A Constitutional Amendment settling the land border issues between India and Bangladesh will allow the two nation-states to focus on more substantive issues.
by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)
On 6th May 2015, the Rajya Sabha unanimously passed the Constitutional Amendment Bill, thus rolling out a process that will culminate in giving effect to the Land Border Agreement Protocol signed by the two Prime Ministers in 2011. If and when the bill crosses the remaining hoops, it will resolve a long standing irritant in the India—Bangladesh bilateral relationship.
The details of the Land Border Agreement Protocol, which will come into effect once the Constitution is amended, are captured brilliantly in this FAQ (pages 56-67) on the MEA website. The main points of the agreement are:
The implementation of the Protocol will result in the exchange of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh with 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India and preservation of the status quo on territories in adverse possession. In implementing the Protocol, 111 Indian enclaves with a total area of 17,160.63 acres in Bangladesh are to be transferred to Bangladesh, while 51 Bangladesh enclaves with an area of 7,110.02 acres in India are to be transferred to India. Moreover, with the adjustment of adverse possessions in the implementation of the Protocol, India will receive 2777.038 acres of land and transfer 2267.682 acres of land to Bangladesh.
In reality, however the exchange of enclaves and adverse possessions denotes only a notional exchange of land. The actual situation on the ground is that the enclaves are located deep inside the territory of both countries and there has been no physical access to them from either country. Thus the exchange of enclaves will legalise a situation which already exists de facto.
Similarly, in the case of adverse possessions, the reality is that the area to be transferred was already in the possession of Bangladesh and the handing over of this area to Bangladesh and India respectively. The exchange of adverse possessions confirms that each country will legally possess the territories it is already holding.
The Protocol resolves the question of people residing in these disputed areas under the general principle that displacements of people be minimised. This is being done in two ways:
- Retention of status quo of adverse possessions. This means that pockets along the border that officially belong to one country but have traditionally been under the possession of people of another country, will now be transferred to the controlling state.
- With regard to the enclaves, people living in these areas shall be given the right of staying on where they are as nationals of the State to which these enclaves are transferred.
This blogger welcomes the development for three reasons.
First, maintaining enclaves was injudicious and ran contrary to the public interest. This is because the residents of these areas were not able to enjoy full legal rights as citizens of either India or Bangladesh. Since one had to pass through the areas belonging to another country in order to get to the enclaves, providing proper facilities with regard to electricity, schools and health services was not possible. In what reflects this abomination, the India-Bangladesh border region also had the world’s only third order enclave — Dahala Khagrabari #51. A third order enclave implies that it is a piece of India within Bangladesh, within India within Bangladesh. By transferring enclaves such as these, this amendment will rationalise the borders, allowing people to exercise their full rights.
Second, it sets a healthy precedent that territorial integrity is important only to the extent that it upholds the development and well being of its citizens. Making territorial integrity uncompromisable under any circumstance goes against the idea of liberal nationalism. In this particular case, holding on to small pieces of territory was an impediment to the interests of the people living in them as they were reduced to second class citizens. It was also hurting the interests of the citizens not directly involved in the land border dispute as this issue became a road block to a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.
Third, from India’s perspective, the big ask of Bangladesh is to allow land transit through Bangladesh, connecting India’s north-eastern states with multiple road and rail links to the rest of India. Bangladesh in return wants the water sharing issue to be resolved in their favour. Beyond these two interests, the question of land and maritime borders were mere irritants that prevented any significant movement on issues of greater importance to both nation-states. Given that these two irritants are now resolved, we can now expect developments in the two big concerns.
In summary, this is a positive step that can take the bilateral relationship to greater heights.