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How a game of chess between King of Cooch Behar and Maharaja of Rangpur created India-Bangladesh border issue

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By Harshmeet Singh

India’s historic land swap deal with Bangladesh was perhaps one of the very few instances where the current Government gave due credit to its predecessor. During the recent discussions about the constitutional amendment bill in the Rajya Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, the External Affairs Minister said, “I have said this before and I’m saying it again that this work was started by Manmohan Singh and we are only completing it.”

After hectic consultations and short lived blame game, the Government decided to include the Bangladeshi territories lying in Assam in the agreement as well. While the experts are terming this constitutional amendment as a ‘success’, majority of the common public is still clueless as to what this agreement exactly holds.

What exactly is the issue here?

Unlike most other nations, India and Bangladesh share a complex border. Fortunately, this ‘complexity’ isn’t due to any disagreement on where the actual border lies. It is the placement of these ‘well-accepted’ borders that gives birth to these complexities.

There are a number of enclaves on in the northern part of the border shared by India and Bangladesh. Enclaves are small pieces of land surrounded from all sides by a foreign country. The most famous enclave in the world is the Vatican City, which is located inside Italy’s capital, Rome. Another example is the Kingdom of Lesotho, which is located inside South Africa.

There are 106 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh. The largest among them is Dasiar Chhara which has an area of 6.65 square km. Bangladesh, on the other hand, has 92 enclaves in India, with the largest one being 25.95 square km. And that is not all! There are many counter enclaves and counter-counter enclaves as well. On the Indian side, these enclaves are located in the states of Assam, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura.

How did it all mess up?

There is no proven historical record about the exact happenings that led to this border situation. It is said that these enclaves came into being as a result of exchanges during chess matches between King of Cooch Behar and Maharaja of Rangpur. The final shape of the enclaves was a part of a treaty between the Mughal Kingdom and the King of Cooch Behar in 1713. During partition, Cooch Behar came to India whereas Rangpur went to erstwhile East Pakistan. Due to constant trouble with Pakistan, these issues were never looked into till 1971.

The history of negotiations

The land swap deal came on the table for the first time in 1974 when Mujibur Rehman and Indira Gandhi signed an agreement to exchange the respective enclaves. Under this agreement, India provided a narrow strip of land to Bangladesh to provide access to its Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves in India. This narrow strip of land is called ‘Teen Bigha Corridor’. While Bangladesh was quick to ratify the agreement in its national parliament, India could never get it passed.

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In 2011, Manmohan Singh signed a ‘border demarcation’ and ‘enclaves exchange’ agreement with Sheikh Hasina. The UPA 2 Government tried to push forward the 1974 agreement in the Parliament and get it ratified, but it was vehemently opposed by the BJP. The move also saw sharp opposition from other parties including Trinamool Congress and Asom Gana Parishad. The BJP, in fact, in 2011, said that such exchange would be a ‘national loss’ to the country! Even this time, there were multiple hiccups in the passage of the bill, with the NDA Government keeping Assam out of the agreement till the very last moment.

What does it mean for the people living in those enclaves?

According to a joint census in July 2010, there were 37,269 Indian citizens in Indian enclaves and 14,215 Bangladeshi citizens in its enclaves in India. Residents of these enclaves live in despicable conditions. With no connection with their own Government, basic amenities such as electricity and healthcare are a distant possibility for them. They can’t cross over to their own nation since it would mean that they are entering foreign land without permissions.

The land swap agreement is expected to change the lives of over 50,000 people for the better. All those residing in the Bangladeshi enclaves in India shall be granted Indian citizenship in accordance with the section-7 of the ‘Indian Citizenship Act, 1955’. This act provides Indian citizenship to the population residing in territories incorporated in India. The same section was applied when Sikkim was incorporated into India in 1975.

With both countries promising a favourable treatment to the residents of each other’s enclaves, much migration across the border isn’t expected once the agreement is implemented on the ground. This agreement would also help in keeping a check on infiltration and illegal entry of narcotics and other banned commodities across the border. Although India would lose about 40 kilometres square land in the deal, the final resolution to the long lingering issue is worth the cost.

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