The signing of land boundary agreement: 'Neighbour first' back on track
THE NDA government's 'neighbour first' policy received further boost in the recent past. From taking a lead in operationalising the rescue plan in Nepal to the passage of the long pending landmark Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), the signature determination of the government's intention to boost India's neighbourhood policy is apparent.
Politically, a consensus on the LBA, a rare commodity in today's contentious competitive politics where vote bank politics dominates motivation, is significant as the political parties cutting across the party lines voted overwhelmingly for the LBA. The BJP also made the rare gesture when Ms Sushma Singh, the External affairs Minister, acknowledged the contribution of the previous government headed by Dr Mamohan Singh in finalising the agreement.
The amendment as per article 368 of the constitution was pending before the Parliament for its ratification. The previous Congress regime though tried to introduce the bill but it faced stiff opposition from the BJP's Assam unit as well as from the Asom Gano Sagram Parishad. The BJP, which had initially taken the stand that it will support the LBA as it is in 'national interest', buckled under pressure of its state unit as it was felt that any support to LBA will mar its electoral prospects in Assam where the party has been trying to gain a foothold.
The LBA has three major components. It includes the exchange of enclaves and land under adverse possession and demarcation of 6.1 kilometres of the border that in the past had witnessed conflicts. Out of 162 enclaves, 111 enclaves constituting 17,160.63 acres of land that belongs to India will be exchanged with 51 Bangladeshi enclaves constituting 7,110.02 acres of land. All the Bangladeshi enclaves are situated in Cooch Behar whereas Indian enclaves are spread in four districts of Panchgarh, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram and Nilphamari districts in Bangladesh.
Out of 5,044 acres of land in adverse possession, India would receive 2,777 acres and Bangladesh would get 2,267 acres. It needs to be noted that Bangladesh shares 320 km of border with Mizoram, 436 km with Meghalaya, 264 km with Assam, 874 km with Tripura and 2,262 km with West Bengal. According to media reports, Assam would be gaining more land which was under the adverse possession of Bangladesh in Goraibari, Dhubri and Pallatal in Karimganj. It will get a net land area of 445.6 acres after the LBA comes to force.
The government, after consulting the people in the enclaves in 2007, decided to maintain the status quo to avoid the exchange of population as per Article 3 of the 1974 agreement. Out of 6.1 km of the demarcated border, 1.5 km is at Doikhata (West Bengal), 1.6 km in Muhirir char in Belonia (Tripura) and 3 km in Lathitilla-Dumabari (Assam).
India and Bangladesh constituted two Joint Border working Groups (JBWGs) in June 29, 2001 to resolve the longstanding border demarcation issue. However, things did not progress as the BNP government in Bangladesh was not willing to allow carry out a census in the enclaves as per the 1974 agreement. The JBWGs agreed to conduct a census in their meeting held in November 2010 and it was duly carried out jointly in July 2011. The High Commissioners of the two countries signed the strip maps in August 2011. In February 2013, India and Bangladesh exchanged 1114 strip maps prepared by both the countries. It needs to be noted that while Bangladesh ratified the LBA in 1974; India could not ratify it as demarcation of the border was a pre-requisite for ratifications as per the constitution.
Initially, Assam was part of the LBA. When Modi visited Assam in November 30, 2014, while addressing BJP workers in Assam on November 30, he emphasised that "there will be no compromise on security," and assured that the BJP government will "always protect the interests of Assam and the country." While keeping the rhetoric on illegal Bangladeshi migration in mind, Prime Minister Modi said "I am going to use the land swap deal to stop illegal infiltration from Bangladesh, which has been a perennial problem for the state." However, as the BJP was preparing ground to introduce the bill in the Parliament, it decided to exclude Assam. Both Tarun Gogoi, the Chief Minister of Assam, and the Congress opposed the exclusion of Assam from the LBA.
In a letter to Prime Minister Modi, a week before the LBA was tabled in the Parliament, Gogoi wrote, "We are completely in the dark about the reasons behind this turnaround and how the interest of the people of Assam is going to be protected by the exclusion of the clauses relating to Assam during the process of ratification by Parliament." Taking into account the anti-immigrant movement, targeting Bangladeshi migrants in Assam, Gogoi further wrote, "Construction of border fencing will also prevent illegal infiltration of foreigners and subversive elements, smuggling, etc". This found an echo with the BJP as it was felt that the issue will be exploited by the Congress in the state. Moreover, without the support of Congress, BJP would not be able to muster the majority to pass the LBA in Rajya Sabha.
It was earlier conveyed to Bangladesh that the government is contemplating to exclude Assam from the LBA. Even though the Government of Bangladesh was not happy with the decision, rather than not having the LBA passed at all it was prepared to accept a truncated agreement.
The pending LBA was one of the major sources of Bangladesh's disappointment with India as it felt New Delhi is not serious to resolve the issue and was unnecessarily dillydallying. As both the countries move ahead to forge close ties in building coastal connectivity and enhance cooperation on electricity trade, the ratification would remove a partition baggage that the two countries were carrying since the Redcliff award.
While the next on the list will be a deal on Teesta, the LBA nevertheless provides the two countries sufficient reason to be confident about its resolution. Moreover, a clearly demarcated border would make border management effective and lessen the scope of misunderstanding. The ratification truly reflects Modi government's principled stand of 'neighbour first'.
The writer is Research Fellow, IDSA.