x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

India-Bangladesh land swap deal could fail

Amendment that may resolve a unique 65-year border dispute with Bangladesh could be sunk by opposition parties in India's parliament who claim it amounts to the transfer of illegally occupied land.

An Indian security official opens the gate to Indian-ruled Rangpur, some 350 kilometres north of Dhaka.
An Indian security official opens the gate to Indian-ruled Rangpur, some 350 kilometres north of Dhaka.

NEW DELHI // A constitutional amendment that would resolve a unique 65-year border dispute with Bangladesh could be sunk by opposition parties in India's parliament who claim it amounts to the transfer of illegally occupied land.

In a proposed land swap, the two countries would exchange tiny enclaves, or "chit mahals," that have existed as anomalies since official borders emerged between India and Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, in 1947.

The Indian cabinet has already cleared the land swap, but it still requires a constitutional amendment that must be passed by two-thirds of parliament.

The amendment has not been brought before parliament, but India's law minister, Ashwani Kumar, said last week in Dhaka that he was "hopeful that the issue will be resolved very soon".

The 51,000 residents of these chit mahals have remained effectively stateless, unable to vote in India or Bangladesh, and their welfare neglected by both governments.

While India and Bangladesh have jurisdiction over the enclaves that fall outside of their borders, there is little evidence of governance.

Since political parties do not look to the enclaves' residents for votes, they fail to provide them basic services. The enclaves make do without roads or reliable electricity or schools. Having fallen out of view of the state, the enclaves' residents even find it difficult to obtain identity documents, so they remain marooned in the chit mahals.

"As with all territorial issues, this has been tricky to resolve, particularly because of the way the enclaves are positioned," Srinath Raghavan, a New Delhi-based historian who is writing a book about Bangladesh's war of independence, said.

In September 2011, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina signed an agreement in Dhaka to swap 111 Indian enclaves within Bangladesh for 51 Bangladeshi enclaves within India.

Under the agreement, India would give up territorial claims to roughly 1,165 acres of land, which will be transferred to Bangladesh. In return, Bangladesh will cede claims to around 1,881 acres of land, which will merge with the Indian territory around them. If it is passed, it will help settle border disputes at several points in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya.

According to the agreement, the 37,334 residents of India's enclaves within Bangladesh will become Bangladeshis after the land swap, while the 14,215 people in Bangladesh's enclaves will become Indians. Residents of the enclaves will receive all citizenship rights from their respective countries, including passports, welfare benefits and taxes.

The India-Bangladesh border has been tense for decades. A year ago, Human Rights Watch estimated that India's Border Security Force had killed about 1,000 Bangladeshis over the past decade, in an effort to cut down on illegal migrants.

But Indian political parties such as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam have opposed the land swap.

The BJP claimed, in a resolution passed last October, that "the rights and interests of the local population" would be "severely compromised" by the land swap.

The people of Assam and West Bengal, the resolution said, "are agitated because they rightly feel that the Government of India has legitimised encroachment of Indian territories by Bangladesh … which amounts to formally transferring land illegally occupied by erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh over the years".

A senior BJP member admitted that the issue of the enclaves was "really a small issue that can be amicably resolved."

He told The National yesterday, however, that the India-Bangladesh border ran through densely populated areas, and "the indians living there are worried illegal migrants." Granting the enclaves' residents Indian citizenship might inflame tensions, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The enclaves' residents have, however, benefited from some limited mobility. For modest bribes made to the police, the residents of chit mahals are able to pass out of "India" and into Bangladesh, and vice versa.

In Bangladesh, a broad consensus prevails that the land swap is a much-desired objective, said Farooq Sobhan, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to India.

"Improbable as it may sound, we have been waiting for close to 40 years, ever since the land boundary agreement of 1974, for this to happen," Mr Sobhan said this week from Dhaka. "Across the political divide here, we are strongly in favour of the enclaves being exchanged."

"There's no protest here, and nobody has raised any sort of objections," he added. "The ball is really in India's court now."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae