IN less than one year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has walked the talk on his forward-looking and visionary 'neighbourhood first' foreign policy.The unanimity with which the 100th Constitutional Amendment Bill was adopted in the Lok Sabha on 8th May 2015, operationalising the 1974 India Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (together with the 2011 Protocol to this Agreement) has been a game-changer in South Asia for several reasons.
First, this has, with one stroke, established PM Modi's credibility as a leader who keeps his word. After all, at their very first meeting, in September 2014 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, while discussing the LBA (Land Boundary Agreement) Narendra Modi had assured Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with the words “Aap mujh pe bharosa rakhiye (have faith in me)”.
The operationalisation of the LBA has resolved issues that date back not just to 1974, the year when, on May 16, the Agreement on the Demarcation of the Land Boundary between India and Bangladesh was signed between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The issues involved date back to 1947, when the state of Bengal was partitioned into India and (East) Pakistan on the basis of the Cyril Radcliffe Award. The Radcliffe Award was hastily drawn up, with hardly any reference to or consideration of the ground-situation, since there was no time for field-visits. The acts of omission (and commission) in the Radcliffe Award in respect of East Pakistan led to such serious differences that in September 1958, following a meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, the Nehru-Noon Agreement was concluded. To implement this Agreement, the Indian Parliament adopted, in 1960, the Constitution 9th Amendment Act and Acquired Territories (Merger) Act. However, implementation could not be effected because of a series of writ petitions filed in the Supreme Court of India challenging this legislation. The State of West Bengal was firmly opposed to the implementation of the Nehru-Noon Agreement, especially as regards the transfer of any portion of Berubari to Pakistan. The Supreme Court's decisions made it clear that the Executive could not on its own cede any portion of Indian territory, and the necessary constitutional amendment for approving changes in the boundary/ territory of India required, along with two-thirds majority, that the agreed maps of the territorial changes be placed before Parliament. It was not till 1971 that the matter was finally settled through the Supreme Court, but by that time, all of East Pakistan was aflame, and following the nine-month Liberation War, Bangladesh was born.
The 1974 LBA, popularly known as the Indira-Mujib Accord, covered three distinct issues : exchange of enclaves, exchange of adverse possessions and settlement of 6.5 kilometres of undemarcated land-border. The 1974 LBA was ratified by the Parliament of Bangladesh. In India, the required Constitutional Amendment Bill could not be presented for approval because the process of delineation and demarcation of the proposed changes in territory had not been completed by India and Bangladesh. After the tragic and brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15th August 1975, followed by fifteen years of military dictatorship in Bangladesh, all movement towards implementing the LBA by completing the processes of demarcation and delineation were, in effect, indefinitely postponed.
It was only in 1996, when Sheikh Hasina began her first term as Prime Minister, that LBA issues were revisited once again through revival of discussions between India and Bangladesh. In April 1997, for the first time ever, the list of enclaves along with maps was jointly reconciled, signed and exchanged between the two governments. In early 2001, both governments agreed to establish the Joint Boundary Working Group (JBWG). It was under the aegis of the JBWG that the crucial decision on joint visits to all disputed border areas and territories, including enclaves and adverse possessions, was taken. This greatly facilitated the process of consensus-building based on consultations with the people living in these territories. These joint visits began in 2007, but picked up pace and momentum only in 2009, after Sheikh Hasina's election for her second term as PM. Years of painstaking work paid off by August 2011, when India and Bangladesh were able to agree upon and sign joint border maps, settling decades of differences relating to each of the LBA issues. The Protocol to the 1974 LBA was signed in September 2011 during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka. Once again the Bangladesh Parliament ratified the 2011 Protocol. However, as the result of differences expressed by key State governments, the process of passing the necessary Constitutional Amendment Bill through Parliament, was not initiated in India till December 2013, by which time the national general elections in India were too close to permit smooth passage. The people of Bangladesh repeatedly expressed their great disappointment over yet another three-year delay in adoption of the LBA.
This rather detailed account of the LBA brings out why the people of Bangladesh have responded so well to the completion of a process that started with the partition of the Indian subcontinent. This is the real value and worth of PM Modi living up to his assurances of trust, friendship and cooperation so sincerely extended to PM Sheikh Hasina.
Secondly, the unanimity of the final vote on the LBA in the Indian Parliament highlights the successful outcome of PM Modi's balancing act in bringing together state governments, opposition parties and sections of his own party, especially the BJP's state unit in Assam. The Nehru-Noon Agreement of 1958, the Indira-Mujib Accord of 1974 and even the 2011 Protocol to the LBA, could not be brought to fruition through Parliament because the governments of the day were unsuccessful in bringing these three elements together. Each time, there were uncertainties about securing the mandatory two-thirds majority in parliament needed for passage of the required constitutional amendment, either because there were strenuous objections raised by the opposition parties of the day, or by one or more of the state governments. PM Modi, on the other hand, crossed a historic milestone when he successfully ensured the unanimous passage of the LBA Bill in both houses of Parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Furthermore, in order to ensure smooth and early implementation of the provisions of the LBA, he has already provided the West Bengal government with adequate financial resources.
