Dahala Khagrabari #51 is India’s only counter-counter-enclave, a piece of India surrounded by overlapping pieces of Bangladesh and India. It is also a farm and not inhabited. With an area of less than 1.7 acres, the size of a jute field, it is emblematic of the morass in which India’s neighbourhood policy is bogged down.
Popular legend ascribes the enclaves between India and Bangladesh to a chess game between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur. India’s border with Bangladesh, at 4,096 km, is longer than that with China or Pakistan, covering the five states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
India’s enclaves cover nearly 70 sq km, while Bangladesh’s cover 28. A catch-22 situation prevails in such areas. There are no schools, police stations or welfare services. A few unfortunate residents have their living rooms in India, and their farms in Bangladesh. Residents cannot acquire passports without crossing the border to reach a passport office. Once a passport becomes available, they would have to reach out to the consulate of the other country, thousands of kilometres away, to obtain a visa to return. They are prisoners of their own existence.
On paper a simple exchange, ease of access and choice of citizenship to the residents would resolve this issue. The Indira-Mujib Land Boundary Agreement in 1974 resolved to exchange enclaves “expeditiously”. Bangladesh’s parliament ratified the treaty, while India’s did not.
The agreement’s implementation remains lacking in three areas — an undemarcated land boundary of 6.1 km; an exchange of enclaves; and a resolution of adverse possessions. Swap of enclaves would resolve a major fuzzy border.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s backing of this proposal is welcome. With the unanimous approval of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, the 119th Constitution Amendment Bill, 2013 to facilitate exchange of land enclaves with Bangladesh can now become a reality.
This Bill had been opposed on grounds of a notional loss of 42 sq km and its potential to fuel secessionist tendencies in other parts of India. But sovereignty over such enclaves is rendered meaningless by lack of access. With no ability to regulate transportation to such areas, government agencies simply cannot provide services, facilities and opportunities to residents. Use of such land for the needs of urbanisation and agriculture is difficult without an international treaty. Exchange is a small price to pay to fix the border.
Linking such a swap to secessionism is to stretch the point. Enclaves are uniquely cloistered, geographically and administratively separate entities. Secession is the act of separation by representing the will of the people. In this situation, an exchange of land parcels is not tantamount to changing the citizenship of its residents.
Should such residents wish to remain Indian or Bangladeshi, or change, they can. A proposal for administrative efficiency and local welfare cannot be mired with such arguments. Prolonging the misery of these residents is tantamount to damming them in isolation, and promoting secessionism.
A genuine partnership with Bangladesh beckons. Combined with the construction of the 2.5-metre-high, 3,500-km-long border fence, the boundary agreement would cut down on illegal immigration — 15 million illegal immigrants are estimated to have entered India since 1971 — and bolster anti-insurgency operations.
A rapprochement with Bangladesh will have significant consequences. Bangladesh is striving to develop as a modern secular state. A partnership also limits China’s growing influence in this region and leverages geographical and cultural synergies between India and Bangladesh, through regional groupings like BIMSTEC and Asean. Cooperation in isolated, forgotten border areas would be speeded up, with residents given access to public services and infrastructure for power and urbanisation. Let us not miss national interest in service of the parochial.
Fortune favours the bold. Contentious issues on water sharing can also be resolved to mutual benefit, while keeping the interests of border states in mind. A common Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna regional river basin regime can be acknowledged.
Such a regime would adopt a holistic approach to water sharing, considering environmental, hydrological plus local cultural and tribal factors. The transit land corridor from West Bengal to the northeast can be opened up.
The planned conversion of railway gauges in the northeast to broad gauge will hit regional transport networks in the short term. In this regard, the recent Bangladeshi approval for transit of foodgrains to Tripura, using the Ashuganj river port is especially promising. Expanding land, sea and rail access across Bangladesh to India’s northeast states would unlock the regional economy.
Energy trading across the Siliguri corridor can help build an integrated regional economy. Kolkata could rise again to be our largest metropolis, economically dominating this hinterland. India and Bangladesh can grow together.