26 August 2019

The Boundaries of Citizenship in the Former Border Enclaves of Bangladesh and India

In her PhD thesis, Anuradha Sen Mookerjee investigates the experiences of newly documented Indian citizens of the former Bangladeshi border enclaves in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, India. This leads her to draw an anthropology of the state as it is experienced by borderlanders who, living on the state’s margins, have historically borne the brunt of securitisation as “foreigners”. Interview with Dr Sen Mookerjee on “Boundaries of Citizenship: Social Practices and Negotiations in the Former Border Enclaves of Bangladesh and India”.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

The India-Bangladesh border is a fallout of the decolonisation of British India in 1947 that created East Pakistan and later Bangladesh in 1971, dividing Bengal, once the largest province in British India. The bordermaking had catastrophic consequences for Hindus in East Pakistan and Muslims in West Bengal, India, with more than a million Hindus from East Pakistan moving to West Bengal and a similar number of Muslims from newly created West Bengal moving to East Pakistan, causing immense trauma.

I grew up in Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, hearing the troubled memories of the partition and its pitfalls from my grandmother as my father’s family had migrated to Kolkata from East Pakistan in 1947. Between 2005 and 2010, when I worked with UNIFEM (now UN Women) on their Regional Anti-Trafficking Programme in South Asia, I gathered a deeper understanding of the vulnerabilities of border crossing for those without valid documents and of the security state prevalent at the India-Bangladesh border. Both these factors informed my interest in the border as a geographic, legal, institutional and sociocultural process that underlay the essence of state and nationhood, invoking ideas of the sovereign homeland. I began to explore the border in terms of the social boundaries that it informed and maintained and that could be observed in the social practices and negotiations of the new Muslim citizens of the former border enclaves (known as the Chhit Mahals in Bengali) in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal in India. As historically marginalised borderlanders, these new citizens, who were given the choice of citizenship of either India or Bangladesh, had lived in effective statelessness till the exchange of the Chhit Mahals between India and Bangladesh in the midnight of 31 July 2015, sixty-years years after the Partition of India.

So, my study is located within the tensions in the scholarship on the diverse ways in which populations and territoriality matter to each other in the interplay of nations and their states.

What was your main research question?

My main research question was, How do the new Indian Muslims who were inhabitants of the former Chhit Mahals navigate the changes in their lifeworld, in the context of the effects of the systemic forces of Indian citizenship and the boundaries informed by the India Bangladesh border? 

How did you proceed, methodologically speaking?

I conducted the study as a long-term ethnography in the former Bangladeshi Chhit Mahals, the Enclave Settlement Camps in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, India, and among the newly documented Indian citizens in the migrant worker colonies in the National Capital Region of New Delhi between March 2016 and January 2017, with a follow-up visit between July and August 2017. I conducted pre-field visits during the conduct of the Joint Survey between 6 and 16 July 2015 to both Bangladesh Chhit Mahals in Cooch Behar and Indian Chhit Mahals in Bangladesh and revisited them after the exchange of the Chhit Mahals between 1 and 8 August 2015. Between 2015 and 2019, I have kept in touch with my interlocutors through social media, actively using digital ethnography, Facebook and WhatsApp to follow the changes in their lives. 

I focused on acts by ordinary inhabitants of the former Chhit Mahals in India, as they struggle between the system and their transforming lifeworld. It led me to analyse the relationship between the geopolitical and cultural boundaries that is experienced through citizenship, as a culturally constructed identity. I historically analysed the struggles and negotiations materialising in response to the tensions and contradictions that they experience as newly documented Indian citizens now. By ethnographically constructing the history of their practices, I attempted to bring in additional nuances and meanings to their history of resistance against processes of boundary making at the India Bangladesh border. Locating their present practices and negotiations in the context of the changes that materialise as new processes of classification and bordering in their daily life after the exchange, as part of their shifting lifeworld, enabled me to theoretically locate how actors and their quotidian actions made small differences to their historical powerlessness, as microprocesses. By doing so, I have explored the relationship between territory, populations and the state.

What are your major findings?

My case study shows how, through the production of new social relations, the inhabitants of the former Chhit Mahals continue to challenge the systemic forces as newly documented citizen actors. Openly, covertly, sometimes being part of the system, they resist total domination within the limitations and opportunities of their context, as their lifeworld continues to grapple with processes of continuous unequal struggles and contestations.

Two major conclusions emerge from the study. Firstly, the process of marginalisation faced by these new citizens – former Bangladeshis and Muslims, minorities and migrants – occurs as a continuous process. Secondly, their disappointment and disenchantment with citizenship show that their documentation as citizens and incorporation in India’s political community did not solve their problems. Their “voice”, i.e., their freedom of expression and capacity to “dissent”, cannot be heard on its own unless it is aligned along political party lines. The “vote” is the newly documented citizen’s terms of recognition. The state is thus manifest to them through political party influences and affiliations and has to be accordingly negotiated. The borderland as a space emerges then as a key site for understanding how the state shapes national identity though inclusion and exclusion processes.

What could be the social and political implications of your thesis?

By its informal categorisation between citizens and foreigners, resulting from the desperate prioritising of sovereignty and security as governing principles, the political discourse in India feeds hidden assumptions that equate the undocumented Bangladeshis in India with Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims migrants in Delhi and its surrounding areas. In doing so, it has significantly contributed to their marginalisation as Indian citizens. Clearly, liberty, equality and fraternity, which are the core principles of the preamble to the Indian Constitution, have taken a backseat.

What is really going on in these former Chhit Mahals offers an understanding not only of the Indian state, but more generally of state processes whereby the exclusion of migrants and minorities is managed by both border management and inclusion mechanisms. In everyday life, the internal boundaries shape the experiences of citizens, unwanted citizens, to-be citizens, among others, all of them participating in a process of continuous struggle. To combat this trend and enable more equal and equitable national societies that accommodate diversity, global and national policy processes must engage with securitisation in terms of its ramifications for the various groups of citizens and engage with the national narratives on undocumented migration and various minorities.

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Anuradha Sen Mookerjee defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in June 2019. Professor Shaila Seshia Galvin presided the committee, which included Professor Alessandro Monsutti, thesis director, Professor Shalini Randeria (on Skype), and Professor H.W. (Willem) van Schendel, from the University of Amsterdam.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Sen Mookerjee, Anuradha. “Boundaries of Citizenship: Social Practices and Negotiations in the Former Border Enclaves of Bangladesh and India.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download Dr Sen Mookerjee’s PhD thesis via this page of the Institute’s repository.

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Banner image by Jaynal Abedin, Resident, Madhya Mashaldanga Former Enclave, Cooch Behar.