United on border

Print edition : June 12, 2015

A kaccha road belonging to Bangladesh near Kulupara village located along the zero line in Nadia district of West Bengal. The T-pillar demarcates the border and the mud wall of a local mosque that falls within Indian territory. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Border Security Force personnel patrol the border with Bangladesh near the Fulbari Border post, some 20 km from Siliguri in West Bengal. Photo: AFP

Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signing the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Declaration in New Delhi on May 16, 1974. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

En enclave within an enclave. More than a hectare of Indian land inside a Bangladesh enclave on Indian territory near Siliguri. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The Indian Parliament’s ratification of the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement, settling a festering border dispute, has profound implications for bilateral relations in the South Asian region and beyond.

Former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee once commented: “You can change friends but not neighbours.” Divine dispensation, geography and a tortuously shared history destined India and Bangladesh to be neighbours. Just as in a community, quarrelsome neighbours sharing the same geopolitical landscape do not lend to good-neighbourly relations or peace in their neighbourhood. The irony is that having coexisted peacefully and harmoniously within what for millennia was known as the Indian subcontinent, a few centuries of colonial rule by “gora sahibs” from distant shores transformed these peoples into each other’s sworn enemies. When the colonial masters realised that their much-touted jewel in the imperial crown had become a millstone around their war-ravaged neck, they gave in to the increasingly strident demands for independence by their subjects and quit these shores, only after presiding over the partition of this once united domain into three entities, India and West and East Pakistan. The two wings of the newly created Pakistan, separated by over a thousand miles of Indian territory, unnaturally configured as they were when torn apart in August 1947 from the mainland of which they had historically been an integral part, could not have remained together in an everlasting union. So, after a bloody nine-month War of Liberation in 1971, the Bengalis of East Pakistan divorced the West Pakistani partner to set up house independently as Bangladesh. However, the issue of the contentious boundaries between them remained and continued to fester.

After Independence in August 1947, under the Radcliffe Award which divided the subcontinent, India shared its longest land border of 4,096 kilometres not with West Pakistan or China but with what emerged as East Pakistan. This was a tortuously complex border that cut mercilessly across communities that had coexisted for centuries, and indeed even households that had been one the night before. Apart from the sheer length of the border, some cutting across rivers, the division also unwittingly spawned some strange creatures: (1) enclaves of one country within the newly constituted national boundaries of the other (East Pakistani enclaves surrounded on all sides by Indian territory, and vice versa), in which the inhabitants were notionally citizens of the new countries to whom the land belonged, but totally isolated by virtue of their location, as the new country to which they found themselves belonging by virtue of Partition could not reach governance or services to their notional citizens while the national entities, which now found themselves saddled with these enclaves, refused to acknowledge these people as their own; and (2) adversely possessed lands (lands in possession of one or the other newly carved national entities which, under the award, were arbitrarily endowed to the other side, whether deliberately or inadvertently because the pen drawing the line on the map had a thick nib).

Just as in a housing development area land allocated to buyers has to be demarcated through a survey that formally marks the coordinates and perimeters that bound that piece of land, the partitioned subcontinent also required such boundary demarcation to take place, to formalise the principles of division that Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the person entrusted by the Crown in London to draw the lines across the map, in his wisdom had awarded to the reconstituted entities that emerged. Post-Partition efforts at demarcation under the Firoz Khan Noon-Jawaharlal Nehru accord of 1958 were unable to resolve these festering issues. Although border demarcation work proceeded with the Surveyors General of the two new national entities carrying on demarcation as per the Radcliffe Award, the strip maps (the entire length of the new borders was divided into manageable strips to make the survey work easier) continued to remain “unformalised”, with the plenipotentiaries of the two sides not signing on to them, whether deliberately or through mala fide “oversight”. It may be noted that not getting the plenipotentiaries to countersign the strip maps agreed upon by the respective Surveyors General left a dangerous situation for mischief because either side at any given point of time could contest that the demarcation in one or more strips had been inaccurately done. (Indeed, such a situation did arise in mid-1995 but was contained before it escalated.)

So when Vajpayee enunciated this maxim, he was simply pointing to the practical necessity of arriving at a reasonable understanding with India’s immediate neighbours so that all sides could move away from debilitating distractions of managing contested borders and focus single-mindedly on development and the uplift of their teeming populations out of the morass of poverty that plagued the entire region. While India’s relations with Pakistan continued to remain star-crossed, the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 presented an opportunity to get the relations with at least one neighbour right. Prime Ministers Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi, of Bangladesh and India respectively, entered into a Land Boundary Agreement on May 16, 1974. That agreement laid down the principles of demarcating the borders that the Radcliffe Award had bequeathed to the two sides. The brutal assassination of Mujibur Rahman along with almost his entire family and some of his most trusted lieutenants and colleagues on August 15, 1975, effectively stalled further efforts to bring the issue to closure. Relations between India and Bangladesh became subject to mood swings depending on who was in power in Bangladesh. As a general rule, democratic India got on better with the Awami League (the party founded by Mujibur Rahman) which had spearheaded the Liberation Movement in East Pakistan, while relations with other, more authoritarian-minded, parties/forces in power tended to be indifferent at best.

