Clearing the decks for ratification and operationalisation of a historic land boundary agreement between India and Bangladesh, the Union Cabinet cleared Tuesday a constitutional amendment bill for consideration and adoption by the two houses of Parliament.
The bill — The Constitution (119th Amendment) Bill, 2013 — now includes territories in Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura for exchange with Bangladesh. Many of these are enclaves (territory belonging to one country entirely surrounded by the other country), even enclaves within enclaves.
The bill will require endorsement and ratification by at least 50 per cent of the state legislatures before it comes into effect.
“It will come up in Rajya Sabha tomorrow,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said.
The government had earlier circulated an amendment to the original bill, pending since December 2013, which sought to exclude Assam from the land-transfer deal.
The BJP planned to honour an international agreement, signed by the UPA II, but at the same time keep Assam out of the land-transfer plan since it didn’t want to be seen as handing over territory ahead of state elections in 2016.
The BJP considers Assam within striking distance — in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it secured seven of the 14 seats and a vote-share of 36.5 per cent.
But the Congress, which is in power in Assam, put a spanner in the BJP works by insisting that the Centre include Assam in the bill.
“The Congress, CPM (which rules Tripura) and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are all on board,” Venkaiah Naidu said. He attributed this to wide consultations which External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, he and other senior BJP leaders held with Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, his deputy Anand Sharma and leaders of other parties.
Listing the merits of the bill, Naidu said it was in the larger public interest — it would enable India to fence and seal the border, checking infiltration and smuggling; reduce travel distance; imply gain of more land than loss.
The Cabinet decision came after a high-level meeting at the residence of BJP president Amit Shah, attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal, point man for the BJP.
They considered the possible fallout of the bill on BJP poll prospects in Assam. State BJP leaders continue to have reservations on the land transfer. Naidu conceded that Assam party leaders “do have some issues” but maintained they would “naturally” go along with the stand of the leadership.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had blocked BJP plans to exclude the state from the original bill via an amendment by writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him not to take recourse to such a move. In September 2011, when India and Bangladesh signed the protocol, Gogoi had accompanied then prime minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka.
He told Modi: “We are completely in the dark about the reasons behind this turnaround and how the interest of the people of Assam is going to be protected by the exclusion of the clauses relating to Assam during the process of ratification by Parliament… This decision is also against the principles of cooperative federalism which you have been advocating.”
Pointing out that provisions of the protocol were an integral part of the 1974 agreement between India and Bangladesh, Gogoi said: “As a result of the protocol, the Radcliffe Line demarcating the India-Bangladesh border in the Assam sector namely Lathitilla-Dumabari sector in Karimganj district, Kalabari (Boroibari) area in Dhubri district and the Pallathal area in Karimganj district will be re-drawn as agreed to in the protocol.”
Reminding the Prime Minister that during his visit to Assam in November 2014 he had said Protocol 2011 to the Indo-Bangladesh Boundary Agreement, 1974 would benefit Assam in the long run, Gogoi said: “The agreement, if ratified along with the clauses relating to Assam sector, would not only lead to a permanent solution to the long standing India-Bangladesh border disputes in the Assam sector but also facilitate demarcation of undemarcated areas in Lathitilla-Dumabari.”
BOX: People want it: Mamata
JALPAIGURI: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Tuesday her government supported the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh as the people wanted it and sought a package from the Centre for rehabilitation of those affected. “Our involvement of land is 17,000 acre. Some 60,000-70,000 people will come. We have demanded a package for their accommodation, food, for building roads, schools etc… It is a humanitarian problem.” — PTI