A stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border fence.
The most notable concrete accomplishment of the recent visit by India’s Prime Minister to Dhaka has been the signing of the historic pact to exchange the disputed adversely held ‘enclaves’ and ‘territories’ in each other’s possession as well as to demarcated the portions of the border which had earlier been left undemarcated.
An ‘adversely’ held ‘enclave’ or ‘territory’, to give the most simple definition, is one which ‘cartographically’ belonged to one neighbour (including perhaps title of the land as settled by colonial cadastral survey) while by some quirky fate of geopolitics, such as the hastily executed Partition of India, was left in the actual possession of the other.
According the treaty, which has to be now ratified by the Parliament of both India and Bangladesh, 111 such enclaves belonging to India, but in possession of Bangladesh were to be ceded to them. Conversely, 51 similar enclaves belonging to Bangladesh but in possession of India were to be ceded to it. The total area to be ceded by India to Bangladesh in these 111 enclaves has been reported as about 17160 acres, while the 51 Bangladeshi enclaves to be ceded to India constituted an area of about 7110 acres. Apart from these enclaves, there were territories in ‘adverse’ possession and disputed areas where the border was not demarcated earlier. These enclaves and areas in ‘adverse possession’ to be ceded to Bangladesh are strewn across the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.
It is in the state of Assam, which has a strident and vocal anti-Bangladeshi constituency where the deal has generated the most vociferous opposition. This constituency, of which the AASU, AGP, BJP etc are the prominent components, have accused the present Congress government in Assam, led by Tarun Gogoi, of entirely selling out Assam’s interest and ceding to Bangladesh 357.5 acres of land that belonged to Assam.
Strongly refuting the allegations, the Chief Minister yesterday stated in a press conference that these allegations were not true and that while Bangladesh indeed gained 357.5 acres, Assam has gained 1240 acres of land.
The question that naturally arises is who is speaking the truth here? The answer may be quite similar to the way the same incident was narrated by four different narrators, who had been involved in it, in four mutually irreconcilable versions, in Akira Kurosowa’s 1950 classic Roshomon.
To those who are stridently opposed to the deal, the point of reference is that the entire disputed land belonged to Assam cartographically, hence there is no question of it being in dispute. Therefore, ceding 357.5 acres of it to Bangladesh is absolutely unacceptable. The hyperbole has reached such proportions that a few of the AGP and BJP worthies have even termed it as the “Second Partition of India”. They however fail to admit, that in reality the ceded 357.5 acre land was in possession of Bangladesh already and the handing over to Bangladesh is merely a procedural formal acceptance of a de facto reality on the ground. If this isn’t acceptable, they haven’t yet articulated how they plan to regain possession of the land without a major border conflict with Bangladesh and what strategic national interest or even that of Assam would be gained by that.
The government’s position, as articulated by the Chief Minister, on the other hand, appears to be meticulously juridical. It has treated the entire approximately 1597.5 acres to which Bangladesh has laid claim to as ‘disputed’ and not indisputably belonging to Assam merely because it happened to be shown as that by cartography or colonial land records. Meticulous joint surveys must have established that of this claim, 357.5 acres were de facto in possession of Bangladesh, which includes 193 acres in Boraibari, Dhubri, 74.5 acres in Palakhal Tea Estate and 90 acres in Lathitila-Dumabari, both in Karimganj. The 1240 acres that the Chief Minister had claimed that Assam has gained is actually the portion of disputed land retained by Assam as it was not ceded to Bangladesh and to which the later has agreed.
So how much of land has actually been ceded to Bangladesh? If one converts 357.5 acres to Square Kilometers, it works out to approximately 1.45 Sq. Km. To draw up some comparison, that is less than 0.5 % of Guwahati’s metropolitan area.
As the cacophony of opposition to the border settlement grows to a crescendo, the question we need to ask ourselves is, aren’t we again being led down the garden path, instigated by our ever latent anti-Bangladeshi sentiments?
Assam has far more serious border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, which have the potential for renewed ethnic conflict and consequent blood bath if not settled judiciously. I just hope, those in throes of a belligerent patriotic upsurge to save 357.5 acres from Bangladesh have thought of sensible ways to resolve these disputes as well. Before it is too late.
(It must be noted that some of the figures cited have been arrived at by interpolation and consultation with officials. Authenticated official records and figures have already been sought and are being awaited.)