For decades, India has tried to curb illegal immigration and smuggling along its 4,000 kilometer border with Bangladesh. It has installed thousands of kilometers of barbed wire and floodlights, and its Border Security Force (BSF) even adopted a controversial “shoot-on-sight” policy to deter those who might cross illegally. In 2001, the dispute acquired a new dimension when incursions by the border guards of both countries culminated in the first armed conflict between India and Bangladesh. This skirmish resulted in the deaths of three members of the Border Guards Bangladesh and sixteen members of the Indian BSF.
Despite these clashes, the significance of the Bangladesh-India border is too often underestimated. Among India’s priorities are improving access to its underdeveloped and volatile northeastern states, reaching advantageous water sharing agreements, and increasing connectivity with Southeast Asia as part of New Delhi’s Look East Policy. All of these objectives will be difficult to achieve without Bangladesh’s support. Resolving the border crisis would grease the wheels for future cooperation, development, and trade in the region. In this respect, India’s regional objectives complement the United States’ desire to accelerate economic development throughout South and Southeast Asia, in part to counterbalance expanding Chinese influence.
Part of what makes the Bangladesh-India border dispute so difficult to resolve is the peculiar way their territories are divided. Along Bangladesh’s northern border with India, there are 162 officially recognized enclaves – portions of one country that are fully surrounded by the land of another country. In total, the Indo-Bangladesh enclaves contain 24,268 acres of land and a population of around 50,000 people. There are 111 Indian enclaves (17,158 acres) in western Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves (7,110 acres) in India’s West Bengal. This muddled border is also home to the world’s only third-order enclave. This enclave within an enclave within an enclave is an Indian jute field encircled by a Bangladeshi village which is contained by an Indian village surrounded by Bangladesh’s Rangpur Division. This absurd situation raises two questions: How did this border come to be and why does it still remain today?
Like many anomalies of political geography, the Indo-Bangladesh enclaves are products of neglect, imperialism and politics. According to popular myths, the enclaves were created when neighboring kings gambled with tracts of their land or when a drunken British officer spilled ink on an official map. More likely, the enclaves resulted from the Mughal Empire’s partial conquest of the region of Koch Bihar (in modern-day West Bengal). Unable to dislodge certain chieftains loyal to the Maharaja of Koch Bihar, the Mughals captured as much land as they could control – creating the enclaves in the process. Content with this arrangement, the Mughals formalized the border in a 1713 treaty with Koch Bihar.
The enclaves began to cause real problems after Partition. When India and Pakistan were created from the defunct British Indian Empire in 1947, East Pakistan (a provincial state and exclave of Pakistan) was formed where Bangladesh now lies. In 1949, the Princely State of Koch Bihar acceded to India and merged with West Bengal, bringing along its troublesome enclaves. Because of the animosity between India and Pakistan, bilateral agreements on visas and a territory swap proved politically impossible. So the people of the enclaves lived statelessly. They were cut off from government services and trapped on these patches of land. Unable to obtain the necessary paperwork for travel, a person from a Pakistani enclave who set foot on Indian territory could be arrested and deported (and vice versa). This meant that children in these enclaves could not legally cross borders to attend school, and the sick could not legally exit to receive medical treatment. Despite renewed efforts to resolve the crisis after Bangladesh gained independence, a promising 1974 land swap agreement signed by the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh was never ratified by India’s parliament. Thus, because of political and constitutional obstacles to a resolution, the status of the enclaves and their residents has remained largely unchanged since 1952.
As intriguing as the lines on the map may be, they should be changed. The Indo-Bangladesh enclaves are detrimental to their populations and they represent India and Bangladesh’s failures to reach important, mutually-beneficial agreements. As the dominant player in the region, the burden will fall on India to resolve this dispute.
Although decades have passed without progress on the enclaves issue, there are new reasons for optimism. In the past, Indian politics have quashed any potential deal, but newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has prioritized regional cooperation, interconnectivity projects, and trade in the first months of his tenure. Modi understands that cooperation with Bangladesh is essential to furthering these goals, and resolving the enclaves issue once and for all would show that India and Bangladesh can find mutually beneficial solutions to their most stubborn, shared problems. A year ago, when Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in opposition, it blocked Congress’ attempts to resolve the border dispute. Now, following a landslide victory in the general election, Modi and the BJP have the political clout to endure the domestic criticism that could come from flip-flopping and ceding land to Bangladesh. The ease with which India accepted a July United Nations tribunal ruling on the long-disputed sea border between India and Bangladesh also bodes well. Instead of protesting, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesman announced that the ruling, which awarded around 80 percent of the 25,000 km² of disputed waters to Bangladesh, would “further enhance mutual understanding and goodwill.” This demonstrated that the new government is willing and able to accept compromises on border issues for the sake of regional cooperation.
In 2011, the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh once again signed a Land Boundary Agreement to resolve their border disputes, and now a constitutional amendment that would ratify the agreement is being considered by the bicameral Parliamentary Standing Committee for the External Affairs Ministry. More recently, Modi made a push to ratify the deal before year-end. With a new, majority government in India seeking to improve ties with its neighbors, perhaps this time the agreement will be ratified so that the embarrassing stains on the map may be erased, regional cooperation may increase, and the residents of the enclaves may prosper.
Matthew Phillips is a Boren scholar who recently returned from a year studying in India. He is currently based in Washington, D.C.