Finally, Mending Our Fences


Nilim Dutta

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina

ONE OF the most crucial treaties to be signed between India and Bangladesh during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Dhaka was the ‘protocol’ to take the mutual pledges of the historic Indo-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement towards fulfillment. It forms an integral part of the May 1974 agreement and on ratification by the respective Parliaments, would be instrumental in a permanent settlement of the land boundary.

While the agreement is being hailed as a major ‘strategic’ gain by New Delhi, and cited as a testimony to the growing cordiality in bilateral ties, a shrill opposition to the treaty has arisen on the ground that India shall now have to cede thousands of acres to Bangladesh. The opposition to the treaty appears most vociferous in Assam, which shares a 262 km border with Bangladesh and is now ceding 357.5 acres to it. Why has the treaty invited such opposition in Assam? In order to understand why there is a backlash and whether the fears being raked up have any basis, a brief recounting of relevant facts would be essential.

When Bangladesh was born out of the erstwhile East Pakistan, it also inherited the latter’s border disputes with India, largely a legacy of colonial history and politics. The flawed partition of the subcontinent in haste left unresolved the fate of hundreds of ‘enclaves’ in adverse possession of the new nations, as well as stretches of the boundary without demarcation.

Even though some of these boundary disputes were sought to be settled by the Nehru-Noon Agreement of 1958, subsequent hostilities between the two countries left the task unaccomplished. When Bangladesh emerged in 1971, these boundary disputes were part of its inheritance. The nature of the disputes included, among others:

• Small enclaves in adverse possession on both sides of the border, mostly in the Cooch Behar subdivision of West Bengal and Rongpur division of Bangladesh

• Territorial disputes arising out of the boundary being left without demarcation in many areas, for instance, in Assam and Tripura. In many areas, territory cartographically shown in the possession of one was in reality, de facto possession of the other

• Territorial disputes arising out of shifting of courses by rivers in sections of the 781 km riparian border

The 6 September protocol has, among others, settled the matter of exchange of enclaves in adverse possession. One hundred and eleven Indian enclaves with a total area of 17,160 acres in adverse possession of Bangladesh are to be ceded to it. Likewise, 51 Bangladeshi enclaves with an area of 7,110 acres in adverse possession of India are to be ceded by Bangladesh. The net loss of land to India in this deal amounts to 10,050 acres. Naturally, one would have assumed that since this ‘notional’ loss would be to the state of West Bengal, any likely opposition should have emerged there.

The most vociferous opposition to the treaty, however, has emerged in Assam and over a far smaller area of land, 357.5 acres, being ceded by it to Bangladesh. This constituency of vociferous opponents, of which the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), BJP, etc are the prominent components, have accused the Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi of entirely selling out Assam’s interest by ceding to Bangladesh 357.5 acres that belonged to the state.

Strongly refuting the allegation, the chief minister stated in a press conference that these allegations were not true. He contended that while Bangladesh indeed gained 357.5 acres, Assam has gained 1,240 acres.

The question that naturally arises is, who is speaking the truth here?

The contention of those who are stridently opposed to the deal is that all the land claimed by Bangladesh belonged to Assam. Hence, there is no question of it being in dispute. Therefore, ceding 357.5 acres of it to Bangladesh is absolutely unacceptable. They however fail to admit that in reality the ceded 357.5 acres was likely to be in possession of Bangladesh already and the handing over to Bangladesh is merely a procedural formal acceptance of a de facto reality on the ground.

On the other hand, the government’s position as articulated by the chief minister appears to be meticulously juridical. It appears to have treated the approximately 1,597.5 acres to which Bangladesh has laid claim to as ‘disputed’ and not indisputably belonging to either of the parties. Meticulous joint surveys must have established that of this claim, 357.5 acres were de facto in possession of Bangladesh, which includes 193 acres in Kalabari, Dhubri, 74.5 acres in Pallathal Tea Estate and 90 acres in Lathitilla-Dumabari, both in Karimganj. The 1,240 acres that the chief minister claims as Assam’s gain actually appears to be the portion of disputed land retained by Assam, and to which Bangladesh has relinquished further claims.

While the perusal of the joint survey reports would give us more specific details, the primary question that still remains is this: why has such a vociferous opposition emerged for ceding a measly 357.5 acres?

Assam has far more serious border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland

The answer lies in the ideological moorings of those who have raked up this opposition. The AASU, AGP, BJP and their affiliated organisations have always represented a narrow chauvinistic section of Assam’s polity whose most visible accomplishment has been the Assam agitation from 1979-85 to rid the state of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. This agitation brought many privileges to those who led it, including high political offices, but surprisingly failed to even be seen trying to actually detect and deport the alleged illegal immigrants. Their reluctance to fulfill the very promise that brought them the privilege of getting elected to form the state government in Assam twice and the decades of sheer instability they had dragged Assam through has led to their decline, as evident from the recently concluded Assembly election. Creating an emotive opposition to the land transfer is an obvious attempt to regain lost political ground, raking up latent anti-Bangladeshi sentiments and playing on the fears of the Assamese of being marginalised to a minority by ‘Bangladeshi’ design and Congress acquiescence. Backed by a vitriolic vernacular media, the shrill rhetoric is sure to sway at least a section of the population that harbours a deep suspicion of anything Bangladeshi and a constant sense of victimhood and alienation from India.

IN REALITY, the treaty actually ensures that the boundary is permanently settled and there could be no more different interpretations regardless of whether a sympathetic government is in power in Dhaka or not. A settled boundary also naturally reduces friction, helping the neighbours consolidate this into better relations. Moreover, there are strategic concerns of sustaining cooperation of Bangladesh in denial of sanctuary to elements inimical to India or to contain the growing influence of China in the neighbourhood. Can India even expect to elicit cooperation if it refuses to cede a few insignificant acres in a fair exchange?

The question that we need to ask ourselves in Assam is, are our ever latent anti- Bangladeshi sentiments clouding our judgement to render us unable to see the boundary settlement as desirable?

It would also be pertinent to remind that Assam has far more serious border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, which have the potential for renewed ethnic conflict and consequent bloodbath if not settled judiciously.

I just hope, those in throes of a belligerent patriotic upsurge have also thought of sensible ways to resolve these disputes. Before it is too late.

(The views expressed here  are the writer’s own)

Nilim Dutta runs the  Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation, Guwahati.