Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh this week has led to the settlement of the complex boundary dispute that had been festering between India and East Pakistan since the British left in 1947 and between India and Bangladesh since the new country was born in 1971. This is a significant milestone in the troubled history of the relationship between the two countries.
The India-Bangladesh border was always in the news as there were frequent clashes between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) at places like the Teen Bigha corridor. The border has a peculiar problem that is usually referred to as ‘Enclaves and Adverse Possessions’. There are 111 Indian enclaves (17,158 acres) within Bangladesh with a population of 37,334 and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (7,110.02 acres) in India with a population of 14,215. 34 tracts of Indian land are under the adverse possession of Bangladesh and 40 pieces of Bangladeshi land are in India’s adverse possession. The demarcation of the boundary was done by signing a protocol to the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974. Though this agreement had provisions for the settlement of the issue of adverse possession, it had not been implemented as the problem was considered politically sensitive. The political leadership of the two countries has at last found the courage to invest time and effort towards resolving this sensitive issue. Now that the border dispute has been settled, unseemly clashes, which do no credit to either side, will no longer occur and spoil relations between the two countries.
The Indian Prime Minister was accompanied by four of the five Chief Ministers (CM) of Indian states bordering Bangladesh. Ms Mamata Banerjee, the CM of West Bengal and the stormy petrel of Indian politics, was reportedly upset at the concessions proposed to be made to Bangladesh ‘at the cost of West Bengal’ in the agreement on sharing of the waters of the River Teesta and dropped out virtually at the last minute. PM Manmohan Singh promised Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh PM, that the two sides would continue to discuss the Teesta River issue to reach “a mutually acceptable, fair and amicable arrangement…” However, as a quid pro quo response, Bangladesh retaliated by scuttling the treaty on transit rights that was also on the cards and that would have provided easer access to the rest of the country to some of India’s north-eastern states through Bangladesh.
Some of the other important treaties that were signed included an agreement on Indian aid for development programmes, a pact on overland transit between Bangladesh and Nepal, MoUs on renewable energy and the conservation of the Sunderbans and an understanding on jointly promoting fisheries. India agreed to allow Bangladesh duty free access to 46 textile items to be exported to India. Several MoUs were also signed for cooperation in the fields of education and communications, as also a protocol on conservation of the Royal Bengal Tiger – very few of this majestic species now remain in the wild.
Ever since the government of Sheikh Hasina had cracked down on India’s ULFA insurgents who had been hiding in Bangladesh for long, relations between the two countries had shown signs of thawing. The Hasina government’s policy of counter-terrorism was in stark contrast with the Begum Khaleda Zia government’s policy of providing covert shelter, encouragement and support to various Indian insurgent groups. The signing of the historic boundary agreement has taken the relationship to a much higher trajectory. The two prime ministers deserve to be complimented for their political courage and sagacity in bringing to an end the bitterness of the past.