Millennium Post

Modi must keep a steady hand

It is indeed a sad commentary on the state of India- Bangladesh bilateral relations that even after more than four decades, no mutually acceptable solution to the land boundary issue has been found. Anti-India elements in Bangladesh are making use of this issue to their advantage.

This problem is a negative legacy from the days of colonisation. Historically, the islands of enclaves in India and Bangladesh was the result of a series of chess games between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur, who used these villages as a wager. That was before the British Raj.  Since independence, these enclaves have been left out due to a cartographic anomaly by both India and Bangladesh. Not much has changed after Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. The Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Agreement in 1974 was meant to change all that. Then the two countries resolved to exchange enclaves “expeditiously”, and India agreed to forgo compensation for the additional area going to Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s parliament ratified the treaty immediately but India is yet to do so.

There is no doubt that a realistic and pragmatic approach is needed to settle this matter once and for all to end the misery of the people involved who live in a state of uncertainty without human rights, civic amenities and citizenship rights. Devoid of basic services such as electricity, hospitals or schools, the residents are literally stuck. For many years, many suggestions including an overpass had been toyed with to allow Bangladesh have access to its enclave. A most viable solution to the enclaves issue is the swapping of the territories between the two countries.

It is indeed good development that Prime Minister Modi has declared his intention to resolve the issue soon.  In fact when the Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament came to participate in his swearing in ceremony in May, this was one of the issues she raised. Modi made it clear in Assam this week that the government intends to move quickly on the 2011 protocol to the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. The BJP’s U-turn is a welcome sign for Modi’s foreign policy.  He has declared that rationalising the enclaves would not only be a good move from the security point of view but also check the illegal immigration from across the borders. The BJP had argued, while in opposition, that the agreement would compromise the country’s territorial integrity, as India would cede more land to Bangladesh. Perhaps, Modi is following his “neighbours first” policy in addressing this issue.

By the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 between the two countries, and the 2011 Protocol to the said Agreement, India and Bangladesh agreed to exchange and demarcate the land boundary between them. Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura will be affected by this exchange of territory. The 111 Indian enclaves are spread over 17,158 acres of land and has a population of 37,369. They are spread across four districts in Bangladesh- Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Nilphamari and Panchagarh. Another 51 Bangladesh enclaves, all located in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, are spread over of 7,110 acres of land and have a population of 14,215. The Constitution (One Hundred and Nineteenth) Amendment Bill, 2013 proposes to give effect to this proposed land exchange. This long overdue exchange will endeavor to harmonise India’s land boundaries.

Despite many efforts, the Indian Parliament was not able to pass the bill honoring the Indira- Mujib agreement.  A proposal recently cleared by the Standing Committee of Parliament headed by Congress member Sashi Tharoor unanimously envisages exchange of 161 adversely held small enclaves to be exchanged by the two countries; 7,100 acres of land will be transferred to India and nearly 17,000 acres go to Bangladesh. Here again the role of Indian states come into play. Various interested parties including the BJP, Trinamool Congress and Asom Gana Parishad have politicized the land boundary issue.

The Parliament’s okay to the LBA will go a long way in the Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations. Once ratified by the Indian Parliament, the enclaves will cease to exist and give India and Bangladesh a fully demarcated land border for the first time in their shared history.

While the intentions are good, will the government be able to push through this legislation in this session? There are some ifs and buts. It is a welcome sign that the standing committee of Parliament has cleared it unanimously and so all parties are bound by this decision. Most political parties were represented in the committee.  Despite this, there could be some difficulties, as political parties always play politics.

First of all, it needs the cooperation of the opposition for its smooth passage and a lot of backdoor maneuvering.  The Trinamool Congress is dead against the measure. Moreover, there is a tug of war going on between the BJP and the TMC as BJP is eyeing West Bengal for its expansion. The Congress, though it had authored the bill may not give in easily and demand some amendments.

Logically the Congress party should not disown the legislation as it was authored by the Manmohan Singh government and cleared in the Parliament standing committee by Shashi Tharoor, a Congress member. With the NDA in minority in the Rajya Sabha, getting the bill passed will be a difficult thing in the upper house. Getting it passed this session will be an acid test for Modi and his floor management. IPA
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