A View from the India-Bangladesh Border

Since Partition, the India-Bangladesh border has in practice gradually been worked out, formalized, and ossified into a highly securitized political boundary. The border, itself, is a communal marker — the nominal division of a Muslim majority population from a Hindu majority one. And, indeed, that religious divide continues to dominate much debate over border politics.

Posted on 04/11/14
By Jason Cons | Via East Asia Forum
The Indian Border Fence along the Bangladeshi border along India's Meghalaya district. (Photo by lepetitNicolas, Creative Commons License)
The Indian Border Fence along the Bangladeshi border along India’s Meghalaya district. (Photo by lepetitNicolas, Creative Commons License)

On 18 December 2013, the Indian National Congress party government introduced a bill in parliament to facilitate the realization of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. This bill was the latest in a long series of attempts to enable the exchange of 161 enclaves — tiny pieces of Indian territory completely bounded by Bangladesh and vice-versa — by absorbing them into their bounding states.


Residents of these enclaves face an absurd territorial dilemma, where to effectively exercise their rights as citizens they must illegally cross two borders. Yet, enclave exchange has proved a persistent and proverbial fly in the ointment of India-Bangladesh relations. Even the bill’s introduction was heatedly contested, with members of a range of opposition parties raising vociferous protests calling the bill a ‘Bangladesh giveaway’.


What are we to make of such protests? And what do they tell us about the India-Bangladesh border more generally?


The Land Boundary Agreement’s controversy hinges on both local and national disputes over the meaning of the border and its broader relationship to nationalist politics. Indeed, such struggles offer clues to the politics of postcolonial territory that haunt discussions of Bangladesh and its futures in both countries.


India’s border with Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) has been a locus of contention since 1947. Hastily and haphazardly demarcated, the line dividing Bengal occasioned massive migration and violent dislocation of both Hindus fleeing the newly formed East Pakistan for India and Muslims moving in the opposite direction.


Since Partition, the border has in practice gradually been worked out, formalized, and ossified into a highly securitized political boundary. The border, itself, is a communal marker — the nominal division of a Muslim majority population from a Hindu majority one. And, indeed, that religious divide continues to dominate much debate over border politics.


Communal division is salient in discussions of migration and the steady illegal flow of people and goods across the border (in both directions). While an ongoing political debate continues between the two states over the scale of migration, the reality and imagination of (Muslim) Bangladeshis entering India on a permanent or temporary basis has long been a central lever in nationalist politics within India.


Another key issue is the specter of violence at the border, particularly the debates over the regular exercising of lethal justice by India’s Border Security Forces (BSF) on peasants and ‘smugglers’ crossing it. Between 2007 and 2010, Human Rights Watch found that there were at least 315 Bangladeshi nationals reported killed by the BSF. As geographer Reece Jones persuasively argues, the BSF exercises a de facto right to carry out lethal justice, a reality that has made reporting on border shootings by the Bangladeshi media so regular as to have become banal.


An even more visibly present marker of this communal divide is the 3300-km floodlit border fence erected by India and surrounding much of Bangladesh. The fence has become a site of often graphic displays of violence. A troubling case-in-point is the 2011 shooting of Falini Khatun, a 15-year-old girl shot while crossing from India into Bangladesh and left tangled in the barbed wire at the fence’s top to die. In Bangladesh, photos of Falini’s hanging body became a potent marker of lethal border security. Its iniquities were further highlighted by the acquittal of the BSF officers charged with her death by an Indian court in 2013.


While the border thus dramatizes the partition’s unfinished business — the incomplete communal division of Bengal — it would be a mistake to imagine that its politics are only influenced by communal debates and religious nationalism. The fence also lays bare complex questions related to climate change — particularly the expectation that ecological transformation in the deltaic state will directly produce countless so-called climate refugees in the coming years.


Indeed, a number of recent commentators have claimed that the India-Bangladesh border offers a preview of the ways that climate transformation is likely to effect political boundaries in the rest of the world. Such arguments oversimplify the complex politics of migration and ecology at the border, but highlight the sensitive nature of border securitization in Bengal.


It is also important to note that the border, and the bilateral relationship, is far from static. Indeed, particularly since the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh in 1991 with the ousting of General Mohammed Ershad from power, tensions along the border have dynamically fluctuated with elections in both states.


The border, as residents report, is markedly less tense when the nominally secular Awami League is in power in Bangladesh and the Congress party is in power in India. Indeed, many critics of the Land Boundary Agreement bill saw its introduction as a Congress party attempt to provide support to Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government in Bangladesh’s January elections.


In the summer of 2013, residents of a border enclave in Northern Bangladesh described to me the ways in which local border economies are intimately tied to such shifts. As they told it, a profitable boom in feed corn production in the enclave was, in fact, underwritten by cartels who had secured capital through cattle smuggling in the more relaxed border climate following the Awami League’s 2008 return to power. Such fluctuations mark life in the borderland, on both sides of the fence, with uncertainty. Moreover, they raise questions about what might happen to border life should Narendra Modi and the Hindu-right BJP ride the wave of Gujarat’s economic miracle to power in India in 2014.


Given all this, it is not hard to see why so many policy initiatives to address border complications fail, or to see why the exchange of tiny amounts of territory should prove such a fraught and intractable proposition.


The fate of the latest attempt to realize the Land Boundary Agreement remains unclear, though a short survey of border history leaves one skeptical about its prospects. The Agreement, and its 40-year history, are about much more than just the enclaves and their residents. They take on symbolic dimensions, coming to represent both unfinished pasts and uncertain futures. The dramas of such legislative initiatives obscure the real costs of repeated political failure — the ongoing uncertainty and anxiety of life for residents who must navigate the dangerous complexities of the border on a daily basis.


Jason Cons is currently Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bucknell University and next year will be joining the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, as a research assistant professor. He works on issues related to the India-Bangladesh border and on agrarian change in Bangladesh.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘On the edge in Asia’.

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