Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Deb Mukharji - Landmark India-Bangladesh border pact is testimony to what spirit of cooperation can achieve

Parliament’s passage of the bill on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh brings to an end anomalies of the Radcliffe Award hastily drawn up in the days before Partition, which had continued despite earlier efforts in the Nehru-Noon accord of 1958. The 1974 Indira-Mujib accord was approved shortly by the Bangladesh parliament. India did not do so as the acquisition or surrender of any territory required precise determination of the territory involved.

In fact, in order to become effective, the Bangladesh constitutional amendment had the same requirement. Over the years, neither government had shown alacrity to determine precisely the areas involved. If Delhi was somnolent and distant, Dhaka too seemed to lack initiative. Unfortunately the issue became politicised in Bangladesh, while local interests influenced national parties in India. While this became an ‘issue’ between the two countries with India on the defensive because of non-ratification, and a sense of grievance accumulating in Bangladesh, what was lost sight of was that a conclusion would benefit both countries equally.

The 1974 agreement itself, path breaking as it was, needed to be marginally reconfigured in keeping with the ground situation. Unfortunately, the rollercoaster nature of India-Bangladesh relations did not allow sustained and coordinated efforts. Also, largely missing in media or political projections were the tribulations of inhabitants of the enclaves who had a notional nationality but no access to their ‘country’ as Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis since 1947.

I recall a senior Delhi academic being dismissive in a superior manner when i underlined this in a TV discussion some years ago. Politics had permeated understanding of the issues involved at all levels. Hectic efforts by both sides in 2011 succeeded in joining the dots, together with agreement on the undemarcated 6.1 km in a spirit of mutual accommodation. The officials involved on both sides, both at diplomatic and field levels, deserve the highest praise.

In substance, LBA provides for sovereignty over 111 Indian enclaves embedded in Bangladesh with an area of 17,158 acres accruing to Bangladesh, while the territory of 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India with an area of 7,110 acres will be ceded to India. Inhabitants of these areas will be free to opt for the nationality of either country.

Each country will become legal owners of land which have been in their adverse possession across the international border, 2,268 acres in case of Bangladesh and 2,777 acres in case of India. In addition, the issue of 6.1 km stretch of the international boundary which has never been demarcated, now stands resolved.

Notwithstanding fierce political debate when the UPA government first mooted the bill, and the more recent and unexpected opposition from within NDA, the 100th constitutional amendment bill evoked unique all party support in both houses of Parliament. At one level it demonstrates the regard in which our parliamentarians hold Bangladesh and India-Bangladesh relations.

At another, it brought back memories of earlier halcyon times when even if there were differences in policies and perceptions, political parties stood united behind the government on issues of foreign policy. This compact was severely fractured in the nuclear bill debate of 2008. With a hectoring electronic media asserting its instant wisdom on all issues, maintaining a balance is undoubtedly difficult.

But this is an example that greater accommodation and communication, rather than the hubris of power, can produce better results. Civility returned to Indian parliamentary discourse as foreign minister Sushma Swaraj graciously thanked the former prime minister for his government’s contribution to the process and Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked Sonia Gandhi for her support. It’s noteworthy that the opposition BNP in Bangladesh has extended its appreciation to the Indian Parliament. By inference, at least, this appreciation should also extend to the Awami League government for staying the course with great focus.

While removing the anomalies left behind by colonial powers, the agreement would assist the efforts of both countries in controlling cross-border crime and smuggling. The enclaves on the two sides have been outside the jurisdiction of either country. Restoring to the inhabitants their rights as citizens, both governments would also now be able to bring them the protection of law enforcing agencies. It would be desirable for all necessary legal and constitutional processes to be completed at the earliest so that full implementation can take place.

The agreement comes at an important time. Modi is expected to visit Dhaka shortly. Manmohan Singh’s 2011 visit to Dhaka could have been truly path-breaking, but was stymied by the Teesta imbroglio. This issue will not go away and must not be allowed to fester. Even more importantly, the current state of mutual confidence does make it possible to take significant initiatives. The charter for the future has been laid down in the Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development, signed on September 6, 2011. It is a vision document that needs to be acted upon. The two PMs should review progress.

On her part, India should offer participation in significant transport and infrastructure projects. India-Bangladesh relations have evolved from being transactional to one of partnership and mutual trust. This momentum needs not only to be maintained but raised to higher levels.


More posts on Bangladesh