The dividing line

Print edition : May 12, 2001

Disputes over territories and demarcation of border keep India and Bangladesh apart as less-than-friendly neighbours.

THE Indian government's invitation to Bangladesh for talks to settle the border issue has not come a day too soon. In December 1999, India had asked for a meeting at the level of Foreign Secretaries in order to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) to discuss the issue. It was in December 2000 that Bangladesh responded, by sending its Foreign Secretary Safi Sami to New Delhi. The JWG's terms of reference were finalised in February.

An aerial view of the fenced border with Bangladesh in Assam's Mankachar subdivision, one of the areas which witnessed exchange of fire between the Border Security Force and the Bangladesh Rifles.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

New Delhi has now asked Dhaka to send a team of senior officials for talks from May 22 to 25 or suggest alternative dates. In response, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad said: "We will favourably consider it with a due sense of urgency."

The decision to hold talks with Bangladesh has been widely welcomed. Popular opinion favours India ratifying the 1974 accord between Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman. J.N. Dixit, former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Foreign Secretary, said: "The decision to hold talks with Bangladesh is a long-awaited step and I hope it leads to concrete results, including exchange of maps between the two countries. This should be followed by a decision on the enclaves and exchange of areas of adverse possession to their rightful owners." Describing the decision as a positive step, Aravinda Ramachandra Deo, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, said: "The border issue can be solved only if both sides as well as all the government departments make a concentrated effort to demarcate the border."

The recent skirmish underlined the fact that even after five decades of Independence, India does not have a clear, demarcated border with Bangladesh (East Pakistan, before 1971) and that little attention has been paid to effective border management.

The latest trouble on the eastern border began on the night of April 15-16, when the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) captured the India-held Pyridwah village. The Border Security Force (BSF) was caught unawares. Intelligence failure on the Indian side was obvious. Worse, after the Pyridwah offensive, the Union Home Ministry felt that something drastic had to be done. It gave orders to overrun a post at the Bangladeshi village of Boraibari and destroy houses as an act of retaliation against the BDR's occupation of Pyridwah.

On receiving reports of the Boraibari incident, the Vajpayee Government became paralysed. It was only on April 19 that the Cabinet Committee on Security met. It was not until April 23, nearly a week after the 16 BSF jawans made the ultimate sacrifice, that Defence Minister Jaswant Singh made a statement in the Rajya Sabha to the effect that there was no intelligence failure involved. Such statements fly in the face of facts. The government was clearly trying to hide its tactical and command failure.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

The government then tried to fine-tune its initiative with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for the restoration of the status quo on the border. Hasina remained guarded in her response. The Bangladesh establishment stuck to the version that it was the BSF which triggered the tragedy at Boraibari. Hasina did not apologise and merely expressed regret over the skirmishes. She did, however, assure India of a "thorough" investigation into any torture of BSF personnel.

Sheikh Hasina's ambivalence is understandable, given the criticism she faces from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which accused her of being an Indian "stooge" and her party Awami League of being "subservient to India". Seen in this context, it is not surprising that Sheikh Hasina cancelled her proposed visit to India. She obviously had second thoughts and did not want her visit to be misconstrued as an act of surrender to New Delhi. What one hopes, however, is that Indian and Bangladeshi officials go ahead with their proposed talks. It is also to be hoped that they would address three important issues: First, there are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. Secondly, a 6.5-km stretch of the border is yet to be delineated. Thirdly, the issue of adverse possession of land remains.

The problem of the enclaves can be traced to the actions of the rulers of two princely states of Cooch Behar in North Bengal and Rongpur in South Bengal (what is today Bangladesh). They routinely staked pieces of their estates in their card games. Thus they came to possess pockets of land in each other's territory. After Partition, the ownership of these estates passed on to India and Pakistan respectively.

India points to bilateral issues that need to be resolved before it ratifies the accord. One of the contentious issues is the 6.5-km stretch that remains to be demarcated. The nature of the terrain has made it difficult for the two sides to reach an agreement. This area is spread across the Muhuri river in the Tripura-Noakhali sector, Dumabari on the Tripura-Sylhet border and the Daikhata sector. In each case, the two sides are yet to arrive at an agreement on where the border lies.

In the Muhuri river sector, India quotes Article 1(5) of the 1974 accord which says: "The boundary in this area should be demarcated along the mid-stream of the course of Muhuri river at the time of demarcation." However, the Muhuri river is known to change its course. Bangladesh insists on referring to the international boundary outlined in an 1893 map that gives it about 44 acres more than what it would have if the demarcation is done on the basis of the current course of the Muhuri. Since 1893, the Muhuri has changed course, flowing around the conclave that Bangladesh claims to be its territory as per the 1893 map. India asserts that Bangladesh's insistence on referring to the 1893 map is contrary to the commitment outlined in 1974 that the border should be delineated along the course of the Muhuri "at the time of demarcation".

The Dumabari sector was a part of Sylhet revenue district, now in Bangladesh. Here, the dispute continues, thanks to the non-availability of maps. India insists that the maps are with Bangladesh and Bangladesh says they are with India.

In the Daikhata sector, about 19.34 acres of land is in India's possession and 72.36 acres is with Bangladesh. India insists that the ground situation should be left undisturbed but Bangladesh claims the 19.34 acres in India's possession as its own. Not surprisingly, India wants to clear some of these contentious points with Bangladesh before it ratifies the 1974 accord.

The lack of mutual trust is another reason for the two sides not being able to reach an agreement on border demarcation. In the last five years that Sheikh Hasina has been in power, most people have been lulled into forgetting the long-standing tension.

The euphoria in both countries following the birth of Bangladesh has long since dissipated. From the time of Bangladesh's formation, commodities such as jute and rice have been smuggled into the Indian States of Assam and West Bengal through a porous border. Goods manufactured in India are smuggled into Bangladesh just as easily. Attempts by both sides to curtail smuggling have failed owing to the length of the border and the nature of the terrain. Although smuggling in itself is not a serious issue, it has become symptomatic of the difficulties in the relations between the two sides.

India expected Bangladesh to be a docile or a quiescent neighbour. In the initial flush of goodwill after the creation of Bangladesh, this was possible, particularly when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in power. Following his assassination, however, successive regimes in Bangladesh have been increasingly hostile towards India.

Tin Bigha was a particularly sticky issue as most Bangladeshis believed that the Indian government was using all kinds of legal means to delay the transfer of the corridor to Bangladesh. The corridor was finally transferred to Bangladesh in 1992 amid protests by some groups on the Indian side and euphoria in Bangladesh. But the euphoria was short-lived and the Ganga water dispute was on top of the list of charges against India.

Some of these tensions explain the unusual ferocity that marked the recent clashes. The incidents can only be seen as the price both countries have to pay for having neglected to keep their relationship cordial. At the same time, brushing off the entire episode as a consequence of complacency in the matter of bilateral relations would be too simplistic. It was the result of intelligence and command failure at the highest levels of the Indian government. The sequence of events, when pieced together, testify to the Indian government's accountability.

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