When it comes to foreign policy, India is one whole, not the sum of its parts. Which is why the government’s plans to introduce a Constitutional amendment in Parliament in order to operationalise the India-Bangladesh >land boundary agreement (LBA) for the three States of West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura, but not for Assam, is an unwholesome precedent. Simply put, of all the 162 enclaves and 5,044 acres of land in ‘adverse possession’ that have been carefully analysed and agreed to for the land swap on both sides of the border, the 268 acres that Assam is due to hand over will not be included. The reasoning for this exclusion seems to be political: ahead of the Assam Assembly elections this year, the ruling BJP doesn’t wish to be seen “giving away” land to the neighbour, Bangladesh.
Equally political is the reaction of the Opposition Congress party, that rules the State of Assam, which now opposes the government move simply because it doesn’t want to give it a political advantage ahead of elections. Both have over the past decade allowed these short-sighted calculations to turn an important bilateral agreement into a game of political football. Even though former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had, after several delays, signed the protocol for the LBA in 2011, the UPA government never made it enough of a priority to clear it through both Houses of Parliament during its tenure. Now, the NDA government, that had promised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that the bill would be tabled in the winter session, plans to introduce it at the fag end of the budget session, and that too in truncated form.
Each of these delays don’t just put off an agreement to resolve a crucial issue between India and Bangladesh, they chip away at India’s credibility in the neighbourhood. Four decades later, India seems no closer to completing an agreement that had been all but signed and sealed, and even ratified by Bangladesh in 1974. And it is no closer to putting the roughly 51,000 people living in these areas out of their uncertainty and misery.
What seems to be even more troubling is the Bangladesh government’s claim, as spelt out in an interview by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs to The Hindu in Dhaka, that it was yet to be formally notified about the revised plan for the bill. If the NDA government is indeed serious about its neighbourhood policy, such a lapse of communication is unhealthy, as its handling of this issue will be a key indicator to all neighbours about how India will attempt to resolve issues with them in the next few years. The government and the Opposition must put their political differences aside to build bipartisan support for the original agreement they have both at various points acceded to. Bilateral accords are built on the principle that the government of India speaks for all States and all parties within the country.