Asgar Ali is 103 years old. This week he was able to vote for the first time in his life.
"It is like a dream come true for me," he told reporters.
What kept Ali from the voting booth for so long? Well, he only officially became an Indian citizen last year. For almost 70 years, he was one of tens of thousands of people stuck in an elaborate and nonsensical border dispute between India and Bangladesh.
As WorldViews reported last year, the border dispute was one of the great cartographical oddities of the world. For complicated historical reasons, there had been more than 160 enclaves — small areas of sovereignty completely surrounded on all sides by another country — in Cooch Behar along the India-Bangladesh border.
The situation was even more ridiculous than that, however. The area contained Dahala Khagrabari, the only third-order enclave in the entire world. It was literally an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by another state.
To be clear, that means it was a part of India, surrounded by a Bangladeshi enclave, which was surrounded by an Indian enclave, which was surrounded by Bangladesh.
In practice, this situation meant that many of the people living in these enclaves were virtually stateless. In fact, voting was generally the least of their worries. They were cut off from state amenities such as water and power. In theory, they needed a visa to cross the national borders that surrounded them, but they could only get visas by traveling to a major city — which of course meant crossing those national borders that surrounded them. A trip to a nearby market town could become a legal nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions.
After decades of talks, a deal was finally struck in August to exchange land so that the border made more sense. The smaller enclaves would become the territory of the areas around them and the citizens within them would get a choice of either staying put and accepting the local citizenship or relocating.
In the final stage of West Bengal state elections held Thursday, there were about 10,000 potential new voters from the enclaves; more than three-quarters are thought to be Muslims, according to the Economic Times. Parties have been clambering for their votes as the race in Cooch Behar has been particularly tight and the broader state election is seen by some as particularly important to national politics and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Despite their newfound electoral power, Ali's grandson explained that the mechanics of how to actually vote had been a problem for them. "Since nobody from our family or our neighborhood had ever voted, we didn't [know] how to cast [a] vote," Jaynal Abedin told reporters. "But we got help from polling officials who explained everything."
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