NEW DELHI – This month, India’s parliament took the first step toward a potentially momentous decision: to settle a boundary dispute with Bangladesh that dates back to the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. An agreement in this area would provide a major boost to the already warm bilateral relationship, not least by bolstering Bangladesh’s position in the region.
The demarcation of the India-Pakistan border by the British was a slapdash affair, concocted by a collapsing empire in headlong retreat from its responsibilities. The border itself was hastily drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer who had never visited India before receiving the assignment, and caused numerous practical problems.
In the eastern part of Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971, Radcliffe’s frontier created two sets of anomalies. In some cases, one country refused to relinquish territory to the other, resulting in so-called “adverse possessions”; in others, Radcliffe left small areas of one country completely surrounded by the other’s territory.
With 111 Indian enclaves spread over 17,000 acres in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves spread over 7,110 acres in India, a settlement would involve a net transfer of some 40 square kilometers (15.4 square miles) of territory from India to its eastern neighbor. That is not a huge area. Yet it has taken nearly seven decades to make real progress toward resolving the anomalies.
At first, the hostility between India and Pakistan that arose soon after partition thwarted any discussion of the issue. In 1971, though, Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, facilitated by India, allowed for the possibility of a solution, and a land-boundary agreement was concluded in 1974. But a military coup in Bangladesh strained the bilateral relationship and stymied the deal.
Despite improved ties in the 1990s, successive Indian governments were unable – or unwilling – to risk their political capital by legitimizing the territorial transfer and settling the dispute. Indeed, the one prime minister who did press for an agreement, Manmohan Singh, was met with strong domestic resistance, including from a coalition ally, making it impossible to gain enough votes to adopt the required constitutional amendment. The then-opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went so far as to block the bill in parliament, with the upper house’s then-opposition leader, the lawyer Arun Jaitley, arguing that India’s territory is integral to its constitution and thus “cannot be reduced or altered by an amendment.”
Now, three years after thwarting Singh’s efforts, the BJP has taken over India’s government, following its resounding electoral victory in May. And it has reversed many of its policy positions, including on the boundary with Bangladesh.
During her first trip abroad after becoming foreign minister, the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, where she pledged to follow through on the land-boundary agreement, referring it to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs for review. The committee, which I head, deliberated over three weeks of hearings, summoning senior representatives from the foreign and home ministries, as well as the government of the most affected state, West Bengal. On December 7, we unanimously recommended that the parliament ratify the constitutional amendment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently announced his support for the deal. Even Jaitley, now India’s finance minister and a prominent cabinet member, has not expressed any opposition. And, given that Bangladesh gains the most from the settlement, both officially expanding its territory and enhancing its position relative to India, the deal should face no resistance there.
In short, the deal’s implementation seems all but assured. The only potential sticking point in India is the perception that it is surrendering its territory. To prevent such a misperception from hampering the bill’s passage through India’s parliament, the country’s leaders must explain to the public that neither India nor Bangladesh will be relinquishing territory that it actually controls at the moment. The territory being exchanged comprises lawless enclaves, where the nominal sovereign lacks real authority.
In fact, India has no access to the enclaves within Bangladesh that it supposedly rules; there are no customs posts, border markings, post offices, or police to reflect India’s control. The people inhabiting these enclaves are theoretically Indian citizens, but they lack the rights and privileges that their counterparts elsewhere in India enjoy. Eliminating the anomalies will merely regularize the reality; the loss of territory will occur purely on paper.
The only potential change is that some residents of the Indian enclaves may migrate to India after the settlement, if they so choose. Otherwise, they will become citizens of Bangladesh. Given that the enclaves’ residents have presumably lost much of their cultural or personal ties with India since 1947, most are expected to remain where they are.
A land-boundary agreement’s impact would thus be most apparent in the two countries’ diplomatic relationship. Already, Bangladesh’s Awami League government, which returned to power this year after a controversial election that was boycotted by the principal opposition party, has embraced an unprecedented level of cooperation with India on security and counter-terrorism issues.
Under less friendly regimes, Bangladesh had been a haven for terrorist and militant groups that wreaked havoc in India. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has not just denied these groups shelter; it has actively intercepted them, arrested some of their leaders, and even handed wanted terrorists over to the Indian government.
If terrorist bombs are no longer going off in the Indian state of Assam, it is thanks to the government in Dhaka. Giving Bangladesh legal rights to territory within its own borders is the least India can do to express its gratitude.
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