While some progress was made in improving relations with the Awami League, which headed a coalition government in 1996 after having remained in the wilderness for almost 18 years (the Ganges Treaty and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord, which ended the insurgency there, were arrived at in December 1996 and in 1997 respectively), the two governments were unable to move significantly forward on other, more challenging, issues because of the weak nature of the coalition dispensations obtaining on both sides then. Relations between the two countries deteriorated significantly during 2001-06 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power in Bangladesh. However, a fresh opportunity presented itself when Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League were re-elected to power with a huge mandate in December 2008. The two countries immediately began to engage earnestly to resolve the festering bilateral problem. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India in January 2010, a game-changing visit when both neighbours turned a critically important corner in defining normatively what their relations should be. The Joint Communique issued on January 10, 2010, was a remarkable document in that it clearly laid out the road map the two countries would follow to set right all the issues that had for long been bothering them, including the boundary issue inherited under the Radcliffe Award. After painstaking negotiations for a comprehensive package deal, on September 7, 2011, during the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the two sides signed a Protocol to the 1974 agreement. The Bangladesh Parliament ratified the agreement almost immediately, but the process was stalled as a progressively weakening coalition government in India was unable to push through the complex ratification process in the Indian Parliament. As India inched towards the next parliamentary elections in 2014, completion of the ratification process by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-II government receded progressively.

It was, therefore, perhaps not entirely inappropriate that it was left to those who inherited the mantle of Vajpayee to assume the task of completing what the Congress-led government had started. The unanimity with which the Rajya Sabha (on May 6) and the Lok Sabha (on May 7) approved the Constitution (100th Amendment) Bill, operationalising the Bangladesh-India Land Boundary Agreement, 1974, and the 2011 Protocol, was a historic, game-changing development in the tortuous post-Partition annals of this fragmented subcontinent. It imparts to the historic accord the strongest foundations upon which to build any magnificent edifice that leaders and peoples on both sides can dare to dream. It testifies to the singular visionary statesmanship of the Prime Minster of India that he saw it fit to overrule narrower political calculations that had been contemplated mercifully very fleetingly for the larger common good of all peoples. It also put to rest the malevolent daemons that had been unleashed by the Radcliffe Award.

The entire process was by no means easy, as various local conflicting interests and sometimes viscerally antagonistic opposition at different levels had to be dealt with, pacified and won over. One must congratulate the various field officials on both sides who carried out the job entrusted to them by the leadership of the two sides. That they had clear instructions on how they should address the resolution process was of critical importance. Whenever difficulties were encountered, the officials were given full support and backing and clear instructions by the chain of command at all levels as was required. Without all this coming together, this stupendous task would not have been fulfilled. But, above all, it has to be recognised that without the visionary leadership on both sides that eschewed narrower political considerations in the interest of the larger common good, this would not have been possible.

Space for mutual comfort

Historically, undemarcated international borders have been known to spawn or aggravate other areas of dispute. Conversely, resolution of such contestations helps restore harmony. The resolution of this border dispute has, according to first reports, been welcomed by a vast majority of the peoples on both sides, irrespective of internal political divisions. It has already widened the space of mutual comfort and mutual trust that are essential prerequisites for cooperation and collaboration in any activity. The two countries can now focus on achieving the other broader and far-reaching goals they had set for themselves in the Framework Agreement for Cooperation signed on September 7, 2011. Among other things, that remarkable document envisaged broader sub-regional cooperation between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (to begin with) on a wide range of areas/sectors. While the process commenced in 2012, it was tentative and hesitant, with non-completion of agreements already arrived at. One may expect to see more determined and reinvigorated forward movement on a broad range of new initiatives that embrace common river basin management, trade and connectivity expansion, joint or sole investments in important projects and medium- and long-term energy security without which the new industrial revolution in this region cannot happen. A more humane border management that will enable both sides to control illegal cross-border activities and encourage legal, mutually beneficial movements is expected. In a sense, this is the first, and most important, prerequisite for moving towards an economically integrated region.

On another, perhaps more significant level, this resolution stands out as an exemplar of visionary statesmanship, common sense and pragmatism that deserves closer scrutiny and emulation by others. It sends out a clear signal to others in the region that intractable issues bedevilling bilateral relations can be resolved if addressed with sincerity, pragmatism, good sense and firm political will, keeping in mind the greater common good of all peoples concerned.

Tariq A. Karim is a former High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India.