Bangladesh, India mull swap of lost land
DHAKA: Little bits of India are in Bangladesh, and little bits of Bangladesh are in India. The existence of enclaves on either side of the border is a bizarre anomaly that might finally be solved by a swap.
The islands of land result from ownership arrangements made centuries ago between local princes, surviving partition of the sub-continent in 1947 after British rule, and Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.
Many thousands of people live in the enclaves – often without basic services such as electricity, schools and hospitals because they are cut off from their national governments.
Most historians believe the messy situation originates from 18th-century peace treaties between the kingdom of Cooch Behar (now in the Indian state of West Bengal) and the Mughal empire, which ruled much of South Asia.
But local folklore suggests some enclaves were wagers during chess games between the Maharaja of Cooch Behar and the Fauhdar of Rangpur, who then ruled northern Bangladesh.
Rezanur Rahman Reza, 46, is the headmaster of a primary school in Dahagram, a large and relatively well-served Bangladeshi enclave inside India where about 15,000 residents live.
“None of my parents’ generation could even go to school, so they can’t read or write,” he said. “And residents in other enclaves still live in dark ages without electricity, legal rights or any land deeds.”
The exact number of people in the enclaves is uncertain, but estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000.
There are no marked borders separating the enclaves from the surrounding land, but there are checkpoints and the movements of those who live in them are controlled by guards.
“Now is the time to settle this problem because the ties between the two nations are the best since 1975,” said Akmal Hossain, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University.
“I have been to an Indian enclave located in Bangladesh and the residents are some of the most unfortunate, stateless people, without any basic facilities,” he said. “This should have been settled a long time back.”
The residents of the enclaves and the surrounding areas are all Bengalis, whether they technically hold Indian or Bangladeshi citizenship. All speak the same language with local dialects and could be either Hindu or Muslim.
Officials in New Delhi and Dhaka are now working to negotiate a deal over the 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 55 Bangladeshi enclaves in India.
“Both sides have begun a land survey of the enclaves and other border lands illegally possessed by the other. We shall also launch a headcount of enclaves’ residents very soon,” said senior Bangladeshi official Kamal Uddin Ahmed.
The largest enclave is about 1,900 hectares (4,700 acres) while the smallest is just the size of a couple of football fields. And there are even enclaves within enclaves, making the puzzle fiendishly difficult to solve.
“Swapping is the most practical solution,” said Ahmed, who leads the Bangladesh side of the joint group of officials now working to find a solution.
He said the negotiations are based on unimplemented parts of a 1974 border agreement.
The deal, signed by India’s then-prime minister Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has been revived in part because Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is now prime minister.
Under Hasina, cross-border relations have improved after decades of mistrust, with Bangladesh gaining favour with India by handing over fugitive Indian rebels.
“Our aim is to sign an agreement during the Indian prime minister’s visit here,” Dhaka’s foreign secretary Mijarul Quayes told AFP. He could not give a date for the visit but officials said Manmohan Singh is expected in May or June.
Indian officials are more coy about any talks on the subject of swapping enclaves, though they confirm discussions have been taking place.
The Indian enclaves in Bangladesh are bigger in total than the Bangladeshi enclaves in India, and any net loss is likely to infuriate India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist group which is antagonistic towards Muslim Bangladesh.
The border itself also remains a cause of friction, with India erecting barbedwire fences along much of the divide to prevent mass migration from impoverished Bangladesh.