More than three and a half years after India and Bangladesh signed the protocol for the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) when then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka in September 2011, the Union cabinet has cleared the constitution amendment bill that would allow Parliament and the states to ratify the LBA. Once it is operationalised during PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, expected next month, the LBA will enable the exchange of Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves in each other’s territory as well as “adverse possessions”.
The bill, likely to be tabled in the Rajya Sabha this week, is consequential for several reasons. A humanitarian solution to the plight of the practically stateless people trapped in the enclaves has been due since Partition. While nationalistic posturing would readily tag these people as Indian or Bangladeshi, the fact remains that neither country can reach “its people” in the enclosed spaces, depriving them, thereby, of the benefits that flow from citizenship, be it in terms of basic documentation, school education or access to healthcare. But the LBA is, above all, a primary instrument of consolidating India’s ties with Bangladesh that have experienced a turnaround after Sheikh Hasina took office as prime minister in Dhaka and chose to deepen security and economic cooperation with New Delhi. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is still waiting for India to deliver on both the LBA and the Teesta water pact — held up till now for many reasons, including the intransigent stand taken by the Trinamool Congress, and the BJP’s internal divisions. Delhi now has the opportunity again to match its words with deeds. For the NDA government, this moment calls for a demonstration of pragmatism and responsibility, in contrast to the BJP’s obduracy in opposition, when it refused to back both the LBA and Teesta deal.
The challenge for the government, however, remains in how it puts its own house in order. By all accounts, it had, under pressure from the BJP’s Assam unit, decided to de-link Assam from the bill, which includes territories in West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya. But faced with criticism from the Opposition as well as Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, it now appears to have included enclaves in Assam within its ambit — as laid out in the 2011 protocol to the 1974 bilateral agreement. Modi himself had argued late last year that the re-drawing of the border would benefit Assam. In fact, even given the BJP’s traditional tendency to look at the problem only through the lens of security and immigration, opposing a rationalisation of the border makes no sense. While an earlier bill has been pending in Parliament since December 2013, the Modi government has done well to indicate its willingness to bring all parties, including and especially the TMC, on board.