Friday, August 12, 2011

SETTLING BANGLADESH BORDER : India needs to show magnanimity to resolve outstanding issues

Dr Manmohan Singh will visit Dhaka between 6 and 7 September. Saarc summits are different. That apart, the last time an Indian Prime Minister visited Bangladesh bilaterally was in 1998 (IK Gujral). There is a general perception in Bangladesh that after the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s visit to India in January 2010, Bangladesh has done quite a bit to improve bilateral relations. However, India hasn’t reciprocated. Water sharing, migration, transit and maritime boundaries are complicated and contentious issues. However, it is a bit strange that after so many years, we haven’t been able to resolve land boundaries. In a sense, we don’t know what India is and what Bangladesh is.

There is no point blaming Cyril Radcliffe for lacking local knowledge and drawing the map with a thick marker rather than a thin one. There are three issues for demarcating land boundaries, none of which is intractable. First, there is the matter of “adverse possession”. In a legal sense, this means we (as governments) know what the boundary is, but citizens of either country don’t necessarily know that. Consequently, Bangladesh may have “illegally” occupied parts of India land India may have “illegally” occupied parts of Bangladesh. Though people are involved, this isn’t as large a problem as one thinks.

The only part of Bangladesh that is involved is Sylhet district and there is a problem with Meghalaya (Assam is a minor issue). As far as one can make out, India “adversely” occupies 551.8 acres of Bangladeshi land and Bangladesh “adversely” occupies 226.81 acres of Indian land. While there are minor differences of opinion between two governments about what the boundary is in these parts, had both sides been serious about resolving the problem, joint surveys and scrutiny of land records should have settle the problem of adverse possession. It is not that these aren’t being done, but they are stuck on the Meghalaya side.

Second, there is a 4,098-km boundary between the two countries and small stretches (these aren’t long, compared to the overall size of the boundary) are along rivers (Daikhata, Lathitilla-Dumabari, Muhuri, Feni, Hariabhanga). There is something called the Thaiweg principle, which simply means one takes the mid-point of rivers as international boundary. In the present case, this doesn’t work. Rivers meander. They change course. They don’t follow Radcliffe’s line. Islands are created in rivers. Rivers aren’t where they were in 1947, 1971 or 1974 (when an Indo Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement was signed). However, there is a simple enough option for rivers. Work on the basis of latitude/longitude and use that to demarcate international boundaries, irrespective of where rivers are. Why have both sides been somewhat lackadaisical in implementing this?

Third, there is the issue of “enclaves”, the nowhere people. In Bengali, these are called chitmohol, signifying a chit of paper. Origins go back to gambling between Raja of Cooch Behar and Maharaja of Rangpur. When they lost, they traded each other’ possessions and created enclaves in each other’s territory. This goes back to the Mughal period and continued under the British. It didn’t create an international problem until 1947, when Cooch Behar went to India and Rangpur went to East Pakistan. There are reportedly 95 Bangladeshi enclaves in India and 131 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and understandably, citizens of either set of enclaves are denied rights, access to public goods and services and remain bypassed and marginalised from what is their mainstream. We have known since 1958 (Nehru-Noon agreement) and 1974 (Indira-Mujib agreement) what should be done. A quote from the 1974 agreement is necessary. “The Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh enclaves in India should be exchanged expeditiously, excepting the enclaves mentioned in paragraph 14 without claim to compensation for the additional area going to Bangladesh.” The exchange of enclaves amounts to offering the citizens a choice, once the exchange has been agreed upon and is implemented. Constitutional and legal issues to permit exchange of territory are not as major a problem as is made out to be.

This leaves paragraph 14, exempted from the exchange. “India will retain the southern half of South Berubari Union No.12 and the adjacent enclaves, measuring an area of 2.64 square miles approximately and in exchange Bangladesh will retain the Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves. India will lease in perpetuity to Bangladesh an area of 178 metres X 85 metres near ‘Tin Bigha’ to connect Dahagram with Panbari Mouza (PS Patgram) of Bangladesh.” Dahagram (alternatively Dohogram) is a Bangladeshi enclave in India. It is thus landlocked and cut off from rest of Bangladesh, so to speak. To permit people from Dahagram-Angarpota to access rest of Bangladesh, India was supposed to provide a Tin Bigha corridor.

As the name implies, this is not a large tract of land. It amounts to a mere three bighas (of land). India retained southern half of South Berubari, but didn’t formally hand over Tin Bigha till 1992. Thus, around 20,000 Bangladeshis in an enclave that is about 25 sq km in area continue to be bypassed. Formally, India handed over the Tin Bigha corridor in 1992. (Because territory could not be ceded, the lease in perpetuity idea was worked out.)

However, by all accounts, this is not quite the way it works in practice. With porous borders, Indians are free to cross over. But through Tin Bigha, the access of Bangladeshis to mainland Bangladesh is still restricted to certain hours. There have been suggestions of construction (by India) of a flyover or underpass, so that access is formalised and not restricted. But to most Bangladeshis, in-action by India has been interpreted as intransigence and indifference. Tin Bigha has become a symbol.