Parliament’s upcoming monsoon session (5-30 August) is likely to consider a Constitution Amendment Bill for ratification of the 2011 India-Bangladesh Boundary Agreement, aimed at resolving the complex nature of border demarcation between the two countries.
It is an important legislative business considering the fact that India shares its longest border with Bangladesh (4096 kilometers) and also a geographical fact that India’s northeast is locked by Bangladesh.
During his visit to Bangladesh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had on 6 September, 2011 signed with Bangladesh a Protocol on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), which has since been ratified by Bangladesh and awaiting a similar nod from India.
The sum and substance of the LBA is that it would amount to India ceding 10,000-acres of territory to Bangladesh and the projections about the perceived population displacement arising out of this proposed legislation are that not more than 3500 Bangladeshis would be legally arriving in India, should they choose to do so in the first place.
The LBA agreement has deep foreign policy and strategic connotations for both neighbours, particularly India, and impinges on major Indian national security parameters.
There are pros and cons with regard to the LBA agreement that the Indian parliamentarians would have to consider before they eventually determine whether the UPA government’s Constitution Amendment Bill is passed. The parliamentarians would also have to see, before they vote for or against the proposed legislation, whether the move is in the best national interests of India.
The “Ayes” would have the following arguments:
1. It should be supported because it will resolve the decades-old festering boundary dispute between India and Bangladesh that has been causing immense difficulties to the affected populations.
2. We should support it because the ten thousand acreage of territory set to be ceded to Bangladesh, if this legislation were to be passed, is actually territory which India does not control or administer anyway. Therefore, even if we are to sacrifice that big a piece of land (which we are in any case not controlling) for the sake of streamlining the border issues, it is worth a go.
3. No large-scale displacement of human population on either side of the Indo-Bangladesh border is expected if this legislation were to be approved. At the most 3500 Bangladeshis would be entitled t o Indian citizenship, should they choose to do so in the first place considering the uncertainties involved in such human population transfers. If we can do this at such a small cost for the sake of a structured boundary agreement, it is worth it considering that tens of millions of Bangladeshis are living in India anyway.
4. If you don’t do it now, you won’t be able to do ever because of three factors: (i) the rivers keep changing their courses, (ii) the human population in the said areas keeps shifting, and (iii) the current political will which is there between the two governments may not be there for long.
The last point needs elaboration. Bangladesh has to elect a new government within six months or before 24 January, 2014 when the current five-year tenure of the India-friendly Sheikh Hasina government expires. No one can rule out the return of Begum Khaleda Zia, who is known to be close to Islamabad and averse to New Delhi.
Hasina has to be armed with tangible things if she hopes to win the forthcoming parliamentary polls. India has a moral duty to bail out its friend rather than leaving her in the lurch.
For doing this, she needs two things from India: the LBA and the Teesta River Water Sharing formula.
Both are problematic for India and have their downsides for the Indian domestic politics. The LBA has virtually come to fruition and India has to just pick this ripe fruit and deliver it to Hasina. Once this happens, New Delhi and Dhaka can work on Teesta, evidently a more tricky bilateral issue. That is the importance of the LBA and the upcoming Constitution Amendment Bill in Indian parliament.
The ‘Nays’ of the LBA may have the following arguments:
1. It will be a loss of face and a serious foreign policy disaster for India to cede any territory to anyone in a peacetime situation when wars are waged for gaining territories. Why should India yield a single inch of its territory?
2. Will it not tantamount to look the other way on the serious issue of Bangladeshi infiltration?
The UPA road is heavily mined as far as this proposed constitution amendment bill goes. That is because the main opposition party, the BJP, has already said that it will oppose the move. The BJP has maintained that the UPA government is flawed and has warned that the Bangladeshi infiltrators would be all over the country and the Indian northeast will be in flames.
The Trinamool Congress, the ruling party of West Bengal which shares the longest border with Bangladesh, has also given indications of its opposition to the LBA move.
In such a situation, it will be a stiff challenge for the UPA government to navigate the LBA constitution amendment bill to the shores.
The question is: is it a good idea to cede 10000 acres of Indian territory to Bangladesh for long-term strategic, security and foreign policy objectives? The ball would shortly be in the people’s court – or more precisely in the court of the people’s representatives.
The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who can be reached at email@example.com.