MANMOHAN, MAMATA visit to mark what could be a model for resolution of disputes with other neighbours.
India and Bangladesh are set to make history when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travels to Dhaka on September 5 and signs a land boundary agreement with Bangladeshi counterpart Hasina that finally fulfills the vision laid down by the Indira-Mujib accord of 1974.
Accompanied by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Manmohan Singh, also formally a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam, is expected to find the visit particularly satisfying as it finally resolves issues that have plagued India’s relations with its key neighbour for decades.
Both sides have also reached agreement on the thorny sharing of the Teesta waters, to also be announced during the PM’s visit. Meanwhile, a trade deal is also under consideration by the Indian authorities.
But it is clearly the agreement relating to the 4,096-km border between the two countries (262 km with Assam, 443 km with Meghalaya, 318 km with Mizoram and 856 km with Tripura), that will be the centre-piece of the Manmohan Singh visit to Bangladesh.
The agreement resolves three key issues. First, it demarcates the remaining 2.4 km of the 4,096-km boundary, pending since 1974. Second, it resolves the issue of control of all adverse possessions, of land used by Indians and Bangladeshis which is actually situated in the other country, amounting to about 7,000 acres. Third, it resolves the question of sovereignty of enclaves, which are small pieces of land encircled by the other country on which small populations live; these amount to about 10,000 acres.
The reason the Manmohan-Hasina agreement is so important is because for the first time since 1947 – not counting the ceding of the uninhabited island of Kachhateevu to Sri Lanka in 1974, amounting to only 285 acres, or the so-called “return” of the Haji Pir pass to Pakistan after the 1965 war – India has agreed to give up some of its territory to another country.
Meaning, the map of India, as a result of the Manmohan-Hasina accord will change. A majority of the enclaves, it has been agreed, will be handed over to Bangladesh. Much of the adverse possessions, about 4,000 acres, will come to India.
The matter of the high-profile Angarpota-Dahagram enclave which Bangladesh claims and which lies inside Indian territory — it is connected by a corridor called the Teen Bigha corridor (literally, three bighas of land, about the size of a football field) — has been resolved using a bit of South Asian genius: The road connecting the enclave will now be open 24 hours a day (earlier it was open only from 6 am to 6 pm, or sunrise to sunset), and will be equipped by an automatic signalling system. Bangladeshis will be able to use the road to exit India and enter their country at will. In fact, Hasina has decided to travel there after the accord is signed with Manmohan Singh, to launch a bus service.
Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said both governments agreed to streamline the boundary when Hasina visited India in January 2010. She also promised the Indian leadership that Dhaka would not allow its territory to be used by anti-Indian insurgents, a path-breaking promise on which she began to promptly deliver.
United Liberation Front of Asom insurgents like Arabinda Rajkhowa were soon captured in the suburbs of Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh and handed back to India. In fact, with the visit of an Ulfa team to Delhi this week for talks with the home minister, the final chapters of the Assam insurgency look like they are being written, thanks to Hasina.
As Hasina kept her word on the insurgents, Delhi began an exercise that kept its side of the bargain. Over the past eight months, surveyors, district officials and officials from the Election Commission have quietly criss-crossed each adverse possession and each enclave inside the states neighbouring Bangladesh, primarily West Bengal and Meghalaya, doing a headcount and asking each family whether they wanted to stay with India or become citizens of Bangladesh.
They reported their findings to their state chief secretaries, who in turn reported to recently retired home secretary G K Pillai in Delhi. Pillai coordinated the exercise with the ministry of external affairs, the Border Security Force and the surveyor-general.
The survey of adverse possessions threw up some ticklish situations. For example in Meghalaya, there was a football field, locally used, a ditch and some more land beyond, all of which constituted an adverse possession. The survey concluded the football field and ditch would stay with India, while the piece of land beyond would go to Bangladesh.
As for the people who lived on the enclaves, about 50,000 in all, each was given the option of staying on as citizens of the country in which their enclave was located. Initial trends are that the people have chosen to stay where they’ve always lived. But the option of moving back to India, being duly compensated with land and money, also exists for those people whose enclaves are located inside Bangladesh.
Officials point out that the resolution of the land boundary will pave the way for a resolution of the maritime dispute that arose some years earlier, when Dhaka took India to international arbitration.
Most important, it will strengthen Hasina’s hands and allow her to take further action against her political opponents who accuse her of “selling out” to India all the time. Further, a sharing of the Teesta waters, on the lines of the Ganga water accord – signed when she was last in power in 1996 – will also consolidate her hold on power. It will allow Dhaka, which has already allowed the informal transit of Indian goods through Bangladesh, to make the matter more public.
Clearly, the most significant outcome of the Manmohan-Hasina accord is that it will serve as a role model for the resolution of other boundary disputes that India continues to have with its neighbours. China and India have been in boundary talks since 2003 and if the agreed principles are followed, the map of India will change much more significantly. Boundary disputes with Nepal and Myanmar also continue to simmer.
The presence of Mamata Banerjee on Manmohan Singh’s delegation to Dhaka, government sources concede, is significant. They say the earlier Left Front government substantively held up resolution of a boundary agreement since they came to power in 1977, because they thought cheap labour from Bangladesh would impact on Bengal industry.
But with new winds blowing in Bengal, changes are imminent in the Delhi-Dhaka relationship.
First published in the Business Standard, New Delhi, August 10, 2011