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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 21, May 16, 2015

The Positivity of India-Bangladesh Relations

Saturday 16 May 2015, by Apratim Mukarji


There is a fairly large group of British investors keenly watching the situation in the wake of the Indian Parliament’s passage of the Constitution (119th Amendment) Bill ratifying the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) during May 6-7.

To them, the road now seems to be opening up for new investment and business opportu-nities over a vast region extending from North-Eastern India through Bangladesh to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and onwards right down to Vietnam and Indonesia.

There are plans drawn up on many company boardrooms in London to set up manufacturing units in North-Eastern India and Bangladesh for onward marketing in South-East Asia and the Far East. The main attraction for them is the infinitely cheaper labour coupled with improved infrastructure and communication links in North-Eastern India and Bangladesh.

But this would be more of a consequential benefit than a direct benefit. The eventual removal of the bottleneck that was maintained assiduously by political interests in India and Bangladesh since 1974 is now set to release a good many direct benefits.

This is why the world is quite surprised to learn that it has taken no less than fortyone years for two close neighbours to bring into effect a vital pact that was signed to correct an inherently insidious wrong done to them by a former imperial power and swallowed obediently by the successive indigenous rulers.

While the partition of British India’s Punjab province by a largely ignorant and harried British barrister (but Cyril Radcliffe was an honourable man because, after realising the mayhem he had perforce unleashed upon innocent Indians, he declined to accept his salary for the job) was a neat job, that of Bengal proved to be a very messy affair indeed. It was done so hideously that sixtyeight years after independence India and Bangladesh continue to suffer its unwarranted consequences.

The core problem in implementing the Jawa-harlal Nehru-Feroze Khan Noon Pact of 1958 and its follow-up the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Pact of 1974 (both of which sought to clear the geographical cobwebs inherited from the Radcliffe Award) lay sadly in the subsequent subjugation of national and inter-national interests by regional and local politics, often at a petty level. The political leaderships in India and Pakistan, and subsequently, in Bangladesh repeatedly allowed their purely sectarian interests to override the benefits that would have followed an honest implementation of the 1974 pact.

As the relations between the two neighbours went through frequent and largely unpredictable ups and downs influenced by credible as well as quite incredible reasons, the single factor that remained constant was the sufferings of the thousands of stateless residents trapped unwit-tingly in the enclaves in the two countries. Because India and Bangladesh were unable to bring into fruition the LBA, a total estimated population ranging between a low of 52,000 and a high of 100,000 (or even 150,000 according to one estimate) persons have so long remained totally deprived of the benefits of living in modern nation-states.

The Radcliffe Award brought into being an incredible hotchpotch of 106 Indian and 92 Pakistani (subsequently East Pakistani and Bangladeshi) enclaves. Within the main part of Bangladesh there are 102 “first order” Indian enclaves along the Indo-Bangladesh border and in West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya. On the other hand, within the main part of India, there are 71 Bangladeshi “first order” enclaves. Contained in some of these enclaves are 24 “second order” enclaves (also designated counter-enclaves), 21 of them Bangladeshi and one Indian “counter-counter” enclaves. The very illogicality of this way of partitioning the country ensured that these enclaves would be ungover-nable and were, therefore, perpetually outside the purview of the sovereign states that surrounded them.

Now that the Indian Parliament has in effect ratified the LBA, the next step will be for India to hand over control of 111 enclaves amounting to 17,160 acres to Bangladesh and the latter will hand over control of 51 enclaves comprising 7110 acres situated in Assam and West Bengal to India. The petty-fogging over this apparently unequal exchange of land facilitated two Indian regional parties, Asom Gana Parishad and Trinamul Congress, to hold peace and coope-ration between two impoverished nations to ransom and to reap transitory political benefits for themselves.

Since the LBA allows the residents of the enclaves to choose their nationality, it is assumed that having lived for generations in the states where their residences lie, they would opt to become lawful citizens of the respective states.

However, putting the LBA into practice would be far more complex than it appears to be. For example, there are Indian nationals living in Indian enclaves within Bangladesh. They stand to lose this identity which they may not want to. Similarly, unchecked illegal migration over so many years may have facilitated entry of undesirable elements into India. This situation may add further complications to the process of normalisation of the border areas in the coming days.

It is nevertheless easy to count the benefits that will accrue from the fruition of the LBA. Bangla-desh will now be obliged to accede to the long-standing Indian demand to facilitate through passage for Indian citizens and goods from mainland to the North-East through its territory. Both the cost and time involved in the traditional transition of Indian citizens and goods from mainland to the North-East through a very circuitous route will be significantly reduced and are expected to boost the economy of both the countries significantly.

Four years back in 2011, India committed itself to invest $ 1 billion in infrastructure development in Bangladesh that would be part of the necessary changes to facilitate the passage of Indian citizens and goods through the neighbouring country.

Once the “adversely held” enclaves cease to exist, it would be much more easy to detect and take action against girl and women trafficking as well as drug trafficking between the two countries. Traffickers have all along exploited the virtual no man’s land that the enclaves are to their full advantage, using them as collection and transit points. Both India and Bangladesh hope that with the LBA ratified and the regularisation of the border, the loopholes will be largely plugged and crime and illegal migration will be significantly curbed.

Through this one act alone and despite the cussed and inordinate delay, India has emerged as a benevolent neighbour. This is important when one considers the degree of suspicion and mistrust that usually characterise the attitude of its South Asian neighbours. For example, Bangladesh continues to be irritated over the long period that India took, no less than 27 years, to open a corridor to facilitate Bangla-deshis to reach that country’s enclave in Dahag-ram-Angorpata, that too for a daily 12-hour stretch “on the pretext of legal complications”. (The Daily Star, Dhaka, August 26, 2013)

Bangladesh had also consistently rejected the Indian stand that the Indira Gandhi-Mujibur Rahman Pact required to be ratified. Its position was that since the Nehru-Noon pact was duly ratified by the Indian Parliament, there was no need to further ratify the subsequent pact. India, however, held that the exchange of the enclaves needed to be freshly ratified by Parliament. As the subsequent developments showed, this proved to be difficult for the Manmohan Singh Government to accomplish due to the severe opposition mounted mainly by the Bharatiya Janata Party, today’s facilitator.

Today Bangladesh is looked upon as a fast developing and promising economy, and closer relations with India will only boost its prospects further. Typical of the asymmetry prevailing in South Asia is the fact that it is the distant European Union and not the next-door India which is the largest export market for Bangla-desh and it is China and again not India which is the largest source of imports for Bangladesh.

However, there are two sticking points which will quite certainly continue to bedevil relations between the two neighbours. One is the subs-tantive religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh and the Indian reaction and way of dealing with its fall-outs.The other is the combination of geographical and economic factors dictating an unstoppable inflow of illegal Bangladeshi migration into India.

Right now, the binary support for the LBA by the two leading political parties in Bangladesh and the complete unanimity in Indian political circles augur well for future relations. One certainly hopes for today’s positivity not only to continue but also to be stronger in future.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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