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On course for better ties with Dhaka

On course for better ties with Dhaka
At long last, the Indian Parliament on Wednesday ratified the long awaited Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh. It is an issue, which has remained a sour point between both countries for the past four decades. The delay was mainly because India’s foreign policy had been held hostage to domestic politics. 

Folklore has it that the enclaves in India and Bangladesh were the result of a series of chess games between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur. These noblemen used these villages as a wager. Thus, some villages in Cooch Behar became the properties of Rangpur, while villages within Rangpur came to be owned by the Cooch Behar Maharajas. This informal arrangement between the two rulers allowed the collection of revenues and administering of the respective “enclaves”.

After Partition, however, Rangpur became part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) while Cooch Behar became part of India when its Maharaja Jitendra Narayan acceded his princely state to India in August 1949.  These places have been left as they were found by both India and Bangladesh. 

By the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 and the 2011 Protocol to the Agreement, India and Bangladesh have agreed to exchange these enclaves and demarcate the land boundary between them. The Constitution (119th) Amendment Bill, 2013 proposes to give effect to this proposed land exchange. 

People inhabiting these Indo-Bangla enclaves – numbering to around 60,000 – have been rendered stateless due to a cartographic anomaly. Devoid of basic services such as electricity, hospitals, or schools, the residents are stuck without any relief. The agreement envisages the transfer of 111 Indian enclaves to Bangladesh while Bangladesh would transfer 51 enclaves to India. Through the swapping, India will gain 700 acres of land. 

Four agreements had been attempted before. One was Prime Minister Pandit Nehru’s pact with his Pakistani counterpart Feroz Khan Noon in 1958; the second between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman in 1974; the third between Rajiv Gandhi and Gen H.M. Ershad in 1986; and the fourth between PV Narasimha Rao and Begum Khaleda Zia in 1992, where they signed an agreement for the exchange of enclaves. 

Once ratified, the agreement will not only end the dispute but also mark a new era in the relationship between India and Bangladesh. Those who were stateless, may now get their national identity. Moreover, it should be noted that the stipulated share of Bangladesh (268 acres) has been in de facto possession of that country. The same applies to Indian possessions in Bangladesh. The ratification will now formalise their respective positions.  

Secondly a settlement at this time is seen by many as a gesture of the Modi-led government’s goodwill, besides marked improvements in the India-Bangladesh ties. The agreement also strengthens Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s hands. Various Bangladeshi regimes have resented the fact that India had not ratified the treaty for 41 years. 

Thirdly, Prime Minister Modi is planning to visit Bangladesh in June. With the treaty ratified, Modi will land up in Dhaka armed with this good news. Since he took over Bangladesh has been prodding him to act upon this measure. The Prime Minister has been talking of “neighborhood first” concept and the ratification would show that he means what he says, despite opposition from his own party’s Assam unit. The land swap deal would go a long way towards improving India’s image in the neighborhood as well as in the international arena. The neighbours often view India with suspicion because of its size, economy, and military might and see New Delhi as a bully, which in turn encourages them to turn to China. 

Fourthly, the demarcation of the boundaries may check illegal immigration on the Eastern border. This deal could particularly benefit the North East and Assam. 

Resolving the land issues would enable both nations to secure their borders. New Delhi will now be able to talk officially about the issue of migrating Bangladeshis, a thorny problem Assam has faced for nearly three decades.

Fifthly, the border settlement will open up and create huge economic opportunities for both Bangladesh and India’s Border States including Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya, and Tripura. They can garner huge economic benefits by direct and clear contact with Bangladesh. Dhaka could be a gateway to the East Asian countries for India. New Delhi, meanwhile, could seek from Dhaka, as a gesture of goodwill, transit rights to its northeast, bringing development to the region. Bangladesh too will benefit by the deal.  One might wonder why it had taken so long. It was, however, politics, which blocked the deal in years gone by. 

When the Congress was in power the BJP opposed the LBA. Now that the BJP is in power the Congress had tried to put a spoke on the latter’s wheels measure for political reasons. The BJP’s desire to exclude Assam from LBA was prompted by its electoral calculations, as the state goes to Assembly polls early next year. The ruling party at the Centre hopes to end the Congress party’s 15-year rule in the state. The Congress, however, made it clear that it will not support the bill if Assam was excluded, forcing the BJP to yield under pressure. 

The Indian Parliament’s decision to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement is bound to restore New Delhi’s credibility with Dhaka. In addition, other smaller neighbours too might be encouraged to do business with the Modi government. 

Kalyani Shankar

Kalyani Shankar

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