A historical perspective

To many, the very existence of "enclaves" and "lands in adverse possession" between two neighbouring countries would sound absurd, if not bizarre. They can rightly be excused for that. But in the case of Bangladesh and India, this was one of the many territorial absurdities and part of the colonial legacies, some with heart breaking consequences for the hapless many.

True, there are historical legends dating back to pre-colonial periods when local Zamindars running fiefdoms in these parts presided over the fate of lands and the destiny of the people living on them, and that too over a simple game of chess. The innocent people thus became the real pawns in the ultimate sense. The British colonial masters, however, had close to two centuries of time at their disposal to rectify this situation. Sadly, they did precious little before they were made to quit India. For them, in the end it was a policy of divide and quit.

It thus fell on the leaders of post Independence India and Pakistan to right the inherited wrong and find logical, realistic solutions. The first step in that direction was the conclusion of what came to be popularly known as the Nehru-Noon Pact of 1958. However, the distrustful nature of bilateral relations prevailing between the newly independent countries and the chemistry, or the lack of it, which characterised these ties, proved to be insurmountable impediments in the implementation of what apparently were noble intentions at the highest political levels.

The emergence of independent Bangladesh in 1971, and India's role in that process, changed things dramatically. The signing of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) by Prime Ministers Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi (hence the coinage Indira-Mujib pact) for their respective countries was the graphic outcome of this new equation. For its part, Bangladesh delivered on its side of the deal without any delay. This meant ratification of the LBA by the parliament and the transfer of South Berubari to India. The delivery from the Indian side, however, stagnated and got caught up in a haze of legal, technical and, at times, political issues.

My own involvement with this issue actually began when I took over as Foreign Secretary in late 2001. I made it a point to make this a top priority during my tenure. The first step was gathering all the relevant facts. This was taken up in all earnest. In this exercise, my colleagues in the Foreign Office, like Mahmood Hassan, then Director-General, his successor Humaiun Kabir, then Director Sheikh Mohammad Belal and Assistant Secretary Fayaz Murshid Kazi, played a key role. The political cover provided by Foreign Minister Morshed Khan was a great source of strength.

The task was arduous to put it mildly and it involved long hours. The vagaries of the Indo-Bangladesh international boundary as drawn on the recommendations of Sir Cyril Radcliffe made things doubly difficult. Finding common ground for demarcating the boundary along the river Muhuri, for example, proved to be a nightmare. The Muhuri is notorious for changing its course and shifting at every twist and turn. Records indicate that since 1974, the Muhuri has changed its course significantly. It can still throw up fresh challenges. Demarcation at Lathitillah was only comparatively less complicated, while at Doikhata it was relatively simple. Among other things, it was also important to take an accurate census of the number of people living in the enclaves and those that could be affected in the event of a land swap.

By the later part of 2004, we were ready with a set of proposals. This came in the form of a package involving the completion of demarcation of the remaining 6.5 kilometres of the boundary and the simultaneous transfer of enclaves and lands in adverse possession. This was very much in line with the 1974 accord. The approval in principle of the political masters at the cabinet level was duly ascertained. Certain agencies in the administration, however, backed by a section of political distracters, tried to throw spanners in the works. This was frustrating.

Armed with what I had at my disposal, I informally placed the offers to the Indian Foreign Secretary in the second half of 2004. His studied response, and those of his colleagues, was, "This is an offer we will find hard to refuse." The importance of avoiding political considerations to come in the way was also stressed. It was equally important to convince critics that full implementation of the 1974 LBA would in no way mean a gain or loss of territory for either side. It would, in effect, be giving de jure status to what was already de facto on the ground, and has been so since 1947.

My move to Washington as Bangladesh Ambassador in March 2005 meant I was no longer directly involved with this matter. I also discovered, with despondence, a visible lack of forward movement on this from both sides. I gathered from available records that during the visit of then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia to Delhi in 2006, this critical issue was not discussed with any degree of urgency by either side. This was distressing. The military backed civilian government in Bangladesh during 2007 and 2008 had neither the legitimacy nor the ability to pursue this matter at all. It thus remained moribund and more than 50,000 people continued to live in a state of statelessness.

The Awami League government in 2009 brought this issue back to the top of the agenda and steps were set in motion for its resolution as a matter of priority. This was a major development. Strip maps numbering in thousands were being signed at the sovereign levels as per the LBA and negotiations at working levels had reached the needed frequency and focus. However, while technical steps were underway, political considerations in India were still threatening to stall progress. The Manmohan Singh UPA government, despite its best intentions, was not able to muster the national consensus needed for passage of a constitutional amendment bill in the Indian Parliament. While the Congress leadership was keen, those of the BJP were, at best, ambiguous. Additionally, resistance from the concerned state governments was becoming more audible.

It was the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in office in Delhi and his "neighbours first" policy that a quantum leap was taken for the implementation of something that has long been overdue. His deft handling of the political stakeholders in India and his careful maneuvering of the issue through advocates and adversaries alike, both in the centre and in the states finally made this a reality.

It has taken more than four decades before the knots could be untangled. The result is the end of statelessness of more than 50,000 virtually marooned people on both sides of the border. The  jubilation that followed at midnight, July 31, 2015 was only to be expected.

A close study of the entire process would make it clear that it was, in the end, political will that brought about the long awaited resolution. It was, after all, politics and not so much the vagaries of geography that had made the situation look intractable for so long.

I have always subscribed to the concept that the success of a foreign policy lies in finding acceptable resolutions to outstanding problems and not in keeping them alive. There will always be distracters on the way who will find the glass half-empty no matter what. They would take cover behind one issue or another for narrow political gains. Overcoming such forces and the readiness to look at the larger picture is the true test of political leadership. In the case of the LBA implementation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated exactly such a trait.

The implementation of the 1974 LBA will most certainly generate greater trust among people. What remains is bringing to an end the border killings and finding fair and just solutions on sharing of the waters of our common rivers. Tangible steps in that direction can only further cement the ties and set them on an irreversible course.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and a decorated freedom fighter.


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