History is all set to be created with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh on September 6. While there are quite a few bilateral issues to be addressed, a hallmark of the visit will be the proposed signing of the land swap agreement.
The agreement will not only put an end to the sufferings of the people living on those tracts of land but will also secure our borders.
However, some political parties, mainly the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), have expressed their reservations to such a move on the ground that India will be a loser. Though transfer of territory to another country tends to be a sentimental issue, we have to be pragmatic and focus on the gains.
By signing the land swap agreement, India will gain more than it loses.
India and Bangladesh share 4,094 km of land border. Major border disputes involve the delimitation of the 6.5 km boundary, enclaves and land in adverse possession (LAP).
The land border agreement between India and Bangladesh signed in 1974 could not be implemented due to the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the first prime minister of Bangladesh. Occasional negotiations on this issue yielded no result.
Delay in resolving issues, particularly the enclaves and LAP, not only affected the people living in those areas but also emerged as a source of conflict between the two countries. In total, there are 162 enclaves — 111 belonging to India but inside Bangladesh and 51 belonging to Bangladesh but within India — with about 54,000 people living in them.
In the case of LAP, 34 pieces of India’s land are under Bangladesh’s control while 40 pieces of Bangladesh’s land are under India’s control.
Living in areas totally detached from the mainland and impossible to administer, the people are almost stateless. Worse, they were landlocked, their small patches of lands surrounded by foreign territory.
Absence of an administrative mechanism make these areas susceptible to regular crimes. They also emerged as a major gateway for cross-border crimes like narcotics, arms supply, fake currency, flesh trade and even illegal migration.
Occasionally, these disputed tracts led to violence along the border, with people clashing over conflicting claims to these lands. The problem escalated when border guards would get involved, resulting in cross-border firing. Due to lack of clarity about the border, people entered foreign territory by mistake and became victims of firing by border guards.
The death of their nationals in the hands of the BSF gets regular attention in the Bangladeshi media, leading to increased antagonism towards India. In fact, the anti-BSF sentiment is so strong in Bangladesh that the issue is constantly raised in all bilateral forums.
The swapping of land will bring clarity to the border, which will eventually lead to improved border management that will have ramifications for overall security. This initiative will also help in controlling illegal migration.
Besides, the move will help gain the confidence of the people of Bangladesh. Giving away around 40 sq kilometres of land will show that India is not only a big neighbour but also a large-hearted one.
A change in India’s attitude will reduce scepticism in Bangladesh and lead to a sense of optimism all around.
(Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal)