Crowds cheer Bangladesh-India land swap after 70 years in limbo

DASHIAR CHHARA, Bangladesh - Jubilant crowds celebrated Saturday as Bangladesh and India swapped tiny islands of land, ending one of the world's most intractable border disputes that has kept thousands in limbo for nearly seven decades.

As the clock struck one minute past midnight (1801 GMT Friday), thousands of people who have been living without schools, clinics or power for a generation erupted in cheers of celebration for their new citizenship.

"We have been in the dark for 68 years," said Russel Khandaker, 20, as he danced with friends in the Dashiar Chhara enclave, which belonged to India but has now became part of Bangladesh.

"We've finally seen the light," he told AFP.

A total of 162 tiny islands of land - 111 in Bangladesh and 51 in India - were officially handed over to the countries surrounding them on Saturday after Dhaka and New Delhi struck a border agreement in June.

The land-swap means some 50,000 people who have been living in the isolated enclaves since 1947 will now become part of the countries that surround their homes.

In Dashiar Chhara, thousands of people defied monsoon rains to celebrate, marching through rain-soaked muddy roads singing the Bangladeshi national anthem and shouting: "My country, your country. Bangladesh! Bangladesh!" Others lit 68 candles to mark the end of "68 years of endless pain and indignity".

Sharifa Akter, 20, held a candle in her hand and smiled. "I can now fulfil my dream of being a top government bureaucrat," she told AFP.

"We're now human beings with full human rights," said Maidul Islam, 18, of the handover.

Officials from Bangladesh and India hoisted their respective national flags over their new territories on Saturday morning in formal ceremonies.

"We sang the national anthem as we raised the Bangladesh flags at 6:00 am (0000 GMT) in all 111 enclaves that are now part of Bangladesh territory," said Shafiqul Islam, chief government administrator in northern district of Debiganj.

Islam said the Bangladesh government would now roll out a "fast-track master plan" to develop the enclaves. The plan includes building new roads, schools, power lines and clinics.

In West Bengal state's Mashaldanga enclave, the main site for celebrations on the Indian side, residents who for decades lived as Bangladeshis in the foreign land but opted for Indian citizenship under the deal rallied with torches, burst fire crackers and hoisted the Indian flag to celebrate their "freedom".

"We have waited so long for this moment," said a jubilant resident, Tapas Das.

Local ruling politician Rabi Ghosh said his government's priority is to reach out to his new compatriots and to see their children go to schools and sick get treated at hospitals.

"By December we will ensure all villages are connected with roads, electricity and drinking water," Ghosh told AFP.

 'Oh what a joy!'

The enclaves date back to ownership arrangements made centuries ago between local princes.

The parcels of land survived partition of the subcontinent in 1947 after British rule, and Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.

Bangladesh endorsed a deal with India in 1974 in a bid to dissolve the pockets, but India only signed a final agreement in June when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dhaka.

In the final hours before the handover, villagers held special feasts and joined prayers in mosques and Hindu temples to usher in the new era.

Prodeep Kumar Barman sang a devotional song praising Hindu Lord Krishna as he led his troupe near a temple at the main bazaar in Dashiar Chhara, singing: "Oh what a joy, what a joy!" Plans for more lavish festivities have been scaled back as India is observing a period of national mourning for former president A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who died this week.

"This is the biggest celebration of my life. I can't describe how I feel today," said Parul Khatun, 35, a resident of the Indian enclave of Kot Bajni.

Both India and Bangladesh conducted surveys this month asking enclave residents to choose a nation.

The overwhelming majority of people living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted for Bangladeshi citizenship, but nearly 1,000 people on the Bangladesh side opted to keep their Indian nationalities.

They now have to leave their homes by November for India where they will be resettled in the state of West Bengal.

The decision has split some families along generational lines, with ambitious young people moving to India and leaving behind parents who are either afraid to move or just want to stay where they grew up.

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