Ceding Territory For Peace

India is ready to cede some territory to Bangladesh in return of the latter’s cooperation in ‘anti-terrorism’ needs and to buy peace with the eastern neighbor. One of the objectives Dr Manmohan Singh may be hoping to achieve during his upcoming visit to Dhaka could be to reduce Chinese influence in its immediate neighbourhood. Iftikhar Gilani reports from New Delhi.

For the first time in its history the Indian state is going to cede some 10,000 acres of land to buy peace with Bangladesh. Prime Minister DrManmohan Singh is going to put the offer on a platter during his 2-day visit to Dhaka from September 6.

“We expect the long-standing frontier problem, that also includes the issue of ‘land in adverse possession’ to see a tangible solution during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Many believe the gesture could be a message to other neighbours, particularly Pakistan, to show India can travel an extra mile, if its security concerns are taken care of. Bangladesh is being offered the border land as a “thank you” for addressing India’s core security concerns by arresting and handing over a number of ‘terrorist’ leaders active in India’s north-eastern states.

Experts in India believe this is also a right time to grant concessions to its eastern neighbour on the thorny issues of trade, water and disputed border enclaves.

But, a bigger question is whether India has repudiated its own theory of “no redrawing of borders”.  It may also suggests that India is ready to compromise for the sake of regional stability necessary for sustaining its own economic growth.

Another big question that arises now is whether India would undertake such a risk of granting such concessions to Pakistan, if it delivers on the issue of terrorism New Delhi has consistently been raising with Islamabad.

The mechanism suggested for transfer of some 162 enclaves to Bangladesh, set to be inked during Dr Singh’s visit, is to conduct a referendum to give some 51,000 residents a choice whether they want tolive in India or Bangladesh. The enclave residents, who are virtuallystate-less refugees, need to cross the international border every dayfor cultivation and have to follow painstaking official formalities as besides clearance from paramilitary forces of both the countries.

A task force report released by India’s premier defence think-tank, Instituteof Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) admitted that Bangladeshregime’s attitude towards India’s security issues has created an environment for transformation of ties between the neighbours. It stressed that the India-Bangladesh legacy issues like border demarcation, enclaves, rive water sharingthat bedeviled relations should be now settled at the earliestpossible.

The Indian assessment is that after assuming power in 2008,Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken several steps torein in Indian insurgents and operatives. West Bengal Chief MinisterMamata Banerjee and the chief ministers of Assam, Tripura, Mizoram,and Meghalaya that share a border with Bangladesh, are alsoaccompanying DrManmohan Singh.

Recommending unilateral concessions on trade including abrogation ofnegative list, the IDSA document also calls for early conclusion of an agreement on sharing of the waters of Teesta and four other rivers. Ithas also proposed joint exploration of hydrocarbon resources in the Bay of Bengal and offering technical assistance to Petrobangla.

Admitting that increasing role of China in Bangladesh was a source ofconcern, authors of the report, however, said the best way to countersuch influence was to increase engagement with Dhaka. Bangladesh has arobust defence and economic cooperation with Beijing, to the extentthat the Bangladesh Army possesses mostly Chinese arms and itsofficers are trained by the PLA.

Dr Singh’s visit to Dhaka is touted as ‘ambitious andhistoric’, and he believed to ink agreements on issues pending since 1974.India has 55 enclaves of Bangladesh, and 111 enclaves of India arewithin Bangladeshi soil. Though, India would handover less enclaves,but they are bigger in area than what Bangladesh would handover.

For many decades there have been Bangladeshi enclavessurrounded by Indian villages, as well as some Indian enclavessurrounded by Bangladeshi ones. A joint survey undertaken by the unionhome ministry and its Bangladesh counterpart found some 51,000 people inhabited these 166 enclaves. India and Bangladesh share 4,096 kilometers of border but the un-demarcated 6.5 km border issue wasnever settled and it is also likely to be settled now.

As per the proposed agreement, the midstream of the MuhuriRiver wouldbe the boundary and in West Bengal it has been proposed to make theSui River as the end point. The issue of 24-hour access through the TinBigha corridor to Bangladeshi enclaves has also ranked Dhaka for long.

India will now provide a unfettered 24-hour access to Anagrpota andBahagram enclaves in India to Bangladeshis.

Experts, however, believe the issue of Dhaka providing a transit routeto the northeastern states may not mature during Dr Singh’s visit despite being on the cards. This transit would have been a hugeadvantage to India to develop its northeast.

One of the authors of IDSA report, DrSmiritiPattanaik, believes the BangladeshArmy and some elements in Dhaka suspect the transit maytransform into an Indian security corridor.

“It could open a way forarmy supplies to cross low-lying Bangladesh rather than going viadreadful mountain roads,” she says.

Drawing parallels with Pakistan, strategic expert Dr C Raja Mohanrecalls that Dr Singh and the then Pakistan President General PervezMusharraf had agreed to tackle all bilateral disputes, including Jammu and Kashmirduring their meeting in Delhi in April 2005. Much progresswas made in the negotiations with Pakistan during 2005-06. But by thetime Dr Singh decided to visit Pakistan in March 2007, thepolitical window for clinching major agreements had shut asMusharraf’s power began to ebb rapidly.

In South Asia’s diplomatic minefield, second chances are rare. Take,for example, the boundary-related issues with Bangladesh, which areclose to resolution today. It has taken nearlyfour decades to get there after Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sheikh MujiburRahman signed a framework agreement on the boundary in 1974.

An interim agreement on sharing the waters of Teesta and Feni, reportedly ready to be signed now, comes 15 years after the accord onthe Ganges waters was signed in 1996.

There was much concern in the last few months that the delay in the prime minister’s visit to Dhaka might put the opportunities inBangladesh beyond India’s grasp as the tenure of Hasina, elected in December 2008, crossed the midway point this year.

Given South Asia’s accident- prone diplomacy, it is hoped that thereis no development that undermines Delhi-Dhaka ties in the two monthsbefore Dr Singh’s scheduled visit.

For now, though, the script looks good. Bureaucrats in Delhi andDhaka have done a fine job of negotiating agreements on a range of difficult issues. Both the establishments have overcome theirtraditional resistance to change and have focused on producingoutcomes that are mutually beneficial.

More important is the political blessing from the new chiefminister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. National Security AdviserShivshankarMenon was in Kolkata last week briefing the chief ministeron the agreements being worked out with Bangladesh. Mamata’s presenceon the prime minister’s delegation to Dhaka would lend much credibility to the visit.

(Iftikhar Gilani works with Tehelka newspapers.com)

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