Border tangle in Indo-Bangladesh relations
by Harish Kumar Thakur on 10 Oct 2008 0 Comment

Sometimes the bulk of population and the size of geography of a state work differently from the policies and manners it follows. India’s large size and economic and military potential has created misgivings in the minds of some of its neighbours from the very beginning. 

The former President of Sri Lanka, J. Jayewardene, was quite vocal in expressing his fears that if India becomes inimical towards Colombo, there is no state in the world that could save her. However, India has consistently adhered to the principles of mutual benefit, non-aggression, and peaceful existence. Despite this, India’s relations with her neighbours are not cordial and smooth, with few exceptions.

The saga of Indo-Bangladesh relations is the one of cooperation and confrontation. Bangladesh, which is the third most populous state of the region, owes its origin primarily to the financial and military assistance it received from India during its freedom struggle. Despite India’s positive role, the relations between the two states (leaving aside the initial phase of Mujib era, 1972-75) have not been cordial. Besides the anti-India temper that soon followed the split of former Pakistan, several issues plunged to the fore. We focus mainly on the issues of unsettled borders, illegal migration, chars and rivers and insurgency from across the border, that have kept relations between the two states cold and tense.

Border problem and infiltration

Out of about 14,880 km. land border with its neighbours, India shares a 4096 km-border with Bangladesh (West Bengal 2217 kms., Assam 262 kms., Tripura 856 kms., Meghalaya 443 kms., and Mizoram 318 kms.). There are about 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and about 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. The nature of Indo-Bangladesh border is such that at times it becomes quite difficult to check cross-border movements. It consists of rivers, forests, watersheds, wastelands and hills. A good stretch of the border runs through vast agricultural expanses where it becomes prone to the intermixing of the populace. 

The vulnerability of the border to anti-national elements can be seen from the growing network of terrorists (Purulia incident of 1995) and illegal arms supply to Maoists in Nepal. The use of Bangladeshi land by ISI agents and Al Qaeda mentors is a matter of great concern for India and requires a more improvised and comprehensive approach towards managing its sensitive borders. The problem aggravates when compounded with illegal cross-border movement of people.

The issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh is probably the most important problem between the two countries. According to an affidavit submitted by the Centre to the Supreme Court of India, there are about 1.5 crore Bangladeshis staying illegally in India. In July 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also admitted that about 50 lakh Bangladeshis were staying in Assam only. 

Of late there has been a series of talks at defence, administrative and political levels to get round the problem, but to no avail. Although the migration dates back to pre-independence days, recently the infiltration by Bangladeshis into Indian territories has received greater momentum. This has created not only security and trade problems for India, but patterns of demographic change observed in Assam and Tripura have added new dimensions to the nature of insurgency in these states. The latest Census reports also give credentials to skeptics of a fundamental change in demography and power equations in these states.

According to official figures, the number of Bangladeshi refugees in different states are as follows: Delhi 3,00,000; Rajasthan 10,000; MP 3,00,000; Mumbai 1,50,000; Bihar 20,00,000; West Bengal 40,00,000; Assam 50,00,000 and Tripura over 1,00,000. All told, these account for about 1,18,60,000 refugees; there is no doubt that due to non-availability of figures from other states these numbers are subject to increase (Mahendra Gaur, Foreign Policy Annual, 2004). 

In 1951, there were 19,96,000 Muslims in Assam and in 1961 the strength rose to 27,65,000 (about 39% increase). Some statistics from Census show there has been a good degree of decrease in Muslim population of Bangladesh. According to Pak Census Commission, the percentage of growth rate of population between 1951-1961 was 23.7% in West Pakistan and 20.9% in East Pakistan. 

The problem of infiltration continues to mar bilateral relations. The people of the north-eastern states like Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya have also turned violent against Bangladeshi settlers. The Government of India took steps to control infiltration, but the problem persisted due to Dhaka’s non-cooperation and unwillingness to accept its citizens who sneaked into India via different points. Dhaka also objected to New Delhi’s decision to erect barbed wire fencing along the border to check further infiltration. 

Infiltration continued over the nineties. In April 2001, BSF and Bangladesh rifles had a pitched battle that left three Bangladeshi and sixteen Indian soldiers dead. The outbreak of violence took many by surprise on both sides. A 30-year-old dispute over ownership of an enclave precipitated the clash and such border incidents during 2001 finally prompted the two countries to have a dialogue. From April 2002 to May 2003 BSF killed about 109 Bangladeshis trying to sneak into India and injured about 54. According to reports, BSF killed 13 persons in 1996, 11 in 1991, 23 in 1998, 33 in 1999, 25 in 2000 and 69 in 2001. The toll is increasing every year and indicates the enormity of the problem. After these violent incidents demands for fencing the border were raised. BSF became hostile towards infiltrators and killed many. 

