Bangladesh-India Land Boundary Agreement ratification: Why now?
Dhaka: The Bangladesh-India Land Boundary Agreement signed by the then Bangladeshi Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974 took 41 years to be ratified by the Indian parliament. Why did India take so many decades to ratify it? What are the implications of this ratification?
It is a sine qua non for neighbouring countries to agree on a clear boundary line separating their territories for peaceful coexistence. But border demarcation between India and Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) was not conclusively done during the partition of India in 1947.
Since the partition, the Radcliffe line works as the border between India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Attempts to demarcate the border between India and Pakistan had started immediately after the partition but did not consummate the deal because of topsy-turvy relationship between these two countries and difficulties in determining border based on the Radcliffe line.
There was a discrepancy between the line drawn by Sir Radcliffe and the descriptions of the area written by him. For example, Southern Berubari Union No. 12 fell within India according to the line drawn by Sir Radcliffe but belonged to East Pakistan according to the description he wrote. Although in such cases the written description was supposed to prevail, but the non-Muslim population of the Union opposed the handover of the area to Pakistan. One hundred and thirteen Indian enclaves fell within the boundary of Pakistan while 53 Pakistani enclaves fell within the boundary of India. About 6.1 km area of India-Pakistan border located in four Indian states of Tripura, Meghalaya, West Bengal and Assam was left un-demarcated during the partition. There was also concern about the land found wrongly possessed by the countries after demarcation which is now known as adverse possessions.
The first agreement to solve these border issues was signed between former Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru and his counterpart in Pakistan Firoze Khan Noon in September 1958. The agreement decided to split the South Berubari Union into two halves, with the southern half along with two enclaves coming to East Pakistan while the northern half remaining in India. It also decided to merge the enclaves within Indian border with India and the enclaves within Pakistan border with Pakistan.
The countries would exchange the wrongly possessed territories. But the Nehru-Noon agreement was not implemented because Indian nationals filed writ petition with the Indian high court claiming that South Berubari and the enclaves were Indian territories when the Indian constitution came into force. So no Indian territory could be transferred to a foreign country without constitutional amendments.
Consequently, the Indian Supreme Court ruled on 26 March 1971 that to implement the agreement the Indian constitution needed to be amended. The Bangladesh liberation war in 1971 shelved the agreement forever.
After the independence of Bangladesh, the Bangabandhu government initiated efforts to resolve the land boundary issues with India. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed a Bangladesh-India Border Agreement in 1974 to solve the border issues. But this agreement did not come into force until recently as the Indian parliament did not ratify the agreement.
The both houses of the Indian parliament unanimously passed a bill a few days ago to ratify the agreement by amending the constitution. What made the Indian politicians change their mind in favor of the agreement? We can think about multiple reasons.
First, the Sheikh Hasina government had been persistent on the issue. During the first regime of Sheikh Hasina, in 1997, Bangladesh and India finalised the list of the enclaves to be exchanged. A Joint Boundary Working Group (JBWG) was created in 2001 to address the issue of the un-demarcated area. During the second tenure of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh made a renewed effort to implement the accord. As a result, Sheikh Hasina and former Indian Prime Minister Monmohon sigh signed a protocol in 2010 to implement the land boundary agreement.
According to the protocol, the resolution of problems related to the un-demarcated areas did not require any amendment to the Indian constitution but the exchange of enclaves and adverse possessions required so. The Indian constitution can only be amended by introducing a bill which would be passed in the both houses of the parliament by two-third majority votes. During Monmohon Singh’s tenure, the land boundary agreement could not be ratified because of opposition from the then Indian opposition party the BJP and the Trinamul Congress.
Second, land boundary issues remained a bone of contention between the two neighbours, creating tensions and causing armed conflicts between the border guards of the countries. The people of the enclaves paid dearly for this and live their everyday life almost without any civic facilities.
Third, the BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has realised the importance of having a good relationship with Bangladesh for India’s own interest. Narendra Modi wants to see India as an economic power house and an increasingly important player in global politics. However, as like as other South Asian countries, India encounters pressure from the US and China. To emerge as a more effective global player, India wants to shrug off these pressures. The first step in this direction is to ensure regional peace and harmony. Narenda Modi made a bold move in this regard by inviting all the South Asian Head of states to his oath taking ceremony.
Among South Asian countries, Pakistan stands to be India’s nemesis and there is almost a zero possibility of India and Pakistan turning into friends burying their differences in the near future. Bangladesh is another South Asian country which shares a long border with India. Narendra Modi rightly realised that the implementation of the land boundary agreement could remove a potential bone of contention and could turn Bangladesh into a real friend to support India in regional politics. Modi’s charisma, BJP’s strong hold in the parliament and support from the opposition Congress helped the Indian parliament ratify the treaty. With ratification of the agreement, a major hurdle in Bangladesh-India relationship is removed. Now we have to wait for its implementation.
After the implementation of the agreement, Bangladesh will receive 111 enclaves comprising a land area of 17, 160.63 acres and cede 51 enclaves comprising a land area of 7,110.02 acres. People in the Indian enclaves will have choices to either stay in their lands as Bangladeshis or move out to India while people in the Bangladeshi enclaves will be able to do so. In terms of the adverse possessions, India will receive 2777.038 acres of land while Bangladesh will receive 2267.682 acres of land. People in adverse areas will also have the choice to stay or move out.
The Berubari dispute was solved when India provided a corridor for Bangladesh to connect with Dahagram and Angorputa enclaves. India leased the corridor for eternity to Bangladesh. Bangladesh received these two enclaves by giving up its right over southern part of Berubari.
The implementation of the land boundary agreement will usher in a new era in Bangladesh-India relationship.