There is something about land disputes which makes most people take recourse to unthinking passion over reason. And political parties milk this common failing, even when larger questions of tiol interest are involved. As far as the India-Bangladesh land swap deal is concerned, political parties are showing a very unsavoury side of their character. With the Union cabinet deciding to truncate the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh and exclude Assam from its ambit, a political war of words has begun. The ruling Congress in Assam sees behind this move a shrewd BJP tactic to avoid adverse public reaction in the State going for Assembly elections next year. After all, the Congress has recently added its voice to protests by various ethnic and students organisations in the State against the land swap deal. Yet it was the Congress-led government at the Centre which had pushed the deal with Bangladesh for border demarcation and exchange of adversely held enclaves. And when Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasi Wajed signed the accord in September 2011, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was there in Dhaka to applaud. Since then, Gogoi stoutly defended the accord many times as long as the UPA was in power in Delhi. After the Bangladesh parliament ratified the deal, the UPA tried to follow suit with a constitutiol amendment bill in Parliament. The BJP then opposed the move of transferring land to Bangladesh as a violation of the Constitution. Gogoi then poured scorn on the saffron party, but took a U-turn against the deal when Prime Minister rendra Modi declared in Assam that his government will enforce the agreement to ‘help curb illegal migration’. Now with the Modi government deciding to de-link Assam from the deal, Gogoi is making yet another U-turn to turn a complete circle, claiming that Assam is being deprived of a deal which would have benefited it.
The problem with the Congress, BJP and many other political parties is that they do not do plain speaking when it is in the tion’s interest to do so. Instead of creating and leading public opinion, political parties seem more comfortable to follow it whichever direction it moves. The land-swap deal with Bangladesh would have been a good opportunity for political parties to build consensus, and inform the public about its necessity. After all, it is in India’s interest to have settled borders with Bangladesh, which would go a long way in ensuring effective border magement, curbing cross-border smuggling and crimil activities, as well as preventing militant outfits sneaking across the border. The Radcliffe Award of 1947 delimiting the India-Bangladesh boundary had left many enclaves of one neighbour within the other along a zigzag border. So the two countries tried to redraw the boundary in 1974 and make it much straighter, with Bangladesh quickly ratifying the agreement but India failing to do so. After drawing up lists of enclaves and adverse possessions and conducting border surveys, the two neighbours took 37 long years to sign an additiol protocol for the 1974 land boundary agreement in 2011. The agreement mandated India to receive 51 Bangladeshi enclaves inside Indian territory and Bangladesh to receive 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh territory. Under the agreement, India will also acquire nearly 2,777 acres of adverse possession areas and transfer nearly 2,267 acres of adverse possession areas to Bangladesh. Basically the agreement seeks to formalise the status quo on the border areas under adverse possession, entailing neither transfer of territory nor of people residing in these enclaves. There are more than 14 thousand people residing in Bangladeshi enclaves in India and 37 thousand people residing in Indian enclaves in Bangladesh — with the agreement seeking to give such people the choice to stay on or move to the other country.
While political parties slug it out over the boundary agreement to score cheap debating points, there is little thought for people living in enclaves surrounded by territory of another country — which means they have no access to government services they are entitled to. After the 2011 land swap was introduced in the Rajya Sabha, it was sent to the parliamentary standing committee which was unimous in its opinion that the deal will help improve bilateral relations with Bangladesh. The Modi government was urged to table a constitutiol amendment and get Parliament to ratify the deal, which explains the Prime Minister pushing for the deal. The Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Tripura are also on board with the PM. Overall, the country is expected to lose about 40 square kms under the deal but New Delhi is keen to get it formalised, considering India’s intractable border dispute with Chi and antagonistic Line of Control in Kashmir with Pakistan. But the Central government does not want to give the bad news to a State like Assam which may have to part with some land and the enclaves of Lathitilla-Dumabari and Boraibari. Taking full advantage of this reluctance, the Congress government in Assam is doing its own little politics, even at the cost of contradicting itself again and again.