Diplomacy and bilateral exigency triumphed over politics and emotions as the Narendra Modi government steered the passage of the Bill that ratified and allows the operationalisation of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) between India and Bangladesh. In a rare show of unanimity, the Bill was passed by both Houses of Parliament, a move that would now facilitate the exchange of territory between the two neighbours.
Prime Minister Modi, whose party, the BJP, had opposed the deal, particularly after the Manmohan Singh Government signed the additional protocol in 2011, quickly got into a course-correction mode, indicating he wanted to give more importance of improving ties with Bangladesh and India’s other neighbours. Modi demonstrated his desire to boost relations with the neighbouring nations right from the day his Government was sworn in a year ago when he invited the heads of the SAARC countries to be present on the occasion. And, when his Cabinet on May 5 approved the Bill, ignoring opposition to any transfer of land to Bangladesh by parties and groups in the northeastern states, Modi proved he means business.
Objections, but from within BJP
Ironically, it was not the Congress but sections within the BJP that had serious reservations on the operationalization of the LBA, a fact admitted by Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, while moving the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP state unit in Assam was particularly opposed to the LBA because the local party leaders had adopted a tough ‘we-shall-not-give-an-inch-of-our-land’ line. That stand was not surprising because the State Assembly elections are due in Assam next year and any move to part with its territory to Bangladesh will invite charges of a sell-out. Moreover, Assamese nationalist groups like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and regional political parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) have been vehemently opposed to any giving away of Assam territory to Bangladesh. Already, these parties and groups have resorted to street protests and the AGP was quick to call a ten-hour Assam bandh on Thursday.
Alarmed at the possible adverse impact of an exchange of territory on the coming State elections, the Assam BJP leadership prevailed upon the party’s central leaders to try and exclude Assam from the territory exchange plan. The demand was almost conceded to by the Modi Government, but the opposition Congress as well as Bangladesh raised strong objections. Finally, Prime Minister Modi decided to rise above politics and emotions and steered his Cabinet to approve the Bill, enabling it to be introduced and passed by Parliament. This was not easy for Modi or the BJP because of the prevailing perception in Assam and elsewhere of continuing illegal migration into the northeastern states, a subject so emotive that elections have been won or lost over it in states like Assam.
Modi’s pro-active foreign policy is there for everyone to see and he could not have backed out from a full implementation of the LBA on the eve of his planned Bangladesh visit in June. After all, India-Bangladesh relations are showing signs of an upswing in the past year and New Delhi would not let go of an opportunity to consolidate ties with its immediate neighbourhood. India has not been able to push ahead and clinch any major new water treaty with Dhaka, largely due to opposition by states like West Bengal, and, therefore, Prime Minister Modi would not like to land in Bangladesh in June without anything concrete to offer.
Assam’s veteran Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, and his Government, argue that the implementation of the 1974 LBA will actually help demarcate the international border after which steps could be taken to ‘seal’ it, leading to prevention of ‘influx’ of illegal migrants. Gogoi said the exchange of territory will settle the border dispute between India and Bangladesh once and for all. A total of 982 acres of land is disputed along the border between Assam and Bangladesh. The State Government has said Assam would get back 714 acres while only 268 acres of land will have to be given away to Bangladesh. The BJP will now have to find solace in the argument that Assam will get back more territory, an argument that Congress leaders like Tarun Gogoi are harping on.
The broad foreign policy picture
Keeping aside local politics and emotions, one cannot afford to miss the broad picture from New Delhi’s point of view. Prime Minister Modi has managed to win the 2014 national elections with a huge majority that gives him the strength to take decisive action, even at the cost of ignoring the fears of local party units, like the one in Assam in this case. He would certainly like to resolve nagging issues with its friendly neighbours like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan before stepping up efforts to grapple on tricky issues with China and Pakistan. Modi’s decisive push in the ratification of the LBA is yet another indication of his desire to improve ties with India’s neighbours. More significantly, as the success came on the eve of his China visit, it can also be taken as a signal to Beijing that New Delhi is hopeful of achieving similar results on the border dispute with China.
Sooner than later, the BJP hopes everyone would come round the fact that the implementation of the LBA will settle the border question between India and Bangladesh for all times to come and the two countries can then focus on issues of trade, connectivity, joint anti-terror strategies, and, of course, such survival issues like water. All eyes will now be on Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bangladesh.
Wasbir Hussain, a political commentator, is Executive Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati, Assam.