Frail, aided by his grandson and beaming with pride, 103-year-old Asgar Ali was among thousands who cast their ballots for the first time in elections held in West Bengal yesterday.
Caught in one of the world’s most intractable border disputes, Ali had been stuck in stateless limbo for decades until a historic land swap last year between India and Bangladesh.
Ali, his 18-strong family and thousands of others became Indian citizens under the deal in which their Bangladeshi enclaves on the Indian side of the border ceased to exist.
Yesterday, they voted for the first time, in the final phase of assembly elections in the eastern state, which have been dominated by feisty Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party.
“I am very happy to have voted,” Ali said through grandson Jamal Hussain.
“This is the first time ever that I have voted in, or participated in, the democratic process,” said Ali, who was helped by election officials at a polling booth in the district of Cooch Behar.
Last year’s pact saw Bangladesh assume sovereignty over 111 Indian enclaves on its side of the border.
India meanwhile took 51 Bangladeshi enclaves on its own side.
Enclaves are small pockets of one country’s territory surrounded by the other.
It meant more than 50,000 people who were living in the enclaves could access citizenship benefits such as schools and healthcare that they had lacked since 1947.
“I voted hoping that it would lead to change, some work in our village, in our neighbourhood. Maybe we will get a hospital,” said Ali, a former farmer who counts 18 immediate family members.
“All leaders are good. Whoever wins should get work done in our neighbourhood,” he added.
The enclaves dated 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.
The overwhelming majority of people living in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh opted for Bangladeshi citizenship under the deal, rather than resettle across the border in India.
In India, all of those living in the 51 Bangladesh enclaves decided to stay put and take up Indian nationalities.
Meanwhile, more than 74% of the 58,04,019 voters exercised their franchise across 25 constituencies of Cooch Behar (nine) and East Midnapore districts (16), to bring the curtains down on the staggered month-long polls to the 294-member legislature.
There were sporadic incidents of irregularities with the opposition parties accusing the ruling Trinamool Congress of resorting to malpractices.
Trinamool candidate from Cooch Behar’s Natabari Rabindra Nath Ghosh landed in a controversy when he was caught on camera threatening a polling officer.
In a video broadcast by a TV channel, Ghosh is seen entering a polling booth in his constituency and verbally intimidating the official and even asking him where he was employed.
In East Midnapore, thousands turned up in over 4,000 disabled voter-friendly booths, aided by the Election Commission’s special initiatives.
In Moyna seat, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) alleged that its polling agent’s house was broken into and vandalised by Trinamool supporters. The Trinamool, meanwhile, accused the Congress of overwhelming several booths in the constituency.
Five Trinamool workers were reportedly detained in the assembly segment on the charge of intimidating voters.
In Nandigram, the opposition accused the Trinamool of intimidating and threatening their agents.
The main focus is on Nandigram, where a peasants’ agitation in 2006-07 against the then Left Front government’s bid to acquire farmland for a chemical hub and a special economic zone led to police firing that resulted in 14 deaths. The peasants’ protest played a pivotal role in the ouster of the Left Front after 34 years in office.
In 2011, the Trinamool Congress, then in alliance with the Congress, won 20 seats. The Congress got one, while Left Front partner Forward Bloc triumphed in four seats.
This time, the Left Front and the Congress have teamed up against the Trinamool.
Counting and results of elections in West Bengal and four other states will be held on May 19.