Land Swap: The Indo-Bangladesh Model

Since the Partition of India in 1947, national borders have been a source of conflict in South Asia. Border disputes between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and India and Bangladesh continue to claim hundreds of lives and thwart regional cooperation. In order to facilitate regional progress, border conflicts must come to an end. Skirmishes along the Indo-Pak border continue today due to its "working boundary" status, and will take time to settle. On the other hand, India and Bangladesh serve as an example for the rest of South Asia. The two countries are currently taking steps to simplify their borders in an effort to decrease the flow of illicit goods and illegal migration.

There are currently over 37,000 people living in the 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and more than 14,000 individuals in the 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. The establishment of Indo-Bangladeshi enclaves can be traced back to a vague peace treaty in 1713 between the Mughals and the Kingdom of Cooch Behar, which did not specify the borders between the two regions. During the British Raj, all former Mughal territories became a part of British India, while Cooch Behar was allowed to maintain political control over its territories, as it was a princely state. Two years after the Partition of India, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar finally acceded to India, thus transferring all Cooch Behari enclaves in East Pakistan to Indian territory, although they were surrounded by Pakistan. Concurrently, all former Mughal enclaves in Cooch Behar became Pakistani territory in India.

Today, inhabitants of the enclaves are stateless and do not possess passports or other official documents. Over 75% of Bangladeshi enclave dwellers have been arrested for violating the Foreigners' Act in India, which punishes those who arrive in India without valid travel documents. Indian enclave residents face the same treatment in Bangladesh. Border violence has escalated in the last few years, despite the creation of a security fence between the two countries to reduce illegal migration. Enclave residents also lack legal rights and do not have access to public resources, such as basic education or healthcare. In order to be enrolled in school or gain access to medication or electricity, enclave dwellers claim they have had to forge documents, which has often resulted in their arrest.

On June 6, 2015, India and Bangladesh initiated an attempt to eliminate these problems by signing the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). They proclaimed that all Indian enclaves in Bangladesh would become Bangladeshi territory and Bangladeshi enclaves in India would become Indian territory. As part of the 2015 LBA, a joint survey was conducted from July 6 to July 16 that allowed present enclave dwellers to choose between Bangladeshi or Indian citizenship and move to the nation of their choosing. The survey found that not a single Bangladeshi enclave resident chose to be a Bangladeshi citizen, while 979 Indian enclave dwellers – approximately 3% of 37,369 individuals – chose to become Indian citizens.

The survey findings came as a surprise to Indian authorities, who were expecting at least 15,000 people to move to India. One reason for this unanticipated result may be that many inhabitants of the enclaves are hesitant to move because their land ownership records have been lost over time. Without these records they cannot sell or claim ownership of their land. Some enclave dwellers also alleged that they were forced to indicate Bangladeshi citizenship. Officials from Cooch Behar's Trinamool Congress confirm this, and claim that the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami threatened many residents against returning to India. After examining complaints about the “flawed survey,” Indian authorities requested that their Bangladeshi counterparts verify claims of coercion and give Indian dwellers another chance to exercise their choice. Many government-backed organizations are also planning to file petitions to seek justice for these enclave residents.

In order to facilitate the exchange, the Indian government declared a $340 million package for the entire population of enclave dwellers choosing to move to India. However, analysts believe this amount will decrease, because of the unexpectedly low number of residents choosing to move. India also committed $140 million for rehabilitation efforts, while Bangladesh committed $8 million. Given the dearth of development aid from the two countries to inhabitants of the enclaves in the past, this is a much-needed step. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the money will address the problems of statelessness currently faced by the residents.

Despite the problems posed by Jamaat’s coercion and missing land ownership records, India and Bangladesh will go ahead with the enclave exchange beginning at midnight on July 31, 2015. Residents who wish to move will have until November 30, 2015 to do so. Present enclave dwellers can then look forward to acquiring a national identity, as well as the public amenities provided by their state. After the exchange, the Joint Boundary Working Group of India and Bangladesh will decide on marking the new borders — an act that will hopefully begin to resolve present conflicts and improve the Indo-Bangladeshi relationship.