https://plus.google.com/.../posts/FFtUnMrSE1d2 days ago - India-Bangladesh Boundary Settlement A view from the India-Bangladesh border 8 April 2014 Author: Jason Cons, Bucknell University On 18 December 2013, the ...
Enclaves between India and Bangladesh
The land that maps forgot
(Click here for an enlarged view of the map, courtesy Jan S. Krogh)
THOSE of us who keep an eye out for anomalies in the world's maps have long held a fond regard for what might be called Greater Bengal. A crazed array of boundaries cuts Bangladesh out of the cloth of easternmost India, before slicing up the surrounding Himalayan area and India's north-east into most of a dozen jagged mini-states. But the crème de la crème, for a student of bizarre geography, is to be found floating along the northern edge of Bangladesh's border with India.
EVER since Bangladesh achieved its independence in 1971, struggles over territory and terrorism, rather than the exchange of goods and goodwill, have dominated its relations with its mega-neighbour. Forty years on, both countries appear to be nearing an agreement to solve the insoluble—by swapping territory.
The planned exchange of parcels of each other's territory is concentrated around some 200 enclaves. These are like islands of Indian and Bangladeshi territory surrounded completely by the other country's land, clustered on either side of Bangladesh's border with the district of Cooch Behar, in the Indian state of West Bengal. Surreally, these include about two dozen counter-enclaves (enclaves within enclaves), as well as the world's only counter-counter enclave—a patch of Bangladesh that is surrounded by Indian territory…itself surrounded by Bangladeshi territory.
Folklore has it that this quiltwork of enclaves is the result of a series of chess games between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Faujdar of Rangpur. The noblemen wagered on their games, using villages as currency. Even in the more sober account, represented by Brendan R. Whyte, an academic, the enclaves are the “result of peace treaties in 1711 and 1713 between the kingdom of Cooch Behar and the Mughal empire, ending a long series of wars in which the Mughals wrested several districts from Cooch Behar.”
That was before the days of East India Company rule, before the British Raj and long before the independence of South Asia's modern republics. These places have been left as they were found by both India and Bangladesh: in a nearly stateless state of abandonment. They are today pockets of abject poverty with little or nothing in the way of public services.
In a 2004 paper titled “An historical and documentary study of the Cooch Behar enclaves of India and Bangladesh”, Mr Whyte, in reference to the intractability of the boundary issues at partition, asks whether India is still “waiting for the Eskimo”.
When in 1947 Mr Feroz Khan Noon suggested that Sir Cyril Radcliffe should not visit Lahore for he was sure to be misunderstood either by the Muslims or the Sikhs, The Statesman wrote: “On this line of argument, he [Sir Cyril] would do better to remain in London, or better still, take up residence in Alaska. Perhaps however there would be no objection to his surveying the boundaries of the Punjab from the air if piloted by an Esqimo”.
Apparently the newspaper thought that anyone's sorting this border dispute anytime soon was highly improbable. Sir Cyril's success seemed as implausible—in those waning days of the British empire—as the notion of an Inuit flying an aeroplane. Most of a century later and a flying “Esqimo” seems like no big deal, while progress on the zany borders of Cooch Behar has made no progress at all.
There is now talk that a land swap might be sealed when India's prime minister Manmohan Singh visits Bangladesh later this year. If it goes ahead, India stands to lose just over 4,000 hectares of its territory, or about 40 square kilometres. It has 111 enclaves of land within Bangladesh—nearly 70 square kilometres. Bangladesh has 51 enclaves of its own, comprising 28 square kilometres surrounded by India. The transfer proposed would simplify the messy boundary immeasurably—and entail something like a 10,000-acre net loss for India.
For India's governing Congress party, making a gift of land to Bangladesh—in all an area equivalent to the size of 2,000 test-cricket stadiums—will not come easy. During a time of ideological waffle, it is an issue which India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can use to flaunt its nationalistic (oftentimes pro-Hindu, ie anti-Muslim) credentials and to attack Congress at a weak spot—its perceived softness towards illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, most of them Muslims. By many estimates, more than 15m illegal migrants have entered India from Bangladesh since 1971. The BJP has been trotting out the round figure of 20m for years.
