The 'nowhere' people of India-Bangla border hope for early resolution

When little Hassan leaves for school every morning, his father, Ghulam Mustafa, reminds him not to disclose to teachers where his home is. The 10-year-old does not know that his father used a fake address to get him enrolled in the school.

Hassan goes to a primary school at Atia Bari in Bangladesh, while his village, Dasiar Chhara, is a part of India. He is neither an Indian, nor a Bangladeshi though. Not only Hassan, but his parents and rest of 9,000-odd people living in Dasiar Chhara are all stateless.

Dasiar Chhara is a 6.63 sq. km piece of India with swathes of Bangladesh around it. There are 111 such Indian ‘enclaves’ deep inside Bangladesh, spread over altogether 17,160.63 acres. Bangladesh, too, has 51 enclaves in India, all in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal with a total area of 7110.02 acres.

There are over 50,000 people living in these cartographic quirks – devoid of all basic amenities enjoyed by their Indian or Bangladeshi neighbours. They have to ‘borrow’ identity documents of acquaintances or use fake addresses to get access to healthcare and education facilities in mainland India or Bangladesh. “We have no citizenship, no right. The partition of 1947 left us nowhere,” says Mustafa.

The ‘nowhere’ people’s hope for an early end of their ordeal was dashed last month. The Congress-led Government could not introduce in Parliament a bill to amend the Constitution for ratification of the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement along with a protocol that was added to it in September 2011.

The package deal seeks to recognise Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and Bangladeshi enclaves in India as parts of Bangladesh and India respectively. Its implementation would also settle disputes over adversely possessed areas and un-demarcated stretches of the border and grant citizenship rights to the enclave dwellers.

But the move to ratify the deal was stonewalled by the opposition BJP, Trinamool Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad. The BJP argued that India would lose 10,000 acres of land to Bangladesh if it was implemented. But India never had any access to or control over the enclaves that it would “hand over” to Bangladesh. In the cases of adversely possessed areas, too, the deal would only convert a de facto situation into de jure recognition and India would receive 2,777.038 acres, while transferring 2,267.682 acres to Bangladesh.

Mamata Banerjee’s government in West Bengal had on August 20, 2011, conveyed to the Centre its consent to the protocol of the 1974 agreement. Her party, however, now alleges that the Centre had not consulted the state government before signing the deal with Bangladesh. She also blocked the proposed India-Bangladesh agreement for sharing of waters of the common river Teesta.

Transit facility

The fiasco over the land boundary and Teesta deals has put at stake India’s relations with Bangladesh, which has been friendlier since Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government took office in Dhaka. She reversed her predecessor’s policy to provide sanctuary to northeast Indian insurgents in Bangladesh, got all their top leaders nabbed and handed them over to India. Her Government also moved towards granting India transit facility through Bangladesh to its landlocked North-East. What the BJP, TMC and the AGP overlook is the need for New Delhi to reciprocate and to strengthen her as she fights radical Islamist forces in Bangladesh.

Veena Sikri, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, says that it is ‘disappointing’ that the government could not ratify the deal that was signed two years ago. “It is the government’s responsibility to build a national consensus in favour of the deal and in favour of a policy that strengthens a friendly government in Dhaka,” she says. 

Not only India’s ties with Bangladesh, but New Delhi’s relation with Colombo also  has been held hostage to domestic politics. The Tamil Nadu political parties have been mounting pressure on the Union Government to take a tough stand on the island nation – be it on the issue of alleged discrimination against Tamils by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in Colombo or human rights violations by Sri Lankan Army during its offensive against the LTTE or the fishing conflicts in Palk Bay. The AIADMK and DMK are now demanding that New Delhi should boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet to be hosted by Colombo in November.

Till a few years ago, national political debates on foreign policy were mostly limited to India’s relations with Pakistan, China or the US, with minimal participation by regional parties. But with their clout growing, the regional parties are now more vocal on foreign policy issues. The Kerala government protested against India-Asean trade agreement anticipating that it would hurt domestic growers of tea, coffee, cashew, coconut, palm and rubber. Oomen Chandy’s Government in Thiruvananthapuram last year prodded New Delhi to take a tough stand on killing of two fishermen by Italian marines off the coast of Kerala.

Swashpawan Singh, India’s former envoy to United Nations, says that the Centre should encourage nationwide debates on foreign policy issues and take state governments on board, but decisions should be taken keeping in view overriding national interests.
Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, Dean of Jindal School of International Affairs, says that the Centre should not have a problem with the State governments’ assertive role in foreign policy formulation if it yields positive outcome. “But,” he adds, “when federalised foreign policy leads to blockage of larger national interests, it is a negative development that must be overcome by an assertion of the fact that India is constitutionally a quasi-federal nation where the Centre can overrule the states”.  

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