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may 9, 2015

A Border Settled
A non-disputed border will help open the political gates for freer movement of people and goods.

T

he Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance
(NDA) government has finally exhibited good sense about
the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh by
presenting the 119th Constitutional Amendment Bill in the
Rajya Sabha without excluding Assam. This will help rationalise
and settle one of the most illogical borders of the region which
leave tiny enclaves of each country’s territory surrounded by the
other. Just a week back, reportedly under pressure from the
Assam unit of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that feared
that it would lose popular support just as the state starts preparing for the assembly elections next year, the Cabinet had decided to exclude Assam from the agreement. The very fact that the
government was willing to put “national interest” as well as
long-term diplomatic relations with Bangladesh on the line
merely to win some electoral seats in one state of the country is
a good indicator of this government’s priorities.
Thankfully better counsel prevailed, as even the Minister of
External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj and her office worked to reverse the very cabinet decision she had been unable to stop. It is
even better that the representatives from the other states—West
Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura—which border Bangladesh
have all come together to support this move. Now the Lok Sabha
needs to pass this Constitutional Amendment and then half of
the state legislatures need to ratify it before it becomes a legal
act. This then can be presented to the Bangladesh government
and the logistics of the formal exchange of territories will then
have to be worked out. For the moment, the political logjam
which had held up this agreement for the past four decades
seems to have cleared; unless of course Prime Minister Modi’s
party forces him into another of his numerous about-turns and
amendments are introduced in the Lok Sabha. Athough this
seems a faint possibility, given the fickle nature of the BJP’s support and commitment to the LBA and their past positions against
it, such an eventuality cannot be entirely ruled out.
As is well known by now, the LBA was worked out between
India and Bangladesh by Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur
Rahman in 1974. The assassination of Mujibur Rahman in 1975
and the coming to power of the Janata Party government in
India in 1977, with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members as
ministers, derailed this agreement. Since then, it has often been
revived but was unable to overcome the legislative hurdle as
Economic & Political Weekly

EPW

may 9, 2015

vol l no 19

Hindutva parties and groups, as well as other chauvinist parties
and forces like the Asom Gana Parishad ratcheted up a shrill
campaign against it every time the issue was raised. It goes to the
credit of the previous United Progressive Alliance government that
it finally concluded the agreement in 2011 with the Bangladesh
government on the details of the transfer of territories and
enclaves as well as the status of the people living in them. This
agreement was, unfortunately, again delayed due to the strident
opposition of the BJP as well as the opportunistic position of the
newly-elected government of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.
There are a total of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51
Bangladeshi enclaves in India. Some enclaves of one country are
contained inside the other’s enclaves, called second order enclaves.
There is also a 1.7 acre jute field belonging to India within a
Bangladeshi enclave situated within India, which itself is an enclave within Bangladesh! Tens of thousands of people live in
such enclaves and suffer daily harassment from border guards
of both countries and are unable to access any of the rights and
benefits of citizenship. The agreement simplifies the territorial
division—itself a tragic legacy of partition. It also gives the
people living in these enclaves the right to chose whether they
would like to continue living where they are and take on the
citizenship of the country where the territory now falls, or to
migrate to the country whose citizens they presently are.
In the seven decades since independence, India has not managed to repair the mess that it was bequeathed in the form of
contentious borders; where there has been some progress, there
has also been many additions to the problems of settling borders.
With Pakistan and China, it could well be argued that India’s
failings were matched by their own acts of omission and
commission. However, there was little other than political
incompetence and national chauvinism holding back a border
agreement with Bangladesh. One could be pessimistic and say
that if an agreement with a friendly neighbour could take so
long to fructify, what hope is there that the far more intractable
border disagreements with China and Pakistan will be settled.
However, the very fact that the border agreement with Bangladesh has been settled shows a path to the settlement of similar
problems with China, if not with Pakistan.
Prime Minister Modi will be meeting the top Chinese leadership in a few days. The Himalayas and its neighbouring mountain
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After all. Colonialism turned these border zones into border lines on the ground. the militarisation of the region and their populace is inevitable. 2015 vol l no 19 EPW Economic & Political Weekly .EDITORIALS regions have historically been border zones between the civilisations of India and China. Principles of give and take of both territory as well as people—similar to the ones used in the LBA with Bangladesh—will have to be the basis for a border settlement with China. He needs to do the same with regard to the border with China. as long as borders remain unsettled and disputed. ironically. help open the gates for greater movement of people and goods. Prime Minister Modi has shown that he can rein in his more 8 rambunctious party colleagues on the Bangladesh border issue. A settled border can. may 9.