Meanwhile, construction of a border fence, 2.5m high, on India's 4,100km border with Bangladesh, the world's fifth-longest (due to all its zigging and zagging), continues unabated. It is a bloody border, too. Indian soldiers enforce a shoot-to-kill order against Bangladeshi migrants caught making their mundane way from one side of the line to the other.
But what's in it for India? Its broader desire to clarify its fuzzy borders with all its neighbours provides one attraction. The dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir has eluded resolution. China's claim of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh remains an open sore. Drawing one steady borderline in the east looks comparatively easy.
India must also hope that its generous co-operation in the territorial dispute might help Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, secure popular Bangladeshi support for a rapprochement with India. Her Awami League (AL) government has proven itself a willing partner: working to deny Bangladeshi territory to the insurgent groups who challenge Indian sovereignty in its north-eastern states; and cracking down Bangladesh's homegrown Islamic-extremist fringe. But as many of Sheikh Hasina's fellow citizens see things, India has yet to reciprocate following their government's consent last year to allow India to use Bangladesh's ports and roads. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), whose leader likes to say that no foreign vehicles should be allowed to use Bangladesh's territory, scents blood.
Indian diplomats know this. A diplomatic cable from the American embassy, leaked to the world by WikiLeaks, summarises discussions held in 2009 between India's then High Commissioner to Bangladesh and the American ambassador. India, the Americans thought, would like to establish a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh on counterterrorism, but was impeded by its understanding “that Bangladesh might insist on a regional task force to provide Hasina political cover from allegations she was too close to India”.
Such international intriguing tends to ignore the people who actually in the enclaves—150,000 by some estimates—who are left waiting. Their chief grievance is a complete lack of public services: with no education, infrastructure for water, electricity etc, they may as well not be citizens of any country. NGOs are barred from working in the enclaves. The question of their citizenship is a major obstacle in resolving the problem: referendums are out of the question, as India does not want to create a precedent which could inspire Kashmiris or north-easterners fighting for independent statehood.
The people who actually live in enclaves (and counter-enclaves) in a certain sense “don't see” the borders. They speak the same language, eat the same food and live life without regard to the politicians in Dhaka, Kolkata and Delhi. Many of them cross the border regularly (the bribe is US$6 a trip from the Bangladeshi side).
A few years ago, away from Cooch Behar, on the eastern border with India, I met a man who lived smack on the border between Tripura state and Bangladesh. His living room was in Bangladesh, his toilet in India. He had been a local politician in India, and was now working as a farmer in Bangladesh. As is typical in such places, he sent his daughters to school in Bangladesh, and his sons to India, where schools, he thought, were much better. To his mind, the fence dividing the two countries was of little value. But, he conceded, “at least my cows don't run away anymore.”
Author: Jason Cons, Bucknell University
On 18 December 2013, the Indian National Congress party government introduced a bill in parliament to facilitate the realisation of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. This bill was the latest in a long series of attempts to enable the exchange of 161 enclaves — tiny pieces of Indian territory completely bounded by Bangladesh and vice-versa — by absorbing them into their bounding states.
What are we to make of such protests? And what do they tell us about the India-Bangladesh border more generally?
The Land Boundary Agreement’s controversy hinges on both local and national disputes over the meaning of the border and its broader relationship to nationalist politics. Indeed, such struggles offer clues to the politics of postcolonial territory that haunt discussions of Bangladesh and its futures in both countries.
India’s border with Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) has been a locus of contention since 1947. Hastily and haphazardly demarcated, the line dividing Bengal occasioned massive migration and violent dislocation of both Hindus fleeing the newly formed East Pakistan for India and Muslims moving in the opposite direction.
