Border deal will better life in enclaves

India’s decision to ratify the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was long overdue.  Reached in 1974, the agreement was ratified by Bangladesh but not India.

An attempt by the then UPA government in 2011 to take this agreement forward was shot down by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Trinamool Congress. While these parties argued that the agreement required India to cede territory, the BJP’s U-turn now underscores the speciousness of the argument. It was just oppositional politics and the reluctance to allow the UPA to take credit for a foreign policy achievement that determined their position.

Now, in a turnaround, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given the ratification of the agreement his nod. Good sense seems to have prevailed. Given the strong majority that the ruling alliance enjoys in Parliament, the required amendment of the constitution should not be a problem.

The roots of the India-Bangladesh border dispute go back to Partition, when an arbitrary drawing of boundaries by British colonial authorities resulted in an ill-defined border between India and the then West Pakistan.  What is more, this left some 111 Indian enclaves of roughly 70 sq km area in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves of 28 sq km in India. The situation of people living in these enclaves has been dreadful for decades. They were denied full legal rights as citizens of either country.

The fruits of development too did not reach them.  Lacking legal papers, the people in the enclaves were denied access to the country that surrounded them and thus became virtual prisoners in the enclave. Extreme poverty and unemployment have defined their existence for decades.

The land swap agreement will bring a new clarity to the citizenship and identities of these beleaguered people.  It will end almost seven decades of social, economic and political exclusion and improve law and order in the enclaves. It should pave the way for a new life for its people.

When implementation of the LBA begins, the people in the enclaves will be allowed to choose their country of citizenship. Those living in the Bangladeshi enclaves in India can opt for Indian citizenship and vice versa. It is important that the population transfers are done fairly. Governments in both countries must ensure that this is done without communal considerations and other extraneous issues playing a role.

India and Bangladesh failed the people in the enclaves for decades. The LBA provides them opportunity to correct that injustice. The landmark agreement provides a foundation for a more robust bilateral relationship.

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