An avoidable skirmish

Print edition : April 28, 2001

THE short and unexpected burst of fighting that erupted on the India-Bangladesh border on April 19 had the potential to spiral out of control. Although hawks on both sides wanted to escalate tensions, better sense prevailed in the corridors of power in New Delhi and Dhaka. In Dhaka, those opposed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party had a vested interest in whipping up jingoistic fervour as the general elections were due in October. In New Delhi, some hawkish elements said that India should adopt a tough posture, as according to them, the Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistan had a role in the events. There were demands that Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh be dispatched to Dhaka and that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee talk to Sheikh Hasina.

However, as India and Bangladesh are still friendly neighbours, it only took a short time to defuse the situation. The status quo ante on the border was restored within 48 hours, with both the sides withdrawing from the new positions they had occupied following the clashes. The Bangladesh Rifles withdrew from Pyrdiwah and the Border Security Force from Boriabari, the two enclaves under dispute.

Hence, the two governments thus reaffirmed their position that the status quo on the border should not be changed by the unilateral use of force by either side. Earlier, India had said that the BDR's action was "unilateral and unwarranted" as the two governments had set up a Joint Working Group to settle the border dispute. Two years ago a joint survey was done to demarcate the boundary and bamboo poles were put in place. However, according to the Bangladesh side, India was reluctant to formalise the demarcation by putting up permanent concrete pillars.

External Affairs Ministry officials said that the "speed and maturity with which the two governments reacted within 48 hours through diplomatic channels testifies to the goodwill and understanding" between the two countries and was an indication that both sides "were desirous of ensuring a peaceful atmosphere on the border".

SIMILAR views were echoed by the Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, Syed Moazzem Ali. He said that diplomatic efforts were responsible for the establishment of a total ceasefire along the India-Bangladesh border. He praised New Delhi for "showing restraint" and expressed the hope that the incident would not affect the cordial ties between the two countries.

Indian officials were still saying that it was "local adventurism" by the Bangladeshi side that resulted in the clash. An External Affairs Ministry spokesman said: "Local adventurism can still lead to unfortunate developments like the unprovoked and unwarranted action by the BDR at Pyrdiwah." The 4,000-km-long border between the two countries has been demarcated, barring a 6.5 km stretch. However, there are small enclaves, which in official terminology are in "adverse possession".

It is estimated that there are around 112 Indian enclaves in Bangladeshi territory and 32 Bangladeshi enclaves in Indian territory. It was conceded that the Indian enclave in Pyrdiwah was occupied during the 1971 Liberation War. The BSF was using it as an outpost to train the Mukti Bahini that spearheaded the liberation movement's battle against the Pakistan Army.

Off the record, Indian officials concede that it was the BSF's attempt to build a footpath to connect Pyrdiwah to Meghalaya that sparked the violence. Boriabari, where 15 BSF personnel lost their lives, is classified as Indian territory under the "adverse possession" of Bangladesh. About 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of Indian territory is in Bangladeshi hands, while 3,500 acres (1,400 ha) of Bangladeshi territory is under Indian control. It may be a small land dispute in terms of the extent of real estate involved, but countries are known to be sensitive on such issues. For example, Lebanon claims around 400 acres (160 ha) of land, known as "Sheba Farms", on its border with Israel. Israel's refusal to accept it has once again escalated tensions in the region.

The entire episode is also seen as yet another "intelligence lapse" on the part of the Indian government. A "routine" skirmish between the BSF and the BDR in Pyrdiwah was allowed to escalate to dangerous proportions. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is known to be well represented in Dhaka and the strength of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) is estimated to have about 600 people in the northeastern region. According to BSF officials, in the recent fighting the BDR was assisted by five battalions of the 19th division of the Bangladesh Army, backed by heavy weapons. The battalions had moved from their base in Mymensingh. However, the Bangladesh government has denied that the Army was involved.

One reason why the Indian government is handling the issue carefully is that it wants to prevent the anti-Indian lobby in Bangladesh from gaining the upper hand in the coming general elections. However, New Delhi could have made things easier for the Awami League government had it shown some urgency in settling the border issue. India's neighbours were more comfortable when the so-called "Gujral Doctrine" was being put into practice. India as a big neighbour was seen to be more conciliatory in its approach. However, the current government has alienated most of India's neighbours by riding roughshod over their viewpoints on important issues. The failure to hold a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit is a case in point.

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