Originally Published 2015-05-16 00:00:00 Published on May 16, 2015
The passage of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) Protocol by Parliament not only removes all hurdles for the final settlement of India's longest border with any neighbour, but also paves the way for exchange of Enclaves and merger of Adverse Possessions by re-drawing the International Boundary (IB), also known as the Radcliffe Line.
Land Boundary Agreement - New catalyst in Bangladesh-India ties

The Constitution Amendment Bill to implement the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) Protocol has been passed by both houses of Parliament, paving the way for its implementation. Apart from being a significant milestone in bilateral ties, it is a feather in the cap for the Modi government which has clearly opted for a more pro-active neighbourhood policy. The passage of the LBA not only removes all hurdles for the final settlement of India's longest border with any neighbour, but also paves the way for exchange of Enclaves and merger of Adverse Possessions by re-drawing the International Boundary (IB), also known as the Radcliffe Line. Exchange of enclaves and the re-drawing of the international boundary, to maintain status quo of adverse possessions, requires a constitutional amendment as per Article 368 of the Constitution. No constitutional amendment procedure is required for undemarcated sectors, as this falls within the competence of Executive action.

Named after its architect, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British civil servant who as Chairman of the Border Commissions presided over dividing 175,000 square miles (450,000 square Kms) of territory with 88 million people, the Radcliffe Line was published on August 17, 1947 as a boundary demarcation line between India and Pakistan upon the Partition of India. This line was drawn in much haste, as the date for India's independence and Partition approached. Radcliffe had never travelled to India and consequently, had no experience of serving in India. Radcliffe accomplished his hasty hatchet job which left Enclaves, Adverse Possessions and undemarcated boundaries on the ground. The Radcliffe line passed through villages, dividing communities and villages and in some cases putting the kitchen area on different sides of the line from the rest of a village hut. Radcliffe drew the line based on maps, making no effort to relate it to ground realities. India has struggled with this legacy during the days of East Pakistan and thereafter, Bangladesh. It is this legacy of Partition that has been finally put to rest.

There is another aspect to the unanimous passage of the LBA Bill through both houses of Parliament. It underlines the growing maturity of the political discourse on foreign policy in India. Both the BJP and allies and the Congress party have shown that building consensus on India's foreign policy, at least towards its neighbours, can increasingly be a bipartisan affair and parties can set aside politics as usual for the larger national interest. It is noteworthy that the BJP opposed the LBA while in opposition. It has now deftly moved away from its earlier position, after assuming the reins of government.

It is true that there has been considerable opposition from States which stand to lose territory. Thus the Chief Ministers of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal had to be convinced about going forward with the LBA. The handling of the LBA's passage required considerable back room work and political cajoling, particularly of the States affected by the potential land swap. In fact, till the last moment, it was touch and go whether Assam will be left out of the ambit of the LBA. When the LBA is implemented, India would have settled all outstanding boundary issues with Bangladesh, including the maritime boundary which was settled last year, with the award by an international tribunal. India had accepted international arbitration, in sharp contrast to China rejecting any form of international arbitration in its disputes with littoral states in the South China Sea. In fact China is now in the process of reclaiming land and building airports on some of the islands under its occupation. This seeks to expand China's claim of its Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea and is a source of potential conflict with other nations, claiming sovereignty over some of these islands. The contrast between China and India in dealing with such disputes is not going unnoticed by the international community.

Prime Minister Modi spoke to his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, soon after the bill was passed. Modi called the passage of the LBA as the collective will of the nation to build constructive relations with neighbours. Modi also thanked Chief Ministers of all bordering states and leaders of all Opposition parties in India, as well as the allies for their support and said a "historic milestone" has been reached in India-Bangladesh ties. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also waded in, by asserting that India will resolve the other main issue of water sharing with Bangladesh, including the Teesta Agreement that has been stalled by Chief Minister Mamata Banerji. Prime Minister Modi's recent visit to West Bengal may lead to an understanding to implement the Teesta Agreement.

Prime Minister Hasina too expressed satisfaction and claimed that the passing of the Bill was a huge diplomatic success and thanked everyone involved in the process. The passing of the LBA Bill has also garnered bipartisan support in Bangladesh where the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), currently locked in a bitter power struggle with the ruling Awami League (AL). There is a lurking belief in Bangladesh that the BJP, as a right-wing party, leans towards the BNP which is also regarded as right-wing in Bangladesh. There is clearly no substance to this belief. For instance, Prime Minister Vajpayee flagged off the first direct bus service between Dhaka and Kolkata in 1999 during his visit in July of that year, in the presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Later, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's tenure, the first ever "Maitri Express" train service was also flagged off in 2008.

Attempts to solve border issues have a long and complicated history. Numerous attempts have been made to reach a comprehensive settlement of the land boundary between India and Bangladesh (the erstwhile East Pakistan) since 1947. The Nehru-Noon Agreement of 1958 and the Agreement Concerning the Demarcation of the Land Boundary between India and Bangladesh and Related Matters of 1974, also called the Indira-Mujib Agreement, sought to find a solution to border related issues. The three outstanding issues were:

1.    an un-demarcated land boundary of approximately 6.1 km

2.    exchange of enclaves

3.    unresolved adverse possession

The assassination of Mujibur Rahman left Bangladesh in political turmoil. Military strongmen who came to power eagerly embraced Islamism to perpetuate their hold on power. As a result, Bangladesh-India relations nosedived, as the military rulers jockeyed for leverage with India by adopting anti-Indian policies that Pakistan pursued when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. Consequently, any political appetite in India to implement the LBA quickly dissipated and the whole issue went into a deep freezer.

The current LBA Protocol breaks new ground by adopting the guiding principal of accepting ground realities, particularly the wishes and livelihood opportunities of the people living in these areas. The issue, therefore, was to tweak the original LBA to maintain status quo of adverse possessions and change the international border to accommodate the wishes of the settled population thus converting, a de facto situation into a de jure reality. The 2011 LBA Protocol will result in a fixed demarcated boundary in all the un-demarcated segments, exchange of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh with 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India and a resolution of all adversely possessed areas. In the exchange of enclaves, India will transfer 111 enclaves with a total area of 17,160.63 acres to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh would transfer 51 enclaves with an area of 7,110.02 acres to India. While the exchange of enclaves between India and Bangladesh may seem like a loss of Indian land to Bangladesh, the fact is that these enclaves are islands inside the territory of both countries and neither side has any physical access to them from either country. Hence, the loss of land for India is notional. As for Adverse Possessions, India will receive 2777.038 acres of land and will transfer 2267.682 acres to Bangladesh. As in the case of enclaves, this too is recognition of a de facto situation into a de jure one, since such adverse possessions are already occupied by both sides.

The LBA Protocol's implementation will set the stage for further cooperation with Bangladesh. The geo-strategic location of Bangladesh makes it an important player in the development of north-eastern states and India's Act East policy. Bangladesh has a pivotal role in providing seamless connectivity in the eastern region of the sub-continent. Railway connectivity between Akhaura and Agartala will enable trains to move from Agartala to Kolkata via Dhaka, easing travel for millions of Bangladeshi and Indian travellers and provide a cost effective freight transportation route. Similar cross border railway connectivity in the north on the Bangladesh-West Bengal border will provide connectivity that will help Bhutan and Nepal also. There is strong case for sub-regional cooperation development involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN). When Myanmar is brought into this equation, these five countries (BBIMN) can forge various sub-regional structures for cooperation that can include energy transmission corridors that will benefit all countries. The LBA, therefore, is an enabling step towards another giant leap for strategic integration of the eastern region of the sub-continent that will ultimately propel India's "Act East" policy also.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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