India-Bangladesh LBA: Setting the Right Tone

09 Dec, 2014    ·   4767

Saumitra Mohan writes why the Land Boundary Act could set the stage for settling other border disputes involving India

“We can change history but not geography,” India’s former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had famously said. But this basic common sense has often eluded the movers and shakers of international politics, thereby resulting in constant sanguinary internecine struggle for power. The insane and inane one-upmanship among nations have engendered power games that have eventuated in ‘mutually assured destruction (MAD)’, a phrase often used in the context of the Cold War.  

Hence, it is always advisable to have a peaceful border; otherwise developmental interests of a nation generally get compromised. Anthropogenic as they are, borders between states are often arbitrarily drawn; and the borders that divided India and Pakistan on the map were no different as they did not represent a cartographer’s precision. The international boundary between the two new states was drawn hastily when the British left India. As a result, thousands of people were left high and dry; stranded in enclaves as citizens of one country but living in territories encircled by those of the other. Local folklore has it that these enclaves on either side of the border are actually remnants of high-stake barters in chess games between the erstwhile Maharajas of Cooch Behar and Rangpur in the pre-colonial, undivided Bengal.

The people in 111 Indian enclaves (17,160 acres) in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (7,110 acres) in India have been living in these pockets without any rights as lawful citizens of either country. However, after Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent nation in 1971, in 1974, New Delhi and Dhaka signed an agreement to settle the mutual boundary dispute.  In September 2011, both countries reached an understanding to implement the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. However, due to domestic political constraints, India failed to ratify the agreement via constitutional amendments in her parliament; and this procrastination to ratify the agreement had an India-friendly Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the mat in her country. The latter was panned thoroughly by Bangladeshi opposition parties for soft-pedalling the issue.

The incumbent government in New Delhi is cautiously treading to carry forward the initiative taken by former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. The extant government should waste no time in introducing the relevant Bill in Parliament to push through the required constitutional amendment. The good thing is that neither country loses much territory as a result of the exchange but the accruing diplomatic capital will be considerable for both sides. The agreement affords a big opportunity for India to consolidate its ties with Bangladesh.

The proposed agreement builds on the ‘behind-the-scene’ toil of the 31-member Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs chaired by Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor that recommended the deal in ‘overall national interest’. The Committee has rightly urged the government to emergently present the Bill in the parliament to permanently settle the tickling India-Bangladesh boundary dispute. Resultantly thereof, New Delhi shall be exchanging the enclaves as well as other small plots of land that are in ‘adverse possession’ of either country. There would not only be an exchange of enclaves between the two countries, but there shall also be a settlement of the territories held in adverse possession by both the countries. While India legally receives 2,777 acres of land in ‘adverse possession’, i.e. territory already under de facto Indian control but legally owned by Bangladesh, Bangladesh will, in turn, receive 2,267 acres of territory in its adverse possession but lawfully belonging to India.

The long-delayed settlement, as and when it comes around, has been tipped to be an example of good diplomacy by the two countries. As a mature democracy, India must not allow petty politics to interfere with such diplomatic moves which consolidates its position as a regional power in South Asia. All political parties must come together to ensure the ratification of the ‘swap deal’ as it not only settles a contentious border but also opens a window for settlement of intractable border disputes with China. Peaceful borders with her neighbours will enable India to focus on its strengths to eventually emerge as one of the super powers to reckon with in international politics.

All said and done, India should also strive to evolve a broad-based policy mechanism whereby such issues of national importance are not held hostage to domestic politics as noticed in this case. The very fact that the deal was pigeon-holed at the last moment during the second United Progressive Alliance regime reflects poorly on the background work done by the occupants of the South Block. Due diligent effort should be made to factor all domestic concerns and take aboard all the stakeholders before moving ahead with any such diplomatic initiative so as not to lose face in the comity of nations. A nation speaking in one voice is always a nation that gains in international sweepstakes and occupies a place of pride in the international pecking order. 

The views expressed here are the personal views of the author and don’t necessarily reflect those of the government's.