In February 2003 there was a six-day long standoff between BSF and Bangladesh Rifles over the crossing over to the Indian side by about 213 Bangladeshi citizens in Cooch Behar sector. The confrontation took place soon after the completion of talks between Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha and his counterpart Morshed Khan. On 6 February all intruders were sent back after prolonged talks between BSF and Bangladesh Rifles. The situation worsened with the statement of Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan that ‘there is not a single Bangladeshi migrant in India.’ The two governments recently also engaged in a hot debate over ‘push in’ and ‘push out’ operations launched by India and Bangladesh. Whereas the latter accused the former of pushing in the Indian citizens into Bangladesh, the Indians showed more commitment to check the well-sponsored intrusions by fencing the border and pushing back infiltrators at sensitive points. 

The two sides continue to differ over joint patrolling and fencing of the 4096-km-long border. The Indian proposal got a cold response from Dhaka even after the final agreement was reached by the two states in July 2003. The modalities were yet to be finalized. Differences still persisted over raising fences, though the Indian fencing program was well inside (about 150 yards) the international border (zero line). By September 2004, about 35% of the fencing had been done by India. Meanwhile, India’s pushback operations received staunch opposition from Dhaka and Bangladesh Foreign Ministry summoned Indian Deputy High Commissioner S. Chakravarty. 

Bangladesh also requested India to ratify the Indo-Bangladesh agreement of 1974 to establish a legal basis for a quick resolution of 6.5 km. border at Muhrichar which stood undemarcated till date. Yet another undefined 1.5 km. stretch is in the Berubari sector of West Bengal. The contention of the state government is that the boundary runs along the Sui river and the possessions accordingly should be regularized. The arguments of Bangladesh government go against the Indian perspective and the matter stands unresolved. 

India’s security concerns have largely been ignored as Indian proposals to set up a unified command of security forces in the insurgency affected areas did not get a convincingly response from Dhaka. In these circumstances the resolution of the issue is quite complicated as unwillingness of Bangladesh might cause more friction and tension in bilateral relations.

Issue of Chakmas

The issue of Chakma tribals irritated bilateral ties between the two states for nearly a decade. However, it no more remains a big hurdle as the two sides in the mid-nineties repatriated most Chakmas. But a good number of tribals have scattered over the north-east of India and require total repatriation. 

In April 1986, there was a big influx of tribal Chakmas into Tripura. Chakmas were the natural inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and migrated to India because of state repression of tribals in Bangladesh; they were to be repatriated to their homeland, but the task became complicated due to the non-cooperative attitude of Bangladesh. 

During the regime of P.V. Narasimha Rao it was decided that the refugees would be settled back in Chittagong hill areas from where they came. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia assured that the refugees will be settled in the area in due course, and a joint committee was formed to ensure a quick settlement. It was also decided that a Joint Task Force would help reversion of the refugees. The task became more complicated because the land evacuated by the Chakmas had been occupied by Burmese refugees in the area. In March 1997 Chakma leaders and Bangladesh government signed a 68-point agreement under which it was decided that about 50,000 refugees would be rehabilitated (Nalini Kant Jha, Indian Quarterly and Survey).

The problem of Chakmas was finally settled in 1998 when all refugees living in six camps in Tripura were evacuated and rehabilitated in Chittagong area. On 22 January 1998 about 35,982 refugees had been settled, but a good number remain to be resettled. 

Dispute over New Moore Island

New Moore is a small island about 5.2 kms. from the Indian mainland and about 7.6 kms. from the Bangladesh side. The geographical proximity of the island to both sides lends it strategic importance. The Indian standpoint over ownership of the island is sounder as it is closer to the Indian mainland. Even British and American naval maps show New Moore Island as part of India. Both London and Washington are said to have taken Dacca into confidence in the matter before doing so.

The island became a bone of contention between the two states and in 1981 both sides were on the brink of a naval clash. However, both decided to maintain status-quo in the matter. Bangladesh is yet to accept Indian suzerainty over the island and the problem persists. But India controls the island at present. 

Stability in the region requires the two sides to resolve the border dispute, ownership of New Moore Island, the problem of refugees, infiltration, ISI and insurgency, which mar bilateral ties.

The author teaches political science in Shimla

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