One again, the Indian government hashit a roadblock in its attempt to introduce to parliament legislation that would enable a land swap deal with Bangladesh to take place. That is a shame, for the bill—the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement—has implications not only for foreign relations but also for larger questions of human rights, the right to livelihood and even the larger contours of what constitutes foreign policy in India today.
The bill in question called for India to exchange 111 of its enclaves in Bangladesh in return for 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India. Under the agreement India would give up claims for just over 17,000 acres of land which will be transferred to Bangladesh. In turn Bangladesh would cede around 7,000 acres, which would then join Indian territory.
The deal would not only end a historical thorn in the bilateral side, it would also open a new era in the relationship. India often suffers a “perception problem” in the eyes of its neighbors, which often view India with suspicion because of its size, economy and military might. That in turn encourages them to turn to China. The land swap deal would go a long way to improving India’s local image.
A healthy relationship with Bangladesh would have other economic benefits. India could seek from Bangladesh as a goodwill gesture transit rights to its northeast, brining development to a struggling region. A deal could also revive the moribund South Asia Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ), comprising India’s north east, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. And a deal would give a pre-election boost to a Bangladesh government that has generally been favorable to India.
A land swap agreement would also give citizenship rights to close to 52,000 people: 37,000 on the Bangladesh side and close to 15,000 on the Indian side. These stateless people, often victimized, would finally get rights and privileges as citizens, to the benefit of India’s human rights record.
This deal could particularly benefit the North East and Assam. Resolving the land issues would enable borders in these areas to be secured. India would be able to talk officially about the issue of migrating Bangladeshis, a thorny problem for Assam for nearly three decades that will only grow with climate change.
Despites these benefits, the legislation has faced numerous hurdles, particularly accusations that India is selling off land to Bangladesh. Not unexpectedly, ground zero for the opposition has been the northeastern state of Assam. Any policy initiated by New Delhi towards Bangladesh needs to take the sensibilities of Assam into account. In addition to the historical immigration issue, there is Assam’s proximity to Bangladesh and the region’s own troubled history with India’s neighbor, extending back to the 1970s.
So the protests and marches against the alleged sell-out of Assam are not surprising, nor are they completely groundless. There is a genuine feeling in Northeast India that the central government often takes it for granted. Hence, there is a need to engage the people of Assam on a more direct level to talk about the benefits of the swap and any possible ramifications. Assam has a vibrant civil society, which should be engaged on this issue. In short, it is time for some public diplomacy.
On a broader level, this is an opportunity for India to adopt a new model for the 21st century, one that recognizes the changing nature of diplomacy. As their self-identity grows, India’s states and its people want a greater say in how India frames its relations with its neighbors. The land swap deal is an opportunity for India to adopt a new foreign policy discourse that engages the states and the public, while giving the Northeast a chance to participate in the rewriting of its own history.