Last year, the BJP stood in vehement opposition to the agreement. But the party’s change of heart might be a good thing. If the BJP government is able to create a political consensus for the agreement in India, the fifty thousand or so people who have been effectively stateless since Independence will finally be able to claim full citizenship of one or the other country. When the agreement was signed in 1974, both parties agreed to take the matter back to their Parliaments for ratification. While Bangladesh ratified the agreement within the year, India has failed to do so.
During her visit to Bangladesh in June, Swaraj promised to resolve the pending issues between India and its neighbour, including the Teesta water-sharing treaty. She also said, in an interview to Bangladeshi daily Prothom Alo, that “political consultations are underway with regard to its [the Constitutional Amendment Bill] passage.” This bill, tabled in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, seeks to ratify the LBA.
Yet when the bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha of the Indian Parliament in December last year, Swaraj reacted angrily. “The Government cannot pass this Bill without our support and we will not support this Bill,” she tweeted. Swaraj was then leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
On December 19, the last day of the truncated winter session of Parliament, the Congress-led government overrode opposition and finally tabled the Constitutional (One Hundred and Nineteenth Amendment) Bill. But stiff opposition in India ensured that there was no real progress on the agreement.
Ms Swaraj had posted a series of tweets protesting the Bill:
“Constitutional Amendment reg Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh cannot be passed without our support. We will not support this Bill.”
“We assure the people of Assam and West Bengal that we will not allow this Bill to be passed by Parliament.”
Swaraj and the BJP were not the only ones opposed to the LBA. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress is a vociferous opponent. Immediately after the Bill was tabled in Parliament, Ms Banerjee posted on Facebook: “We are not accepting, not accepting and not accepting. The State Government will not implement it.”
Ms. Banerjee’s outrage has not been confined to just the LBA. In 2011, she backed out of a prime ministerial delegation to Dhaka at the last moment, refusing to give her approval to the Teesta water-sharing agreement.
The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a state party in Assam, was also quick to stage demonstrations against the Bill. India stands to lose 10,000 acres by exchanging 111 Indian enclaves (covering roughly 17,000 acres) for 51 Bangladeshi ones (7,000 acres). However, little attention is paid to the 37,334 Indians living under horrifying conditions in those landlocked islands. The same insensitivity is shown to the 14,215 Bangladeshis living under similar conditions in the Bangladeshi enclaves inside India.
Not a Zero Sum Game
The argument against giving away land to the neighbour and thereby shrinking India’s territory is simplistic, and flawed.
The ten thousand acres is not contiguous and thus of little consequence to either country. The enclaves are randomly scattered patches of land, some of them as small as a football field. To complicate matters further, there are 21 Bangladeshi and three Indian counter-enclaves, or enclaves within enclaves. There is one – the world’s only – counter-counter enclave, Dahala Khagrabari: it is a patch of uninhabited farmland surrounded on all sides by a Bangladeshi village, which in turn is cocooned inside an Indian village situated inside Bangladesh.
There is no clear explanation for the creation of the absurd geography, though it is said to have resulted from friendship treaties between the Koch and Mughal rulers in 1711 and 1713. Legend has it that they were the products of the games of chess or dice played between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur more than 300 years ago, in which patches of land were wagered. For those who have been living in these “islands”, like aliens in their own land, history could not have been cruel. One has to see them to believe it.
Because both states are not able to freely access their own territory, there are no roads, electricity, drinking water, hospitals or schools. For all practical purposes, the enclave-dwellers have been disowned by their nations. No one keeps record of births and deaths here. They do not vote.
The law of the land does not operate there. Not surprisingly, many of them are dens of crime.
Inside an Enclave
During the month of Ramazan last year, I spent a day in Madhya Masaldanga village, a Bangladeshi enclave located inside India’s Cooch Behar district. The village also contains an Indian enclave comprising just one homestead. Despite the festive air, the “landlocked island” of Madhya Masaldanga was a sad picture of permanent neglect.
“Our children go to Indian schools on fake documents showing we live in India,” a septuagenarian told me. “When someone falls ill and needs to be taken to the hospital, we do the same. We lie to the hospital authorities. Women present Indian men as their husbands to get admitted to hospitals and deliver their babies.” And the dwellers become illegal migrants every day just by leaving the village – to go to the Indian markets close by to sell their produce, to buy necessities and to charge their mobile phones. Every day, they run the gauntlet of the law. Sometimes they land up in jail.
This is not a life anyone deserves.
“Not an inch of land of our State should be given away,” Mamata Banerjee said in a Facebook post in December. “Together, we will fight a public battle for West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Northeastern region, including other parts of the country.” She concluded by saying, “We love our motherland.”
It is rather cruel that this idea of a motherland does not extend to those living in these god-forsaken landlocked islands. Their fault perhaps is that they do not vote, a privilege that was never granted to them.
“Ignorance is the mother of all problems,” Diptiman Sen Gupta, assistant secretary of the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee, told me when I met him in Cooch Behar. He feels the leaders do not know what they are doing. “I don’t think the leaders, or for that matter anyone in the high offices, know what enclaves are,” Sen Gupta said. “They indulge in simplistic rhetoric based on the arithmetic of land area without knowing the ground reality. If they came here and saw the situation, I’m hopeful they would understand.” But with the enclaves tucked far away from the mainstream consciousness, not many seem to know, or even care.
Banerjee’s December 19 post, which was written about in the media, is no longer available. Swaraj, it was reported, had “touched base” with Banerjee before last month’s Dhaka visit. It is not clear yet if Ms. Banerjee has softened her stand.
The situation in the Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves, unique in the world in terms of its magnitude and complexity, is a humanitarian crisis that is only growing. It has to be solved with sympathy towards human lives, not the mathematics of political gain.
Swaraj’s volte-face is welcome. It is time for the external affairs minister and her government to back the assurances made in Dhaka with action.
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