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No no-man’s land: PM and Hasina mark border

Teesta water sharing treaty collapses but historic agreement on 162 enclaves.

Written by Subrata Nagchoudhury | Dhaka |
September 7, 2011 2:44:07 am

After more than three decades of indecision,India and Bangladesh today signed a historic agreement on the demarcation of the entire land boundary between the two countries resolving the status of 162 adversely held enclaves.

The agreement arrived at after talks between Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina here clears the way for granting Indian citizenship to about 20,000 people living in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (7,000 acres) in Indian territory and Bangladeshi citizenship to about 31,000 living in 111 Indian enclaves (about 17,000 acres) in Bangladesh territory.

These enclaves have been in existence since the days of the Raj — legend has it that these were gambled away by kings — and it was only in 1974 that a pact between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman agreed to settle these enclaves.

But since then,people here have lived as “stateless” citizens in a veritable no-man’s land denied access to healthcare and education. Enclave residents on both sides have to cross the international border every day and get clearance from paramilitary border guards of both countries to access their land for cultivation or to reach the village market or hospitals.

Most of these enclaves are in the Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal and in the Kurigram,Nilphamari,Lalmonirhaat and Pachagarh districts of Bangladesh. Their headcount was done as late as January this year.

Said an official involved in working out the agreement: “This gives recognition to ground realities. It should not be measured in terms of loss of territory by one and gain of territory by the other. Now both countries will have a clearly demarcated border and a distinct line. No one was administering these areas and there was a persistent demand from residents in these areas saying,‘Give us what we have,accept who we are and let us remain where we are.’ The treaty addresses that demand from both sides.”

The official downplayed protests by the BJP and in some border areas in West Bengal and Assam.

A Joint Boundary Working Group (JBWG) had worked out the modalities for exchange,facilitating today’s decision. A majority of the population in the enclaves on either side has already indicated that they prefer the status quo and would prefer to be “absorbed” in the country they are. A small section may seek to migrate across and such an option has been kept open,officials said.

Bangladesh officials said that during the headcount survey,most residents of these enclaves had agreed to change their nationalities under the exchange plans. But if any one decides to differ,he would be given another chance to opt for migration once the exchanges were made.

These “stateless” people had set up the Bharat-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee (BBEECC) and had even fielded an Independent candidate in the last Assembly polls demanding immediate exchange of enclaves.

The BJP has slammed the Congress for what it calls its “soft line” on illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It has accused the Congress of gifting land to Bangladesh and facilitating the movement of illegal migrants.

This significant breakthrough on enclaves was clouded by the failure to sign any deal on the sharing of the Teesta and Feni river waters. That deal was scuppered after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee raised the pitch yesterday demanding a larger share than the one agreed to and pulled herself out of Singh’s visit.

But Singh indicated there was a door open when he said that the two countries would continue talks towards “a mutually acceptable,fair and amicable arrangement for the sharing of the Teesta and Feni river waters”. And said in a communiqué that “our common rivers need not be sources of discord,but can become harbingers of prosperity to both our countries.”

Yet,there was no escaping the mood of despondency in Dhaka. The Indian High Commissioner was summoned by the Bangladesh Foreign Office and asked to explain why the Teesta deal had fallen through. Sources said Dhaka was told that “internal discussions” were on and the agreement was only on hold,not abandoned.

For its part,Dhaka underlined how the Teesta agreement was crucial for all outstanding issues. “It is disappointing for Bangladesh,” said Gawhar Rizvi,advisor to Sheikh Hasina. Said a Bangladesh foreign office spokesman: “The decision not to sign the Teesta treaty was very frustrating for Bangladesh. With Teesta on hold,how can we grant transit rights to India through Bangladesh territory? We also have our constituencies to address.”

India also announced a major trade sop allowing immediate duty-free access to 61 items from Bangladesh to the Indian market and permitting 24-hour access to Bangladeshis through Tin Bigha corridor. Of the 61 items,46 are textile products.

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