India and Bangladesh have concluded an historic land deal designed to resolve the problematic enclave issue that has existed between the countries since colonial times. There are 106 Indian-majority enclaves within Bangladesh, and 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. People residing in the enclaves live a fragile existence, where they are effectively neither members of their host or home state. Most dwelling within them barely survive amidst mass poverty.
The immediate cause of this issue – like so many other problems in the region – is colonialism, with the British failing to clearly demarcate the land borders between India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) prior to their departure. Before that, it is unclear exactly why the enclaves materialised. It is thought that they may be the result of an uncertain conclusion to war between the Mughal Empire and the Kingdom of Koch Bihar. A more fanciful idea is that the pockets of territory were used as stakes in card or chess games between rival rulers.
Whatever the cause the resolution of the enclave issue is most welcome, not only for the stateless thousands living within them but also for India and Bangladesh in general, whose relations have often been strained by historical and religious differences. A Land Boundary Agreement had been drawn up between the two states as long ago as 1974, although this was scuppered by the assassination of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the following year.
Border issues remain a particularly problematic barrier towards greater integration in South Asia. With the region’s two biggest powers – India and Pakistan – constantly at loggerheads over Kashmir, greater focus needs to be given to how to resolve long-standing territorial disputes, many of which were precipitated by colonial rule.
The Indo-Bangladeshi agreement is a mature one and a positive sign from Indian PM Narendra Modi that, after a disappointing first year in government, he is ready to take a pragmatic leadership role in the region. The 50,000 or so people living in the enclaves should now be given the choice about which country they wish to be members off, providing them with the benefits of citizenship that have for so long been denied them.
It is one less historical issue contaminating regional relations in South Asia; that can surely only be a good thing.