Bangladesh is at the crossroads. Here the Awami League-led grand coalition government has reportedly handed over part of the country's border territory to the Indians although the people are yet to know anything about it.
The land in question covers 261 acres of land at Sylhet-Tamabeel border. The decision to hand over the land was taken last week when Indian Home Minister had talks with Bangladesh Home minister Sahara Khatun and other Bangladesh leaders.
The news of the land handover was reported last Saturday in the Kolkata based Bengali daily Anandbazar Patrika when Chitamboram was still in the city. It said the handover has already taken place and the Indian border security forces (BSF) have also moved in their pillars covering the land that Bangladesh has ceded in total secrecy. Dhaka has not made any statement on it to avoid public outcry, the report said. It said the Hasina has government has carried out the decision as a gesture of goodwill to its neighbour prior to Dr Manmohans visit.
The Assam Tribune last week in a report said since Dhaka has made a number of significant strategic concessions to India including transit facility, handing over border land, handing over of ULFA outfits and dismantling their hideouts, joint border management etc, Delhi has decided to extend the hand of cooperation and resolve other outstanding issues including the water sharing.
It further said Chitamboram has requested Dhaka to handover ULFA outfit leader Anup Chetiya before Manmohan's visit early next month and Bangladesh Home Minister advocate Sahara Khaton said the government is processing the request although he is having an asylum application case pending.
Interestingly while the Indian media outlets are awash with such reports, Bangladesh government officials have kept the local media in total darkness. Some analysts wonder what price Bangladesh would be paying during Dr Manmohan's visit next other than borderland surrender which took place during the just concluded Chitambaram visit to Dhaka.
Major Gen. (retd) Syed M Ibrahim said the news of the secret handover of land has already scared the nation. He believed the government should issue a statement explaining the latest development to remove fears and confusion and restore people's confidence. He demanded transparency of actions from the government side. The major opposition BNP has also demanded a government statement on the issue.
State minister for Home affairs Shansul Haque Tuku last week however said, there is nothing secret in the border agreement that need to be published. He avoided clearing the land handover issue agitating public mind.
Former BDR chief Maj Gen. FazlurRahman, a veteran of a border skirmish with the Indian border security forces (BSF) over the control of Padua at Sylhet Tamabeel border in 2001 said Indian forces in fact came to the spot initially to support the training of freedom fighters in 1971 at a camp set up inside the country. Now they have claimed the land and the India friendly government of Sheikh Hasina is reportedly handed over without telling anything to the nation. He said we liberated the country but lost part of the territory now to the forces which came to help us.
Fazlur Rahman said the Indian forces continued their presence in the camp even after the liberation taking advantage of the friendly relations. Political leadership at that time ignored the presence without anticipating that it may one day cost the nation's ownership over the land
The Anandbazar Patrika report said the government has ceded 220 acres of land at Padua along with 33 acres at Naljuri and 8 acres at Linkhaat border. It said Bangladesh border security forces had forcefully occupied the land during the liberation war and afterwards and all subsequent governments in Dhaka have declined to entertained the Indian claims over the land.
Since coming to power, the government of Sheikh Hasina decided to resolve all outstanding issues with India and the handover of land at Padua and two other places took place recently as part of this resolve, the report said.
Fazlur Rahman dismissed the Indian claim that BDR had forcefully occupied the land. He said the border pillars in the area were laid during the Pakistani days and we only claim the ownership of land inherited from the past within these pillars
How could it be possible that BDR forcefully occupied the Indian land and moved out pillars inside India and it maintained silence at the time of such occupation, he wondered. He said the Padua camp which India held in its hand is located inside 1.25 km of the international border. As BSF continued their presence, the former BDR had made inspection to original pillars; which is part of its border patrolling responsibility, to advanced locations from both sides of the India held camp leaving it behind within Bangladesh.
He said the initial dispute flared up when BSF made an attempt to build a feeder road over the no-man's land connecting the camp with one of their nearby border outposts about 10 km away. He said BDR resisted the move in a protracted border war in which BSF landed a surprise attack with a brigade capacity but they were severely beaten back. They then attacked BDR outpost at Roumari in an attempt to hit back but also lost the bid
He said, Bangladesh maintained its hold on Padua all along after the border war. The Indian government then invited Bangladesh government to a meeting in which claims made by both sides were discussed. The meeting decided that a final settlement of the dispute may be reached when the Indira-Mujib agreement will be finally implemented. He wondered how the present government can surrender the land now without working out all outstanding disputes, why it did not even wait until all such issues were resolved.
Gen Ibrahim wondered why the government is handing over the border land unilaterally and moreover, what is the status of Bangladesh's claims at other border points. The government should ensure transparency and clear all such mysteries, he argued.
BGB sources said Bangladesh has claims over several hundred acres of land at Kustia and Rajshjahi zones, besides other spots at other places and the initial arrangement was that, joint survey teams would identify the areas in the first place and the exchange would take place then on the basis of a political decision in the second phase. Now Bangladesh's claims appears to have been passed unheeded.
Former Chief of Bangladesh Army and now a member of BNP standing Committee Gen. Mahbubur Rahman Padua issue came up for discussion with Indian BSF chief Ashwani Kumar in 1989 at the annual conference of the two countries border forces in Delhi.
He said in that meeting Indian agreed to Bangladesh's claim on the land from documentary evidences and even Kumar agreed to remove the structures from the spot. The decision was recorded in the agreed minutes of the meeting and is still available. But it was not later followed up.
Surprisingly BGB chief Anwar Hossain last week denied altogether the handing over of the border land at Tamabeel zone saying such things are scheduled to take place under Indira-Mujib agreement and to be sealed during Dr Manmohan's visit. One would only wonder if he told it knowingly or without knowledge of what is happening in the ground.
Fazlur Rahman, said as far as he understands, besides the disputed enclaves, the total of adversely possessed land from both sides may stand at three to four thousand acres. Bangladesh may get roughly 17,000 acres against losing about 7,000 acres to India under the enclaves exchange deal. Here why unilateral piecemeal settlement has been resorted to, he wondered.