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Two generations in enclaves grew up stateless, agreement now resolves this: Tariq Karim

Interview with former Bangladesh High Commissioner to India

Indulekha Aravind 

The constitutional amendment to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh, which was recently passed by the Indian Parliament, is a game-changer, says Tariq Karim, former Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, who was involved in crafting the agreement. The accord will, in effect, allow a swap between the two countries of enclaves, or small pockets where the citizens of the other country have been stuck in since Independence. The ratification by India shows that the most difficult of issues can be resolved with goodwill, determination and political vision on both sides, he tells Indulekha Aravind in an interview. Excerpts:

Would you consider the passage of the Land Boundary Agreement historic?

It is a game-changer. After the partition of 1947, India found itself saddled with two boundaries on its two sides, apart from the boundary it had with China, and this boundary was perhaps the most difficult boundary to manage because of the nature of the terrain. The agreement has taken close to 70 years after Partition because this was a legacy left behind by Cyril Radcliffe and it has had a torturous history. But in the end, it was very meticulously and painstakingly put together and, therefore, it changes the nature of the relationship, and not just between India and Bangladesh. It serves as an example that the most difficult of issues can be resolved with goodwill and determination by both sides, and political vision and wisdom.

Was there any resentment in Bangladesh because of India’s delay in ratifying the agreement?
We had ratified the agreement signed in September 2011 between the then prime minister Manmohan Singh and Bangladesh’s prime minister almost immediately. It took a longer time in India because it is a more federal state with a more complex method of enacting a Constitutional amendment, unlike Bangladesh. The delay did cause some heartburn but many like me were always confident that with patience, it would happen.

What is the impact of the agreement likely to be?
For one, border management is likely to become so much more simple. Although the border management plan laid down the principles and parameters according to which the two sides would manage the border, it cannot be operationalised unless both sides are absolutely clear on what the borders are. Until the Land Boundary Agreement was ratified, there were vast areas that were grey, which will now be taken care of.

How would it influence diplomatic ties between the two countries?
I think it exponentially expands the comfort level and areas of trust between the two countries. It indicates the vision of the two prime ministers, particularly since Sheikh Hasina had to take a great political risk in going forward. It will enable both sides to take a bold approach on how to craft their future relationship, based on mutual cooperation, which will benefit not just each other but the immediate sub-region and perhaps eventually, the larger region.

And its effect on the people living in these enclaves?
I played a role in carrying out the directives of the political leadership in crafting this agreement, and I can say that it was no longer just land, there were people who lived on this land. There were lands which, say, notionally belonged to India but they were held hostage because they were encircled by Bangladeshi lands and so the government of India could not reach its notional citizens with governance and services and goods that these people expected, and the government of Bangladesh could not reach them because they were not their citizens. So these people were virtually stateless although they notionally belonged to a state. The tragedy is, two generations have grown up like this. These were genuine problems. There may have been a few hundred or thousand people in 1947 but the total combined population today is around 53,000.

How did these enclaves come into existence?
In undivided India, it so happened that the rulers of states like Cooch Behar and Rangpur, with vast areas of land, were both fond of gambling. Either when they ran out of cash or when they were gambling with land, whoever lost would write a chit and say “such and such land measuring this much, I give to you. These were chitmahals. I don’t think Radcliffe had any idea about this. Unfortunately, the thickness of his pen decided the destinies of these lands and their people. You could say these lands were the quirks of individual personalities’ follies, but became problems of history.

Were there any security concerns about this swap. Would it affect infiltration, for example?
Many of these pockets turned into safe havens for criminal camps because neither side could reach their own territories or would reach the other’s. Hopefully, that problem will be resolved now. You can now crack down on smuggling and eliminate these safe havens. To that extent, you are improving security.

Both sides were aware that there might be some people on either side who would like to move to what is actually and emotionally their country. But they were also acutely conscious that they did not want anything like the terrible consequences of the Partition of 1947. So both sides actually carried out surveys in which the people living there were listed and these survey lists were with both sides, so if a desire was expressed by people on one side or the other who felt they did not belong there, it could be done according to an exercise in which the governments of both Bangladesh and India would be involved. And that is the package that the chief minister of West Bengal has got. There are provisions for the people of all the unclaimed territories, in case they wish to migrate. But only 10 per cent or less will actually do so.

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First Published: Sat, May 09 2015. 18:07 IST