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India-Bangladesh Border Settlement: a model to follow?

India-Bangladesh Border Settlement: a model to follow?

Dr Amit Ranjan, Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi, comments on the recent border accord between India and Bangladesh, and asks whether it could be a model for solving other boundary disputes between India and China, and India and Pakistan

With the forthcoming implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) protocol in 2015, India and Bangladesh will legally resolve their decades-old border dispute. Under the Agreement India has agreed to transfer 2267.682 acres to Bangladesh while the latter will transfer 2777.038 acres of land to India. This includes the exchange of 162 enclaves between them. Though this agreement is facing opposition from a few groups in Assam and Meghalaya, it is not strong enough to disrupt the land-swapping process or to create a strong political backlash against the present political establishment.

Although the LBA has not been able to solve ancillary issues such as the movement of peoples – a problem which is likely to remain an irritant – it has the great merit of having solved a difficulty which is, as stated, decades old. Since this is so, can it be a model for a resolution of border disputes between India and other countries? This question is significant because the future of India’s relationship with Pakistan and China depends on management of their border-related disputes. Like India, both are nuclear powers, and anything above the “accepted” level of conflict may – in the extreme – lead to a nuclear holocaust in south Asia.

The India-Pakistan border disputes can be traced back to disagreements between the Indian National Congress and Muslim League before Indian partition. After partition in 1947, the two countries adopted various means to resolve their border disputes, but without success. The first step was setting up a Tribunal under a retired Swedish Judge, Algot Bagge, in 1948. This tribunal took up four of their disputes and interpreted the demarcation in its report in February 1950. Unfortunately, the two countries were reluctant to implement the decision in places where they lost territory to the other. Afterwards, in 1954, 1963, 1972 and 2007 there were further missed opportunities when they could have resolved their border disputes. In a comprehensive and detailed negotiation in 1963, after six rounds of talks over the Kashmir issue, both sides even agreed to exchange lands to end their stand-off over the area. In 1972, during the Shimla Talks, they maintained the status quo over the border line because of back-channel diplomacy. In the intervening period, India gained some relief as the Kashmir dispute became a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. In 2007 there was an informal agreement on exchange of lands. But once again the two countries failed to move substantially to resolve their disputes. The only land boundary dispute they have resolved is in the Kutch region in 1965 through international mediation.

India and China are engaged in disputes in the Western Sector (Aksai Chin, around 37,250 sq km/14,380 square miles); and the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh, around 83,740 sq km/ 32,330 square miles). The genesis of their border disputes lie in the Shimla Accord of 1914 between the representatives of British India and Tibet. Though the representative of the Yuan Shi Kai-led Chinese government was part of the discussion, he did not sign the accord. Since then, China has contested the accord and maintains an ambiguous position on the McMahon Line, which was established as part of that accord. It recognises this as a demarcation line with Myanmar but not with India. In 1988 during the visit of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had expressed his intention to leave the settlement of the territorial dispute to a “future generation”. Working in that spirit to address their border disputes the two countries agreed to establish a Joint Working Group (JWG) in 1988. As a follow-on to it, in 1993 they set up an expert group including diplomats, military officials, and cartographers for the purpose of closely scrutinising each side’s position and clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Later on, to help the JWG, Special Representatives (SR) were appointed in 2003 after the then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited China and stressed the importance of including political viewpoints in the solving of border disputes.

Effective border demarcation is frequently complex, no matter the area; what makes it difficult, however, is the political relationship one country has with the other. As with the LBA, any step to settle border demarcation disputes between two countries demands compromise, adjustments and political determination. This is possible only when there is a consensus for this among the political leadership, institutions and dominant political constituencies. This consensus was easy to develop for India in case of Bangladesh, but difficult to create when the other country is China or Pakistan. A small number of groups within India may have negative perception about Bangladesh, but the dominant narrative is not such. On contrary, the memories of a bitter past with Pakistan and China dominate the Indian collective consciousness. Moreover, the two countries have pursued similar policies towards India. In such a situation it is difficult for their leaderships, even if they want to resolve the existing border disputes, to take steps to do so. Any such move is all likely to be met with dissent by civil and governmental institutions and have a negative political pay-off. In past, under the pressure from their institutions, the political leadership in India and Pakistan have to give up their desire to improve their bilateral relations by making certain concessions to the other. In such circumstances, it seems, India’s border disputes with Pakistan and China are likely to remain unresolved.

Any step to resolve them needs a re-visit, re-negotiation, and re-construction of their bitter pasts. Unless the collective imagination of the enemy ‘other’ is changed in the respective countries, settlement of their border disputes seems almost impossible.


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