Since Partition, the border has in practice gradually been worked out, formalised, and ossified into a highly securitised political boundary. The border, itself, is a communal marker — the nominal division of a Muslim majority population from a Hindu majority one. And, indeed, that religious divide continues to dominate much debate over border politics.
Communal division is salient in discussions of migration and the steady illegal flow of people and goods across the border (in both directions). While an ongoing political debate continues between the two states over the scale of migration, the reality and imagination of (Muslim) Bangladeshis entering India on a permanent or temporary basis has long been a central lever in nationalist politics within India.
Another key issue is the spectre of violence at the border, particularly the debates over the regular exercising of lethal justice by India’s Border Security Forces (BSF) on peasants and ‘smugglers’ crossing it. Between 2007 and 2010, Human Rights Watch found that there were at least 315 Bangladeshi nationals reported killed by the BSF. As geographer Reece Jones persuasively argues, the BSF exercises a de facto right to carry out lethal justice, a reality that has made reporting on border shootings by the Bangladeshi media so regular as to have become banal.
An even more visibly present marker of this communal divide is the 3300-km floodlit border fence erected by India and surrounding much of Bangladesh. The fence has become a site of often graphic displays of violence. A troubling case-in-point is the 2011 shooting of Falini Khatun, a 15-year-old girl shot while crossing from India into Bangladesh and left tangled in the barbed wire at the fence’s top to die. In Bangladesh, photos of Falini’s hanging body became a potent marker of lethal border security. Its iniquities were further highlighted by the acquittal of the BSF officers charged with her death by an Indian court in 2013.
While the border thus dramatises the Partition’s unfinished business — the incomplete communal division of Bengal — it would be a mistake to imagine that its politics are only influenced by communal debates and religious nationalism. The fence also lays bare complex questions related to climate change — particularly the expectation that ecological transformation in the deltaic state will directly produce countless so-called climate refugees in the coming years.
Indeed, a number of recent commentators have claimed that the India-Bangladesh border offers a preview of the ways that climate transformation is likely to effect political boundaries in the rest of the world. Such arguments oversimplify the complex politics of migration and ecology at the border, but highlight the sensitive nature of border securitization in Bengal.
It is also important to note that the border, and the bilateral relationship, is far from static. Indeed, particularly since the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh in 1991 with the ousting of General Mohammed Ershad from power, tensions along the border have dynamically fluctuated with elections in both states.
The border, as residents report, is markedly less tense when the nominally secular Awami League is in power in Bangladesh and the Congress party is in power in India. Indeed, many critics of the Land Boundary Agreement bill saw its introduction as a Congress party attempt to provide support to Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government in Bangladesh’s January elections.
In the summer of 2013, residents of a border enclave in Northern Bangladesh described to me the ways in which local border economies are intimately tied to such shifts. As they told it, a profitable boom in feed corn production in the enclave was, in fact, underwritten by cartels who had secured capital through cattle smuggling in the more relaxed border climate following the Awami League’s 2008 return to power. Such fluctuations mark life in the borderland, on both sides of the fence, with uncertainty. Moreover, they raise questions about what might happen to border life should Narendra Modi and the Hindu-right BJP ride the wave of Gujarat’s economic miracle to power in India in 2014.
Given all this, it is not hard to see why so many policy initiatives to address border complications fail, or to see why the exchange of tiny amounts of territory should prove such a fraught and intractable proposition.
The fate of the latest attempt to realise the Land Boundary Agreement remains unclear, though a short survey of border history leaves one skeptical about its prospects. The Agreement, and its 40-year history, are about much more than just the enclaves and their residents. They take on symbolic dimensions, coming to represent both unfinished pasts and uncertain futures. The dramas of such legislative initiatives obscure the real costs of repeated political failure — the ongoing uncertainty and anxiety of life for residents who must navigate the dangerous complexities of the border on a daily basis.
Jason Cons is currently Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bucknell University and next year will be joining the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, as a research assistant professor. He works on issues related to the India-Bangladesh border and on agrarian change in Bangladesh.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘On the edge in Asia’.
Source: East Asia Forum
November 30, 2014 /