The proposed tabling of the Constitution (One Hundred and Nineteenth) Amendment Bill, 2013, in the winter session of Parliament later this week is a strange sort of half-measure. On the one hand, it sends a signal to Dhaka that New Delhi is inching forward on the deal the Bill is meant to ratify; the land boundary agreement. That is undeniably a positive. On the other hand, the BJP has made it clear that it means only to allow the tabling of the Bill, not any movement towards its ratification. If one were being uncharitable, that would signal that it is simply laying the ground for pushing it through and taking ownership of the accrued benefits if it wins in 2014. And given the manner in which the agreement has been used as a political football, ignoring both national interest and the well-being of Indian and Bangladeshi citizens, there is good reason to be uncharitable.
As matters stand, the Bill would see India exchange 111 of its enclaves in Bangladesh in return for 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India giving up 17,000 acres and receiving 7,000. This is a much-needed corrective for a problem that has long plagued India-Bangladesh relations. The enclaves contain over 50,000 people living in abysmal conditions. Their citizenship status in limbo, they lack access to the most basic of facilities such as medical care and education. There is a severe lack of energy or transport infrastructure, and they often find themselves trapped between lawless elements and the State. If the former leverage the lack of a State presence in the enclaves to use them as a hub for human trafficking, small arms movements and the like, the latter’s security forces often target innocent civilians for crossing illogical, poorly demarcated borders that separate them from kin and livelihood.
The solution is not a new one; the original agreement dates back to 1974 and negotiations were taken up again in 2001 with New Delhi and Bangladesh agreeing in 2011 to the swap formula. In each instance, progress has been stymied on the Indian side. Understandably, there are local sensitivities and historical baggage involved in the states that will be affected; West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. But instead of an honest dialogue between the government, opposition and state-level stakeholders to push the deal through, there has been a series of regressive moves; on the part of the Centre, high-handedness in not adequately engaging with the states, and on the part of the opposition, cynical gaming of the system to prevent the government from gaining credit for the completion of a process it had itself renewed in 2001.
The main argument against the deal that precious Indian territory is being traded away with less being received in exchange employs an atavistic logic of land as an inviolable asset without taking ground realities into account. The Indian enclaves in Bangladesh are, in any case, all but ungovernable; holding on to them does nothing except degrade border security, ensure that the people living there continue to do so in miserable conditions, India’s reputation as a South Asian bully is further cemented and Sheikh Hasina’s friendly dispensation in Bangladesh is undermined. Given that general elections are looming here, it would too much to hope for that the government and the opposition place national interest and humanitarian concerns over political gain. But whatever the outcome in 2014, both sides must work together in its aftermath to resolve this long-running issue.