Some events in recent months have brought the issue of enclaves and adverse possessions along the India-Bangladesh border to the fore. On November 10-11, the India-Bangladesh Joint Boundary Working Group met in New Delhi, during which, among other things, the two sides agreed that the issue of enclaves and adverse possessions would be resolved ‘pragmatically’ and that they would work towards “facilitating the process of exchange of enclaves.” As a first step, on November 22, the Bangladesh government issued orders to conduct census in its enclaves in India.
While these are positive developments, a more worrying incident occurred a few weeks earlier when an Indian enclave in Bangladesh was attacked. On October 17, 2010, the Indian enclave of Garati, situated about 3.5 km from the international border and surrounded by the Bangladeshi district of Panchagarh, was attacked by a mob. Over 200 houses were burnt which forced the enclave’s inhabitants to flee and take shelter in the open. Though this incident is described as the first major attack on an Indian enclave in many years, the fact remains that people residing in enclaves in both countries have to frequently experience such hostility. It is to be noted that many incidents of attacks and forced evictions from these enclaves have been reported since long.
Besides such security risks, the quality of life in these enclaves is appalling as their residents do not enjoy socio-cultural, political and economic rights that any average citizen of a country enjoys. The inability of the parent country to provide basic minimum facilities to these enclaves is primarily responsible for this state of affairs. This inability in turn stems from a lack of direct access to these enclaves as they are situated inside another country. Restricted access makes it impossible to set up the administrative apparatus for providing civic amenities. As a result, these enclaves do not have schools, hospitals, clean drinking water, electricity, roads, markets, banks, courts, etc.
The inhabitants of such enclaves are also excluded from periodic census enumerations and their names do not feature in the electoral rolls. Even though they are de facto Indian or Bangladeshi citizens, the enclave residents are not issued passports or visas and denied transit facilities for either private movement or trading purposes. Lack of legitimate means of livelihood has forced many to engage in smuggling and other illegal activities. Given that there are no law enforcement agencies present in these enclaves, most have become havens for criminals and anti-national elements.
There are 111 Indian enclaves measuring 17158.13 acres of land in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves covering 7110.2 acres of land in India. An estimated 150,000 persons live in the Indian enclaves and 50,000 in the Bangladeshi enclaves. While the Indian enclaves in Bangladesh are spread over four districts - Panchagarh, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram and Nilphamari, all the Bangladeshi enclaves in India are in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. The enclaves trace their roots to the chess games played between the Rajas of Cooch Behar and Rangpur during the 18th century, in which parts of their territories were offered as stakes. The present enclaves are actually those territories which were won or lost by either party.
Quite curiously, during the time of the India-Pakistan boundary delineation, these territories were not accounted for and remained as part of the princely states of Cooch Behar and Rangpur. Post independence, when these princely states merged with India and Pakistan respectively, these territories were transformed into enclaves, creating not only a humanitarian crisis for the people living in them but also frictions along the international border. In addition to these enclaves, there are 38 patches of Indian land measuring about 3000 acres and 50 patches of Bangladeshi land measuring 3345 acres which are in adverse possession of both countries. As observed during the Pyrdiwah crisis of 2001, these adverse possessions are also potential sources of bilateral tensions.
Over the years, attempts have been made to resolve the issue, but these efforts can at best be described as half-hearted. The first attempt was made in 1958, when India and Pakistan agreed to mutually exchange the enclaves “without any consideration of territorial loss or gain.” Accordingly, the ninth amendment to the Indian constitution was introduced to facilitate the implementation of the agreement. However, the amendment was not brought into force since serious objections were raised by political parties to the transfer of southern Berubari to Pakistan.
The issue of exchange of enclaves was thereafter shelved till Bangladesh came into being in 1971. The bonhomie generated after the independence of Bangladesh saw political resolve in both countries to sort out the boundary problem. Consequently, the Land Boundary Agreement was signed in 1974, which inter alia provided for the ‘expeditious exchange’ of enclaves (except for Berubari) and ‘surrender’ of adverse possessions. In lieu of retaining Berubari, India returned Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves to Bangladesh and promised to provide a corridor measuring 178 m by 85 m near ‘Tin Bigha’. The ‘Tin Bigha’ corridor was provided to Bangladesh only after much domestic opposition in 1992. Apart from this, other provisions of the agreement have still not been implemented. India is yet to even ratify the agreement. Apart from domestic compulsions, uneasy bilateral relations have also ensured that the problem continues to persist.
India-Bangladesh relations began deteriorating after the coup in Bangladesh in 1975 and remained tense till the end of military rule. The return of democracy, unfortunately, did not translate into a thaw in bilateral relations because of the pronounced anti-India stand of the Khaleda Zia government. It was only during Sheikh Hasina’s tenure that India-Bangladesh relations began to incrementally improve, and steps towards the resolution of some outstanding issues were taken, the boundary dispute being one of them. In 1997, a mutually reconciled list of enclaves was prepared and accepted by both countries. For the resolution of the boundary issue, the decision to constitute a mechanism was taken during the foreign ministers meeting in 2000. Subsequently, two Joint Boundary Working Groups (JBWGs) were constituted on June 13, 2001. JBWG I dealt with the issue of boundary dispute and JBWG II looked into the issue of enclaves and adverse possessions.
Unfortunately, the JBWGs were constituted towards the fag-end of Hasina’s term as prime Minister and therefore not much headway could be made before her term ended. Only two meetings of the JBWG took place, one in 2001 and the second in 2002. With relations becoming uneasy once again with the return of Khaleda Zia as prime minister, the JBWGs did not meet subsequently. The third meeting of the JBWGs took place in 2006 only after the Khaleda Zia government ended its term, and was facilitated by the care taker government in Dhaka. During this meeting, it was agreed to conduct a survey to determine the number of people residing in the enclaves. Consequently, a joint visit to the enclaves was undertaken in May 2007. However, political uncertainty in Bangladesh prevented speedier progress on the issue.
The return to power of Sheikh Hasina has yet again raised hopes that the boundary issues would be resolved permanently. During Hasina’s visit to India in January 2010, the two countries reiterated their commitment to exchange the enclaves and surrender adverse possessions, and agreed to hasten the process. It is against this backdrop that the fourth meeting of the JBWGs was held in November 2010.
With a friendly dispensation in Dhaka, it is an opportune moment for India to deliver on its promise to exchange the enclaves and surrender adverse possessions. For this to happen, the Indian government has to act proactively and build a political consensus especially in West Bengal. The resolution of this issue would not only eliminate a major source of bilateral tensions but would also generate enormous goodwill for India in Bangladesh. It would also facilitate proper management of the border and reduce frictions in the border regions while at the same time enhancing bilateral economic and social engagements. Most of all, it would allow the residents of the enclaves to enjoy social, economic and political rights and live a life of dignity.