AFTER dillydallying for 41 years, the Indian Parliament finally passed the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) Bill on May 7, 2015. The Agreement is now ready for signature and ratification. Hopefully when Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes to Dhaka in June the Agreement will be signed. Ratification and implementation will then follow.
Why did it take 41 years for India to come around and dispose this nagging problem?
The LBA was signed in May 1974 between Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Bangladesh ratified the Agreement in 1974, but India held back the process, saying it would require a constitutional amendment to implement the Agreement. Actually the assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975 created a tremendous trust deficit between Delhi and Dhaka that took its toll on resolving bilateral problems. Though relations between Dhaka and Delhi were marked by periodic ups and down, Bangladesh had never shown any apathy in resolving these disputes.
Although repeated assurances were made by Delhi, the trust deficit manifested in different forms – court cases against the LBA, opposition from state governments and of course power politics in Delhi. Delhi, it appears, was never serious to resolve the dispute. The so-called 'illegal immigration', 'security' and 'economic' issues seem to have motivated Delhi to conclude the LBA.
It was following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to India in January 2010 that the Congress-led UPA made a sincere effort to resolve at least two outstanding issues – the LBA and the Teesta Water Sharing Treaty.
Sherpas (expert political aides) of both countries met several times to find a solution to demarcate the border which was an extremely complex job. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in September 2011, the Protocol related to the LBA was signed. Unfortunately UPA lacked the numerical strength in the Lok Sabha. When it planned to place the Bill in the Parliament, the BJP, then in opposition, stiffly opposed the move.
When the BJP-led NDA swept to power in 2014 with two-third majority, Narendra Modi was faced with the daunting task of passing the LBA Bill in Parliament. BJP leaders in Assam, which is one of the four states involved with the Agreement, opposed the bill stating that it would erode its chances in the state elections in 2016. At that point Delhi tinkered with the idea of leaving out Assam and passing a truncated Bill. The Congress-led Assam government however strongly opposed BJP's move. Congress, the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha, also put its foot down and warned that it will oppose Assam's exclusion. After bickering for weeks, a compromise was achieved between the BJP and Congress and finally the Bill went through unopposed in both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha.
It was interesting what Sushma Swaraj, Indian External Affairs Minister, said while presenting the Bill in the Lok Sabha. She said it would be beneficial for both countries. Though India seems to be ceding land to Bangladesh, it was “notional” as these territories were deep inside Bangladesh.
Swaraj, refuting allegations of India's “big brotherly” attitude towards South Asian neighbours, said, “One is 'big brother' which symbolises arrogance. But there is also the 'elder brother' who is caring. Ours is a caring attitude. India will maintain the attitude of the 'elder brother' with our neighbours.” Bangladesh does not need 'big' or 'elder' brothers – Bangladesh needs 'equal friends' in the neighbourhood.
Swaraj also said the Agreement, apart from demarcating the boundaries, would also help check “illegal immigration”. Alas, BJP still thinks that there is migration from Bangladesh to India.
In order to check the movement of people, India has already built 3406 kilometres long fence along the Bangladesh borders. The total border length is 4097 kilometres. A large part of that fence is electrified.
Fencing the border is India' right, but is it really a 'friendly' gesture? Indeed it is a 'big brotherly' attitude. It may help in curbing smuggling and infiltration of Indian insurgents into Bangladesh from North East Indian States. With a stable and fenced border, Bangladesh should rightfully hope that BSF shooting of Bangladeshis on the border will now come to a complete halt.
On the humanitarian side, the people living in the enclaves had no clear identity so far. They enjoyed none of the basic amenities and facilities such as schools, hospitals, electricity, pure drinking water, etc. With the implementation of the LBA, these people will now have a proper nationality and access to state provided benefits.
According to a joint survey (2007), the total number of people living in the enclaves is 51,549, of which 37,334 are in Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh. According to the LBA Protocol, these people will be allowed to stay on and become citizens of the country in which the enclave is located or they can opt to migrate.
What is interesting is that Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, has pressurised Delhi to give her Rs 3,008 crores for the rehabilitation of the people who will migrate to India. Earlier Mamata had openly opposed the LBA bill. But with Delhi's money she came on board to support the Agreement. One wonders how many of these people who have lived in their homes for generations will actually migrate.
Some have described the passage of the Bill in the Indian parliament as a victory of Indian democracy. It is not quite true. If BJP had controlled the Rajya Sabha then the LBA Bill would probably have been passed in a manner unacceptable to Bangladesh. Besides, Indian democracy has taken 41 years to deliver the LBA.
Whatever the background, Bangladesh must give credit to Dr Manmohan Singh for his personal initiative to bring the negotiations to a conclusion during his tenure. Credit now goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for passing the Bill.
Looking back, the Congress government did not give any major concession to Bangladesh despite the general belief that Congress favours the Awami League government in Dhaka. The 1977 water sharing agreement of the River Ganges was done by Morarjee Desai of the Janata Dal government. The 1996 Ganges agreement was under the United Front government of Deve Gowda. And now BJP has delivered on the LBA.
The LBA has put the Bangladesh-India relations on a higher trajectory. Now that a major dispute is resolved, Bangladesh will naturally focus on the Teesta Treaty. There are other issues and problems, as is normal between neighbouring countries. But with a 'friendly' attitude such problems can be resolved peacefully and quickly.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary.