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Big Picture: India May Have Given Away More Land, But Has Got Peace For Assam Instead

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By Mayurpankhi Choudhury:

The false promise?
On February 2014, Prime Ministerial candidate Mr. Narendra Modi addressed a large Maha Jagaran Rally in Guwahati in Assam and promised the people that not an inch of land would be seceded from the state to Bangladesh. Cut to one year later, the streets in Dispur witness powerful demonstrations by various influential organisations of the state- All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Asom Jatiyabadi Yuva-Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSSS), who alleged that Modi had gone back on his words and betrayed the people of the state after winning the elections. An icon of national change, Modi garnered widespread opposition in the state as activists took to the streets across Assam and burnt effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the union cabinet included the State and three others in a bill directed to initiate a historic land swap deal with Bangladesh.

Image source: pixabay.com
Image source: pixabay.com

The three issues of Assam
Assam suffers from three issues with Bangladesh. First is the Boraibari area in Dhuburi district. An area of roughly 193.75 acres, this land was assigned to India, in written, during the partition although it remained under Pakistan occupancy in actuality. The occupants of Thakunranbari village in Boraibari decided to side away with East Pakistan and not India, using Pakistan’s infrastructural services like education, healthcare etc. This region was later to become a part of Bangladesh.

The second is the Pallathal area in Karimganj district. Initially, there was a tea garden which was divided into two parts- one part in India and the other went to Pakistan when the Radcliffe line was drawn through this tea garden. As a result of partition the tea garden was divided into two parts. An area of 74.55 acres land of the tea garden in Karimganj district was under adverse possession by Bangladesh.

The third issue is concentrated in the Lathitilla-Dumabari region of Karimganj district. There was a dispute over a land stretching 3 km which was not demarcated clearly at the time of Partition. This 3 km stretch of land was unfenced, and though some posts of BSF are present is in this area, it is fairly easy for the rebels to cross over to Bangladesh and vice versa, taking advantage of a porous boundary. This is a classic case of dispute over demarcation.

The Land Swap Bill undertaken by the Centre will abdicate the Boraibari and Pallathal area to Bangladesh (which is already under Bangladeshi occupancy) and the stretch of 3 km area in Lathitilla will be fenced to prevent any illegal penetration of migrants or terrorists on Indian soil.

What was the Land Swap Bill?
The Land Swap Bill was initially signed in 1974 between the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the founding leader of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The agreement facilitated the exchange of “enclaves” or “chitmahal” between the two countries and demarcating a definite boundary between the two countries, especially along the neighbouring Indian states of Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura.

What are enclaves and adverse possessions?
The hasty creation of Bangladesh and the flawed Radcliffe line that separated the two countries, left 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh (17,160.63 acres) and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India (7,110.02 acres). The Indian enclaves in Bangladesh are conspicuously positioned in four districts – Panchagarh, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram and Nilphamari. All of Bangladesh’s enclaves lie in West Bengal’s Coochbehar district. Enclaves are no man’s land. The inhabitants don’t enjoy the constitutional rights of either country.
Adverse possession on the other hand, refers to pockets of inhabitation where people of the either country reside. Unlike enclaves there is no clearly delineated list of areas under adverse possession which has been a bone of contention between the succeeding governments of both nations as well the inhabitants in these areas.

What was the problem with LBA 1974?
The problem arose when Bangladesh ratified the agreement and India did not. Procedural issues, like determination of the number of people living in enclaves in both sides, hindered India from ratifying the Bill.

What was the LBA OF 2011?
The 2011 Protocol was signed on September 06, 2011, between the External Affairs Minister of India and the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, in the presence of the Prime Ministers of the two countries, to address long pending land boundary issues between India and Bangladesh. The Protocol forms an integral part of the LBA 1974 and is subject to exchange of instruments of Ratification by the Governments of India and Bangladesh.

How was LBA 2011 different from the LBA of 1974?
Article 2 of the LBA 1974 stated that the two countries are would exchange territories in Adverse Possession in already demarcated areas.
The 2011 Protocol, on the other hand provides for redrawing of boundaries so that the adverse possessions do not have to be exchanged; it has dealt with them on an ‘as is where is’ basis by converting de facto control into de jure recognition. The terms of 1974 LBA meant uprooting people living in the adverse possessions from the land in which they had lived all their lives. Both India and Bangladesh, therefore, agreed to maintain the status quo in addressing the issue of adverse possessions instead of exchanging them as was earlier required for in the LBA, 1974.

Democratic will to be considered
The aim was to reach a comprehensive and perpetual solution to the problem. The Joint Boundary Working Group (JBWG ) was established conjointly by both the countries in 2001 to address the issue in unison with the wishes of the people residing in these disputed areas. A total population of 51,549 and 14,215 in India and Bangladesh enclaves was recorded.

The committee discovered that the inhabitants in these disputed areas expressed the unanimous will to remain in these lands, irrespective of the nation that they would belong in, as they shared deep religious and sentimental attachments to their land; they didn’t wish to be uprooted. With two democratic republics involved, it was imperative to consider the will of the inhabitants.

Why wasn’t the LBA 2011 implemented?
The agreement could not be ratified during the UPA’s tenure because of massive protests by BJP and also by west Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Political contestation on LBA 2014
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after coming to power, decided to advance the LBA of 2011 which caused state wide protests in Assam and also vehement opposition from the Congress. “The BJP government at the Centre is doing another U-turn. Now they have decided to move ahead with the LBA (Land Boundary Agreement) on the pretext that it will control immigration. This is nothing but a face saver by the BJP. They are trying to wriggle out of the situation by connecting it with illegal migration and for the flip-flop they did for the last three years. Our reason to initiate the LBA was purely for administrative purposes. The BJP had misled the people earlier and they must come clean on it,” said Assam Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi.

Assam BJP spokesperson Shilyaditya Deb tried to defend his party, “All the Congress prime ministers of India never got anything from Bangladesh. They only gave, be it the Tin Bigha Corridor (in West Bengal), Ganga or Teesta rivers. PM Modi will ensure that Assam has a clear-cut boundary with Bangladesh and this will control the influx. There was not a word of protest when the whole of Sylhet district, which was 3,500 sq km in size, went to Bangladesh, but now the regional outfits are making a hue and cry over 267 acres“.

The real scenario
The question isn’t how much land India lost or who came up with the idea first- BJP or Congress. It doesn’t matter if Congress came up with LBA first and BJP is retreating back to the same bill it once protested. The bigger picture has to be considered and political interests need to be kept aside for now. The question should be, how much land has India been able to secure within her legal jurisdiction while upholding the democratic will of the people involved? There is no point in holding land that cannot be properly administered, does not provide facilities to its inhabitants, and becomes a pool for criminal sharks.

Although on paper it might look outrageous that India has lost huge amount of land, in reality the situation is quite mundane. The Indian enclaves in Bangladesh are located deep inside the territory which has no physical access. Similar is the case for the Bangladesh enclaves in India. Thus, assigning these enclaves to the respective countries they are positioned in will only legalise a situation which already exists- as the LBA of 2011 has termed it “turn a de facto into a de jure situation”. Similarly, in the case of adverse possessions in Assam, Bangladeshi will legally possess the territories it was already holding.

Hence comments like, “Whatever portion of land India is supposed to get back from Bangladesh is also our land, whatever portion the government wants to give away to that country is also ours,” from AASU president Sankar Prasad Roy and general secretary Tapan Kumar Gogoi remains unjustified. The solution to the Assam-Bangladesh border can only be sought through amicable adjustments. Assam CM Tarun Gogoi was even compelled to write to PM Narendra Modi beseeching him to set aside party politics and included Assam in the land swap bill for the greater good. Assam wasn’t even initially included in the bill!

The benefits
I know the sentiments of the people of Assam. I assure you that I am going to use the proposed land swap deal for the benefit of Assam. I am going to make such arrangements that the land swap deal with Bangladesh benefits Assam. I am going to use the land swap deal to stop illegal infiltration from Bangladesh, which has been a perennial problem for the state. I am also going to use the land swap deal to ensure security along the border in Assam,” Modi had said. And by the look of the demographics, Modi appears to be correct.

Bangladesh is one of the crucial neighbouring countries and India cannot afford to have a conflicted relationship with another of its neighbours. Taking advantage of this discord, the terrorist organisation ULFA had set up training base on Bangladeshi soil and its leader Paresh Baruah was even cited to have sought asylum in Bangladesh.

Personally, I believe a change like this needs to be welcomed by the masses. Before flying back to Delhi, I observed my parents rummage through old rusty trunks trying to find official records of their parents, in the 1971 census, to guarantee the Indian citizenship for themselves as well as their posterity. One has to adduce the proof of residence in Assam of himself/herself or his/her ancestors prior to midnight of 24th March, 1971 for inclusion in NRC. This, in what seems to be an otiose attempt, was implemented to ensure that Bangladeshi immigrants in the state could be identified and deported.

Make sure that your and your brother’s names are included in the Legacy Data”, was the universal advice for me. “You don’t want to be shooed away from your own country by the immigrants for not having ample evidence.” The indigenous Assamese experience a very real threat from the Bangladeshi immigrants as they fight over scarce resources in an already underdeveloped state. Establishing an impermeable border should settle this issue for posterity, regardless of the government in power. It will reduce friction; promote security cooperation and denial of sanctuary to elements inimical to India. But most importantly, it will ensure that Nellie doesn’t repeat itself.

As Bangladeshi enclaves in India become a part of the country and with it some 14,856 citizens from the midnight of 1st August, I do fear the occurrence of protests. The assimilation of new citizens may take some time but we can only move forward from here. The fact that Assam CM Tarun Gogoi was able to set aside his political agenda and, BJP realised its fallacy and, went ahead with a pact that it had previously opposed, shows the political maturity of our leaders and their ability to put the long term welfare of the people first. It’s time we did the same.

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