Land swap: can a deal be clinched?

Sukanya Natarajan, Research Associate, Centre for Policy Research

26 March 2015

While India-Bangladesh ties have improved extensively in areas such as trade and commerce, people-to-people ties and security cooperation after the Bangladesh Awami League came to power in Dhaka, they require more momentum.
One long-standing dispute between the two countries is the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). The contested Constitution (119th Amendment) Bill, 2013 on resolving the 4,096-km land boundary dispute requires ratification from the Indian Parliament to amend the Indian Constitution. In December 2014, the Bill was not tabled in Parliament due to stiff opposition from various quarters. The opposition had earlier sent a notice to the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, arguing that the Bill would seek to change a “basic feature” of the Indian Constitution and thus go against an order by the Supreme Court of India. The notice pointed out that the Supreme Court had, in a verdict 40 years ago, held that Parliament could not make such radical changes to the Constitution. The Bill proposes to amend the First Schedule of the Constitution to exchange the disputed territories occupied by both countries in accordance with the 1974 bilateral LBA, and the additional historic agreement on demarcation of land boundaries signed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Dhaka in 2011. Immediately after the LBA was signed in 1974, the Bangladesh Parliament ratified the agreement the same year. Although ratification of the LBA by the Indian Parliament could prove to be a catalyst to improve bilateral relations, the question is whether India’s political leadership is prepared to redraw the map of India.
Little support
In 2013, the political leadership was unable to garner the support of many political parties, the North East MPs forum and the West Bengal government. In 2014, in a drastic U-turn that has paved the way for implementation of the LBA, the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal vouched its support for the solution of the enclave problem and seal the land swap deal. The notion of cooperative and competitive federalism is being discussed in the context of bringing the interests of the States on board with national interests. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs tabled its report, recommending a Constitution Amendment Bill to enable the LBA. Despite opposition from various groups in Assam, the current government is set to ratify the LBA to help curb illegal migration. The impending visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Dhaka will bring closure to the issue of the LBA as well as the Teesta water sharing agreement.
The passage of the amendment will give India an unprecedented advantage of a secure boundary and will enable it to curb illegal migration, smuggling and other criminal activities. Those living in Bangladeshi enclaves in India would be granted Indian citizenship under Section 7 of the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955 (as applicable to populations residing in territories incorporated into India). The amendment will also help settle border disputes at several points in Tripura, Assam, Mizoram and Meghalaya besides West Bengal. The LBA concerns swapping of land from Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal with land in Dhaka, Khulna, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Sylhet and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Enclaves on both sides of the border are landlocked; hence, Indians living in Bangladesh enclaves cannot travel to India and vice versa.
The LBA envisages a notional transfer of 111 Indian enclaves to Bangladesh whereas Dhaka will transfer 51 enclaves to India. According to the agreement, the 37,334 residents of India’s enclaves within Bangladesh will become Bangladeshis after the land swap, while the 14,215 people in Bangladesh’s enclaves will become Indians. Residents of the enclaves, who have so far remained effectively stateless, will receive all citizenship rights from their respective countries. Despite these positive outcomes that will arise from the amendment, there has been stiff opposition in Parliament. With uncertainty looming over the transfer of enclaves, its residents have decided to approach the courts over violation of their fundamental rights.
Opposition to Bill
Apprehensions regarding the Bill have also sprung up from various quarters in the northeastern States including the Coordination Committee on International Border and a conglomerate of organisations including the Khasi Students Union, Federation of Khasi, Jaintia and Garo People, the Hynniewtrep National Youth Front and the village councils falling under the Khasi-Jaintia Hills. They allege that the major chunk of tribal land from Meghalaya — almost 559.7 acres — would be swapped to gain a mere 52.15 acres from Bangladesh.
In Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad has been canvassing support to prevent the Bill from being tabled. Assam’s politics with Bangladesh dates back to the 1985 Assam Accord, according to which immigrants from Bangladesh are not allowed to be deported from Assam.
Other States such as Tripura and Mizoram face a similar problem. In the 82nd border conference held in August 2013, both the Survey of India’s Kolkata-based director (in-charge of eastern Indian States), N.R. Biswal, and the Director General of Bangladesh land records and survey directorate, Abdul Mannan, agreed that it is vital to approve and ratify this amendment to solve the long-standing land dispute.
Bangladesh and India have disputed areas at 25 locations along the boundary, with 23 of them having been resolved in the last four years. The two unsettled areas — Muhurichar and Chandan Nagar — are in Tripura. Among India’s priorities are improving access to its underdeveloped and volatile northeastern States, reaching advantageous water sharing agreements, and increasing connectivity with South-East Asia as part of New Delhi’s Look East Policy. All these will be difficult to achieve without Bangladesh’s support. Resolving the border crisis would grease the wheels for future cooperation, development, and trade in the region.
Bangladesh and India have been trying to solve the crisis concerning land and water over the past three decades. In addition to opposing the LBA, India has not been able to operationalise the Teesta water sharing treaty with Bangladesh. It has realised that these two setbacks in relations with Bangladesh will have ramifications for the Bangladesh government and will damage India’s short and long-term national and security interests. Last year, policy paralysis took a toll on the economic front; the government’s inability to seal this landmark legislation also damaged foreign policy/economic diplomacy. The Indian government needs to work at making bilateral ties with countries such as Bangladesh irreversible, else it will be unable to solve this trust deficit.
The visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India has been postponed owing to the fact that neither the LBA nor the Teesta water sharing agreements have been approved by India. Gowher Rizvi, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, claimed that he feared that the negative impact of the failure to ink the Teesta deal could reignite in Bangladesh the “popular suspicions” against India. If the deal is inked when Prime Minister Modi visits Dhaka, the political capital that Ms Hasina vested in India will reap many deliverables and will help bilateral relations.
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