between the gates from Bangladesh to Bangladesh. Some well-heeled sight-seers stroll across on foot: a family from Dhaka savoring the tantalizing metaphysics of the border “for tourism purpose,” they say.

A bigha is an Indian unit of land: approximately a third of an acre. The Tin Bigha Corridor, measuring precisely 178 x 85 meters, was acquired by the Indian state to allow Bangladeshis free passage to their castaway territory in Dahagram. It’s a singular and apparently unrepeatable attempt to find a workable solution to the chhit mahal conundrum, the outcome of years of international and local negotiation. But all the fresh paint and shrubbery can’t conceal the comical absurdity of the crossroads. There’s an outpost of BSF soldiers guarding the gates, and when you ask them what exactly they do here their embarrassment is palpable. “We guard our frontier,” they say stiffly. “We raise the national flag and lower it every day.” As they talk the Bangladeshi drivers pass by unheeding. “We make sure that the Bangladeshis drive straight,” a portly BSF corporal proclaims. “Only straight. No left, no right.”


Back in the bureaucratic enclaves of New Delhi, the Department of Border Management has recently come under the control of new masters, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government of Narendra Modi. The completion of the border fence featured prominently in the new ruling party’s election manifesto. On the border itself one BSF guard and a villager were killed in an unexplained clash in the state of Tripura last May, while a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler was found beaten to death near the Petrapole border in June. Later that month, the BSF announced that violent deaths on the Border had come down from 100 to around 12 per year thanks to the introduction of new “non-lethal” weapons.

Also in June, a high level delegation led by the new Indian Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, visited Bangladesh to “mend fences,” as it were, after the abrasive election campaign, which involved many imprecations against Bangladeshi immigration, and, implicitly, the compromising of India’s Hindu fabric. “The illegal immigration issue needs careful handling,” said a conciliatory Swaraj as talks began on all the perennial issues: migrants, trade, the sharing of river waters, and the revival of a treaty on the exchange of border enclaves (which had been blocked by the BJP when it was still an opposition party). In Dhaka, Khaleda Zia, the head of the the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s leading opposition, announced that there was still no proof of any illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India. As the year ended the details of a land transfer agreement to solve the enclaves issue emerged: India would receive 2,777.038 acres and hand over 2,267.682 acres, a net gain for India of 509.356 acres of land.

But the reassuring precision of this territorial arithmetic remains imperiled by the enduring uncertainty of other equations. The Indian apprehension is that most of the population of the Bangladeshi enclaves will remain in India when their land changes hands and that most of the population of the Indian enclaves will migrate to India proper when their lands are handed over to Bangladesh. And until the quantum of a “rehabilitation package” for these anticipated tens of thousands of refugees is resolved, the agreement remains in the limbo of parliamentary debate.

In fact it wasn’t long before the enclaves issue was all but forgotten as the upper house of the Indian parliament fell into weeks of uproar, the opposition demanding a clear apology from the prime minister for a recent incident of “mass conversion”: The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, (a quasi-political groupuscule of the Sangh Parivar or “Joint Family” of Hindu nationalist organizations affiliated to the ruling party) had offered some fifty-seven impoverished Muslim families ration cards and jobs in return for “converting back” to Hinduism—the Hindu nationalist position being that all Indians are essentially Hindus, though some have strayed historically to other faiths. Conversion or “reconversion” to Hinduism is therefore termed ghar wapsi or “Homecoming.” It’s not hard to hear the echo of Narendra Modi’s pronouncement on the Bangladesh border during the election campaign: Those who worship the Hindu pantheon will be welcomed home as sons of Mother India. In parliament one legislator from the Communist Party enquired sarcastically whether the Prime Minister could spare the time from his foreign tours for a ghar wapsi to address the houses of parliament on the conversion controversy.

In the meantime, the homecoming of Indians from the chhit mahals in Bangladesh hangs in the balance. What remains unconsidered is whether the residents of the enclaves themselves will really benefit from the proposed resolution of the border problem. I did ask the good citizens of #125 Kharkharia, and once they had finished complaining they told me a little about how they have endured their predicament for so long. All that is really required they said, is to buy another scrap—literally a chhit—of land in India proper and they could soon have papers, IDs, citizenship. People are always a little more imaginative than the borders that fence them.

  1. All names have been changed. 

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