By Priyanka Chaturvedi
When Shakespeare wrote “What’s in a name?”, he didn’t have to contend with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). After all, India’s principal opposition party takes the ‘opposition’ part of it much too seriously. Not only have its MPs constantly disrupted parliamentary proceedings and held up important legislations, the party has even opposed what it had proposed when it was in power. Much of BJP’s actions have been rationalised by its supporters as political posturing and electoral necessity. Even if one were to take this excuse at its face value, where does the BJP draw a line on opposing everything? Surely, as a party which has governed India and which hopes to govern the country again, it can’t let its short-term political considerations trump India’s strategic interests.
One specific case of opposition merits particular attention. It is the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) to be signed between India and Bangladesh. To summarise, the issue goes back to India’s independence when the Radcliffe Line marked the boundary between India and the then East Bengal (it came to be known as East Pakistan only in 1954). As of today, there are 111 Indian enclaves with 17,158 acres inside four northern Bangladeshi districts (Lalmonirhat-59 enclaves, Panchgarh- 36 enclaves, Kurigram- 12 enclaves, and Nilphamari- 4 enclaves) with a population of 1,75,000, while there are 51 Bangladesh enclaves with 7,110 acres inside Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, with more than 75,000 people. The people in these enclaves live without safe drinking water, sanitation, schools, medical facilities, jobs and legal access. They face lawlessness on a daily basis and these enclaves have become the breeding ground of militants.
The exchange of enclaves goes back to the 1958 Noon-Nehru Agreement. After Bangladesh became independent, India and Bangladesh signed the Mujib-Indira Land Boundary Agreement in 1974. This comprehensive agreement has, among others, these objectives:
- Demarcation of border between India and Bangladesh. The border runs approximately 4025 kilometres, out of which 6.5 km has yet to be demarcated.
- Exchange of 51 enclaves of Bangladesh in India with 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh.
To implement the 1974 Mujib-Indira Agreement, another Land Boundary Protocol was signed between the two countries in September 2011 during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh. India needs a constitutional amendment to ratify this agreement and since the UPA does not have a two-thirds majority in either House, it needs the support of the BJP. During the current monsoon season, when the government submitted the bill to the Rajya Sabha, it met with vehement opposition from the BJP.
Why is the BJP opposing it? Here is what the Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj told reporters: “On the Indo-Bangladesh land boundary agreement, I wish to clarify that BJP is completely against it. The Prime Minister held a meeting with us on it recently. Without any ifs and buts we had said in the meeting that we will not support the Bill on this issue.” Asked if BJP would continue to maintain the same stand if it came to power and that this would hamper international relations, Swaraj said, “Our stand on this issue will not be different even after we come to power.” Explaining why BJP is opposed to the Bill, Swaraj said, “10,000 acres of land will have to be given away. Moreover, this is not just about land as emotions are also involved. And this government has casually gone and signed the Agreement”.
Mrs Swaraj fails to understand that there can never be an inch for an inch exchange in any boundary settlement. After all, India gained 15,178 acres from Pakistan in the boundary settlement between the two Punjabs as a result of the Sheikh-Swaran Singh talks held in January 1960, which were followed by the signing of the Agreement on January 11, 1960.
Why is this LBA so important for India? Many Indian analysts have explained its importance, the foremost among them being C Raja Mohan in this article. You can also read Suhasini Haidar’s take on the subject. The arguments are simple. Firstly, it resolves a long-pending boundary issue which is also a major humanitarian issue. More importantly, it is important for India to strengthen the hands of a progressive, secular and India-friendly government in our neighbourhood. It signals India’s strong support for the Awami League leader and the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has gone out of her way to cooperate with India.
It is not that the UPA government has not tried to make the BJP see the light of the day. Separate briefings for the BJP leaders by the External Affairs ministry and a meeting with the Prime Minister has taken place on the subject but to little avail. Moreover, Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni met Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley on 26 July, seeking his support for the LBA. As per Sushma Swaraj, he had only told Dipu Moni that he would convey her views to the BJP leadership. Bangladesh High Commissioner to India, Tariq Ahmed then met Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP’s likely prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi seeking his support for the LBA. For someone so voluble about India’s interests in his speeches, Mr Modi has done nothing to alter his party’s damaging stance on the LBA. More interestingly, BJP general secretary, Varun Gandhi wrote in a column, “Instead of operationalising the Land Boundary Protocol, dating back to the 1974 Mujib-Indira Land Boundary Agreement which resolves 6.4 km of undemarcated border, and building trust, we resorted to legal hokum.” Surely, the legal hokum Mr Gandhi referred to is the one dished out by his senior, Arun Jaitley, and supported by the likes of Narendra Modi and Sushma Swaraj.
As always, the BJP is speaking in a forked tongue and sacrificing India’s interests at the altar of its petty politics and internal tussles. In his recent column, Shekhar Gupta has explained in great detail how the need to placate its ideological mothership, the RSS, is forcing the various warring BJP leaders to take an irrational stance. “The opposition of the BJP’s Assam unit etc are just convenient excuses. The issue is caught in the strife within the BJP,” he astutely observes.
India has a small window of time available to pass the LBA before the parliamentary session ends. If the BJP can still come around to supporting the LBA for securing India’s strategic interests, it would send a huge signal to Bangladesh and to the rest of the neighbourhood. But that looks unlikely from our opposition party which is willing to harm India’s interests for its petty political intrigues.