Borderline personality disorder

The unwillingness of our political class to take a rational view of territorial settlements has also been a major obstacle in concluding an agreement with China

When it comes to the borders, our public debates tend to verge on the irrational. For a country that has several major and minor territorial disputes, we seem to proceed on curious premises. All our neighbours must accept our claims and we need to make no concessions whatsoever.

In the latest uproar over Chinese “incursions”, it was repeatedly argued that India is the only country — apart from Bhutan — with which China has not yet settled its border dispute. It may be more interesting to flip the question around and ask: Why is India the only country that is unable to reach an agreement with China? A clue to the answer may be found in a recent development that has gone largely unremarked.
Last week the government was looking to introduce the Constitution (119th Amendment) Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The bill is required to implement the land border agreement with Bangladesh. A Supreme Court ruling of 1960 states that the executive could not, by itself, change the boundaries of India either by ceding or accepting territory. Such a move would require an amendment of the Constitution by two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament.
Interestingly, this ruling was given on a petition challenging the division of the Berubari enclave with erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The border dividing India and Bangladesh had been problematic since the Radcliffe award of 1947. The outstanding disputes were sought to be resolved by India and Pakistan during the 1950s. An agreement reached between Jawaharlal Nehru and Feroze Khan Noon in 1958 failed to be implemented by India in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on Berubari.
Following the emergence of independent Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman signed an agreement on the land borders in May 1974. As earlier, India failed to proceed further owing to pressure from West Bengal and Assam. Thirty-seven years passed before India signed a protocol to this agreement in September 2011, resolving to implement the 1974 agreement. It took another year and seven months for the government to prepare the Constitution Amendment Bill.
The agreement and the bill seek to settle two sets of problem. The first pertains to “enclaves”. These are small pockets of one country’s territory surrounded completely by the territory of the other. The second relates to “adverse possessions” or land used by Indians and Bangladeshis, which are actually located in the other country. The solution arrived at in 2011 is straightforward. The enclaves will be merged with the territory within which they are located. India will give up 111 enclaves (around 69 square kilometres) and will acquire 51 enclaves (about 29 square kilometres). Adverse possessions, amounting to a total of about 28 square kilometres, have also been rationalised. India will get nearly 16 square kilometres of territory.
The Opposition, however, is in no mood to facilitate the passage of the bill. Their objection to it apparently stems from the fact that India is giving away more territory than it is getting in return. The BJP had initially indicated that they might support the passage of the bill. But in response to the pressure from its MPs from Assam as well as its ally Asom Gana Parishad, it has declared their opposition to the bill.
What’s more, the Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, is reported to have submitted a note to the Rajya Sabha secretariat observing that the bill violates the “basic structure” of the Constitution. This is an absurd argument. If this reading of the Constitution were right, India could never have acquired Goa or Sikkim. Nor can it ever enter into any boundary agreement that involves territorial swaps. Then again, the BJP is not alone in its wrong-headed stance. The protocol of 2011 was drawn up after consultation with the government of West Bengal (among other states), but the Trinamul Congress is no longer forthcoming in its support for the bill.
If the passage of the bill is obstructed, it could deal a serious blow to India’s relations with Bangladesh. The decision to sign the protocol was taken by New Delhi in order to boost ties with Dhaka. This was especially important given Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s desire for a qualitative transformation of the relationship. The failure to secure an accord on the Teesta River waters has already played the spoiler. India’s inability to implement the land borders agreement will undo all the goodwill of past few years. It will also strengthen the hands of forces within Bangladesh that are adamantly opposed to improved ties with India. It will amount to nothing less than a major strategic setback for India. Yet the Opposition is unmoved.
The unwillingness of our political class to take a rational view of territorial settlements has also been a major obstacle in concluding an agreement with China. Any agreement will have to involve territorial changes if only by way of writing off claims to areas which are not under our control. Since 1960, successive governments have baulked at the prospect of securing a Constitution amendment as part of a deal with China. None has felt it has enough political capital to expend on such a venture.
So the next time we are in a tizzy over another Chinese “incursion”, it may be useful to leave aside Beijing’s motivations for a moment and consider if we have the political will to settle the boundary dispute.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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