The unanimity of the vote on the LBA reflects strong national support for PM Modi's 'neighbourhood first' foreign policy. And most significantly, it reflects the national consensus and bipartisan support across India on good relations with Bangladesh. Public opinion, whether in the media (print and electronic), in academia or in corporate circles, has welcomed Indian Parliament's unanimous decision to bring the 1974 LBA into effect. The only questioning relates to why this was not done earlier.
Finally, it is important to highlight the crucial role of India's border-state governments in creating consensus about and overcoming differences on sensitive issues with Bangladesh (this applies equally to the states sharing land-borders with India's other neighbours). The five states sharing land borders with Bangladesh are West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Whether in concluding the 1996 Ganga Water's Treaty with Bangladesh, or in agreeing upon how to tackle the politically volatile issue concerning land held under adverse possession, it is the cooperation of the state-governments that has ultimately clinched the issue. Even though foreign policy, and concluding international agreements falls squarely within the prerogative of the central government, with India's neighbours the cooperation and support of the border-state governments is indispensable in the implementation of any such agreements. The reasons for the delay, in 2011, in signing the agreement on sharing of the Teesta river waters, are still fresh in everyone's memory. That is why PM Modi's Team India approach, which includes Chief Ministers of State governments as part of policy-making and policy-implementation structures, has brought in a breath of fresh air, yielding rich dividends in operationalizing the long-pending LBA between India and Bangladesh. PM Modi's new paradigm, his concept of 'cooperative federalism', is an essential and indispensable component of his 'neighbourhood first' foreign policy.
PM Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to link success in achieving his national priorities so directly and closely with improvement in relations with India's neighbours. PM Modi emphasizes economic development, national security, and strengthening of democratic institutions based on the Indian constitution as three key pillars for domestic growth and prosperity. He unhesitatingly adds that achieving success in these domestic priorities is intrinsically linked with building up good-neighbourly relations through an environment of friendship, understanding and trust based on mutual benefit. Modi recognizes that for Bangladesh, too, the national priorities are very similar, based, of course on the constitution of Bangladesh. These shared priorities will provide the leitmotif for talks and agreements during PM Modi's visit to Dhaka on 6-7 June 2015.
The land boundary settlement with Bangladesh has come into force less than a year after the maritime boundary between our two nations was finalized through the July 7 2014 landmark judgment of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, bringing closure on yet another issue that was hanging fire for decades. Taken together, these provide the solid foundation for fresh initiatives aimed at taking India's friendship and cooperation with Bangladesh to new heights, and working towards new paradigms of bilateralism and regionalism across South Asia
India and Bangladesh have agreed to work together to build networks of prosperity, connectivity and development that will link the BBIN sub-region, comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India (focused on West Bengal and the seven states of Northeast India). Bangladesh is poised to form the hub and the business centre of these networks, be they by rail, by water or by road. Ultimately, through a series of bilateral and sub-regional agreements, we can hope to have seamless multi-modal transport arrangements in place, connecting South Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond. Linked with this is the high priority given by both India and Bangladesh to digital connectivity, including the training and human resource development needed to ensure success for Bangladesh in this technical and highly skilled sector. The unique example of the power-grid connectivity and the resultant energy cooperation between Bangladesh and India is set to scale new heights of success. Mutually beneficial and forward-looking collaborative programmes of connectivity are essential for transforming our four-thousand kilometer common land-border from its present hubris of poverty and illegal activity into centres of shared prosperity and growth. This is the best border-management scenario we can envisage, akin to what one sees when driving unhindered through the European Union (EU). When goods and people can move freely across borders, illegal activity withers away. When exchange of goods and services are computed together, as is the world-wide practice, Bangladesh's negative trade-balance with India will quickly transform into a huge surplus.
India and Bangladesh will certainly discuss the shared threats to their national security. They will focus on specific combined efforts to overcome the challenges posed by illegal activities of all kinds, including human trafficking, and by activities of extremist, fundamentalist and insurgent groups. There is the expectation that a Special Economic Zone for India will come up in Bangladesh, to facilitate investment by Indian entrepreneurs, for manufacturing facilities to supply the Bangladesh market, the Indian market and third-country markets as well.The role of Bangladesh is intrinsic to the success of India's 'Act East' policy. For this, India and Bangladesh should work together to revitalize the activities of BIMSTEC, and to strengthen Bangladesh's involvement in ASEAN, both as a dialogue partner, and as a member of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation.
All these potentials can now be unlocked, because PM Modi has kept his promise and cleared the long-pending LBA. Certainly there is need for progress on issues of water-sharing, especially on the Teesta river. The disappointment of September 2011, when there was every hope that an Interim Agreement on the Teesta would be concluded, is still fresh in many minds. The concept of joint river basin management was agreed upon in September 2011, but little has been done to carry it forward. The Joint Rivers Commission, which should be mandated to meet much more regularly than it has been, should agree upon specific steps and cooperative measures for augmentation, conservation and effective use of our shared rivers. The people of Bangladesh should trust PM Modi, that with his focus on cooperative federalism within India and positive bilateralism with India's neighbours, the Teesta water-shairng agreement will soon become a reality, perhaps on PM Sheikh Hasina's next visit to India!
The writer is Professor and Ambassador, Founder and Convener of SWAN (South Asia Women's Network). She served as India's High Commissioner to Bangladesh from December 2003 to November 2006.