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Say goodbye to the weirdest border dispute in the world

Just after midnight Saturday, one of the most perplexing border disputes in the world officially ended. India and Bangladesh began the exchange of over 160 enclaves – small areas of sovereignty completely surrounded on all sides by another country – and in so doing ended a dispute that has lasted almost 70 years.

This act will have a major effect on the lives of more than 50,000 people who resided in these enclaves in Cooch Behar. Where they had been surrounded by a country they didn't have citizenship in for decades, now they will finally gain access to things like schools, electricity and health care.

For curious cartographers and others obsessed with geopolitical oddities, however, it's an end of an era. The exchange between India and Bangladesh means that the world will not only lose one of its most unique borders, but it will also lose the only third-order enclave in the world – an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by another state.

It's confusing, so let me spell it out: Dahala Khagrabari, the third-order enclave in question, was a part of India, surrounded by a Bangladeshi enclave, which was surrounded by an Indian enclave, which was surrounded by Bangladesh. If you're still confused, this close-up map may make things a little clearer:

Enclaves themselves are not so unusual. Plenty exist around the world – Llívia, for example, is a part of Spain that is completely surrounded by French territories. Second-order enclaves (an enclave within an enclave) are not as rare as you might think, either: There are a web of enclaves within enclaves in Baarle-Hertog, a Belgian municipality with pockets of Dutch sovereignty. It is important to note that enclaves aren't necessarily bad. As Frank Jacobs, an enclave-obsessed blogger wrote for the New York Times in 2011, Barle-Hertog is "a money-spinning tourist attraction." Before the modern age of cartography and nation states, there were enclaves all over the place.

The situation in Cooch Behar was clearly not good, however. Old stories say that the enclaves were the end result of a chess game between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur many centuries ago, or the result of a drunk British colonial spilling ink on a map, both apocryphal stories but a good indication of how arbitrary the borders seemed (modern scholars believe that the enclaves are actually the result of the Mughal empire's failed expansion into the kingdom of Cooch Behar in the 18th century). After the partition of India in 1947, the problems with this arrangement became apparent: The people who lived in these enclaves weren't stateless people, but they might as well have been.

The strange set-up made it not only difficult for people to access state amenities, it made things as simple as a trip to the market a potential problem. In theory, someone who lived in an enclave would need a visa to enter the foreign country that surrounded the enclave. However, the only way to get that visa was to travel to a major city in the main body of their country, something that was impossible without illegally entering the foreign country.

Attempts to rectify the situation have stalled for decades: An agreement for a land swap was reached in 1974, but India did not ratify it. In 2011, however, a new agreement was reached, which, after some stalling, was finally ratified in June. The enclaves will become territory of the states that surround them and the citizens who live within them will get to decide whether they want to stay put and accept new citizenship, or whether they want to keep their original citizenship and be relocated.

Problem solved for the people of Dahala Khagrabari? Not exactly. Some exclave residents say that they were left out of government surveys and worry they will not be able to choose their citizenship or keep their land. Some families within Dahala Khagrabari are being split as they choose different citizenships. Technically, one the world's strangest border disputes may be solved, but on the ground it is likely to be far more complicated.

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