The 2015 India – Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement : Is it effective or merely symbolic?

Aishwarya Dutta

Abstract

The dispute between India and East Pakistan regarding enclaves (small pieces of lands located within one state but actually belonging to the other state) has been a matter of concern since the time of India’s independence. The problem became grave post the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. There were attempts on the part of both the states to resolve the issue with no permanent solution. However, the ultimate decision to arrive at a feasible understanding was made in 2015 through the Land Boundary Agreement. Now the question which remains is whether the agreement has settled the dispute or has it been merely a symbolic step to portray to the world the friendly relation between the two states?

Background

The damage done by the British administration by demarcating the Indo-Pakistan border in 1947 is reflected in the sufferings of the common people of both the countries since the time of the partition. Cyril Radcliffe, the head of the Boundary Commission, appointed in 1947, to partition India totally boggled up everything in the Eastern part of India by just drawing a straight line through several villages and rivers, houses and markets spanning the two states.

A major part of the problem has been the nature of the 565 princely states that existed across the subcontinent.  After the British transferred power between India and Pakistan and the enclaves emerged without any linear pattern, there was chaos everywhere. Enclaves (which are still in existence) were pockets of land located in one state but occupied by the citizens of another. Also referred to as ‘lands in adverse possession’, there were approximately more than 100 enclaves in India’s possession, and 50 of them under Bangladesh’s control. As surprising as it may sound it is rather difficult to decode how administrative works are done here, who serves whom, and what is the composition of the population over here.

What were the steps taken to deal with the problem of enclaves?

The existence of the enclaves as major territorial absurdities has been of painful and questionable consequences. There arose a necessity to settle things and put them in place. The signing of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was a positive step in that direction. The agreement, also known as the ‘Indira-Mujib pact’ aimed at resolving, once and for all, the unsettled anomalies in the land boundaries between the two neighbours, which included the demarcation of sections of the boundary between the two states, the exchange of enclaves and lands in adverse possession in each other’s territories, legacies left behind by the departing British colonial rulers.

In the 1974 LBA it was agreed that the enclaves would be handed over to their respective sides. But the way New Delhi continued to drag its feet in implementing it, there arose a feeling in Dhaka that India was reluctant to exchange the enclaves because this would result in losing around 10 lakh acres to Bangladesh. This delay in fully implementing the LBA became the sore point of contention between the two states.

Situation in the post 2000s

In 2009, the Awami League government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought this issue back to the top of the government’s agenda and it was made a matter of priority. With the coming in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in office in Delhi and his “Neighbourhood First” policy, concrete steps were taken in India for the implementation of something that has been long overdue. The result was the 2015 Land Boundary Agreement. This perceivably ended one of the most complex border disputes since the British colonial rule.

Functioning and significance of the Agreement

The agreement is significant and is of utmost relevance in the sense that it offered the enclave dwellers the rights of citizenship after almost 70 years. The exchange includes 111 Indian enclaves of approximately 17,160 acres inside Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves of approximately 7,110 acres in India. There are more than 50,000 enclaves dwellers living in India and the agreement not only recognized their right of citizenship in the state in which they were residing, but they were also granted the option of choosing citizenship in either Bangladesh or India.

Is the 2015 Agreement effective or merely symbolic?

While demarcation of the boundaries and the swapping of enclaves was done to contribute to the mitigation of tensions among the security forces on both the sides of the border, it is rather doubtful whether severe imposition of measures like ceasing of seasonal influx of migrant labour, complete ban on informal trade, or border fencing, is of any help to the people on either side in their transborder communication to which they have been used for generations since the pre-partition days. Lack of facilities on one side of the border and their availability on the other side, make the common people of the border region look to trans-border communication as a means of support.

Impact

The 2015 Land Boundary Agreement tried to resolve the issue to some extent but this issue could not be done away with altogether. People in these areas do suffer and they are bereft of the basic necessities of life. The prohibitory efforts of the state to disrupt the smooth means of interaction among the people of the border region have only backlashes and forced the people to become pawns in the hands of the newly emergent post-independence gangs of smugglers, touts and politicians.

Emerging Issues

If we look closely into the lives of the people residing in the enclaves we would observe that the challenges faced by them are immense if not inescapable. Enclaves are usually unstable and sensitive places lacking the basic amenities of living. The instabilities of life occur due to several reasons – the political climate between the two states, the vagaries of policing and securing the border, local communal politics and struggles over territory.

Till now most of the people living there suffer from acute identity crisis. These identities have created a constant divide between people on both sides. The enclave dwellers are neglected by the respective governments of the states and there is an absolute cut off from the mainstream population. Despite all the negotiations between the two states, the complicity of the situation makes it worse and the enclaves remain a permanent problem which refuses to go away.  It is also to be noticed that mere delivery of voter identification cards and Aadhar cards are not proof of citizenship.

There are significant gaps in the promises of the state and what has ultimately been delivered. Protests in places like Bakalirchara, Purba Mashaldanga, Madhya Mashaldanga, Dinhata are proof of the fact that there has been little delivery of public services in the enclaves. It is also said that residents of these places do not belong to constructions of ‘nation’ and ‘state’. The enclaves serve as a major drawback for both the states. A constant spectre of violence and agitation haunts the people living in such a delicate, contingent and tottering space.

Way forward

The improvements in bilateral relations of India and Bangladesh post the 2015 LBA is remarkable. There is immense cooperation in areas such as defence and security and also the health sector which saw “increased and extensive cooperation….. in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic”, when India gifted Bangladesh 2 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca CoviShield. The present state of relations between the two countries is symbolic of a “brighter future.”

The 2015 LBA and various other developments like the long term water sharing agreement on the Ganges have played a significant role in improving the relations. Despite these developments and an “exponential rise” in people to people connections, the plight of the enclave dwellers refuses to go away. It is thus arguable whether the 2015 LBA agreement is merely a symbol of depiction of peace sending a message across the world that India and Bangladesh have resolved their boundary disputes because the truth can only be discovered by the actual plight of the people residing in the enclaves.

References

  • Joint Declaration between Bangladesh and India: during Visit of Prime Minister of India to Bangladesh “Notun Projonmo – Nayi Disha” June 07, 2015. (2015). Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, 10(3), 239–254. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45341046.
  • Banerjee, S. (2001). Indo-Bangladesh Border: Radcliffe’s Ghost. Economic and Political Weekly, 36(18), 1505–1506. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4410569.
  • Van Schendel, W. (2002). Stateless in South Asia: The Making of the India-Bangladesh Enclaves. The Journal of Asian Studies, 61(1), 115–147. https://doi.org/10.2307/2700191.
  • CONS, J. (2012). Histories of Belonging(s): Narrating Territory, Possession, and Dispossession at the India-Bangladesh Border. Modern Asian Studies, 46(3), 527–558. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41478323.
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Aishwarya Dutta is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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