Last week the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh signed a watershed agreement resulting in a dramatic change to the messy border created during the fall of the British Empire in the 1940s. The agreement will exchange 201 plots of land or “enclaves,” which are pockets of Indian communities surrounded by Bangladesh, and vice versa. The long-overdue agreement will help to address the abject poverty faced by those living within the enclaves, as well as the border, trade and transit disputes that rifle the region.
Sanjoy Hazarika, an analyst with the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research in New Delhi believes the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheik Hasina Wajed, is responsible for many of the improvements between Indian and Bangladeshi relations. After the Prime Minister turned over suspects wanted by India shortly after her election in 2008, Mr. Hazarika argues that “India has bent over backward to try and improve relations involving water and trade” with Bangladesh. The border disputes have led to a lack of law, as well as a deficiency in meeting the basic needs of enclave residents, including electricity, access to healthcare and employment opportunities. Because “a lot will depend on how it’s played out locally,” Mr. Hazarika argues that the growth of local markets at the grass-roots level is a vital addition to the political deal.
Additionally, the territorial exchanges should address issues of citizenship that have existed since the conception of the enclave arrangement. Wilhelm Schendel notes in his book “Stateless in South Asia: The making of the India Bangladesh Enclaves” that essentially no thought was given to the residents of enclaves “when what was then East Pakistan and India agreed to impose passport and visa controls for the first time . . .” By not taking into consideration their own citizens living in the “pocket territories” surrounded by the foreign state, the policy, in effect, created areas of “statelessness.” Residents could not acquire passports within their respective enclaves, thus forcing them to illegally cross foreign territory to reach their parent state in an attempt to attain a passport. They would then have to travel the hundreds of miles to the consulate of the foreign state in order to acquire a visa to return home legally. The new agreement should address the citizens who essentially were abandoned in the passport and visa arrangements.
However, not everyone is excited about the recent agreement. The day after the signing on September 6, the Indian All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) burnt effigies of the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, demanding the leaders abandon the agreement that relinquishes land to Bangladesh. The advisor to AASU stated that “the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister betrayed the people of Assam by giving away a portion of Assam’s land to Bangladesh and asked whether the Government of India would be ready to give away any portion of land in Kashmir to Pakistan.” The President of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) also protested the land border agreement arguing that it proves the Chief Minister “does not have the courage to stand up in the interest of the State . . .” He went on to say that the Chief Minister failed to “discuss the issue in Assembly or with the civil society before taking” action, and thus has “no moral right to continue in the chair.”
Although the agreed exchange of land boundaries will help to ease border issues and hopefully improve the lives of the individuals living within the regions, it is indisputable that India will suffer a net loss of 40-square-kilometres through the agreement. In addition to protests from the AASU and AGP, India’s political opposition, Bharative Janata Party, is utilizing the opportunity to attack the ruling Congress Party as a soft and weak government. Only time will tell how the agreement will play out in the political realm, given the declining support for each government back home.