Looking back at Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations: The resolution of the Enclave issue

By Arpita Chakraborty, PhD student, @itsARPITA


The relations between the South Asian countries have been fraught with tensions in recent times. India in particular has been facing a hard time maintaining its diplomatic ties with its neighbours – be it Nepal or Bangladesh or Pakistan. Looking back, the history of its relations with Bangladesh has had one silver lining in the recent years – the resolution of the enclave issue after 65 years, when an agreement was ratified on 6 June 2015. This article will look at the history of the bilateral attempts towards the resolution of this issue between India and Pakistan, and then India and Bangladesh since 1947.

There are more than two hundred geo-political enclaves in various continents across the globe. “Chhits” or Enclaves are small fragments of land owned by one country, inside the geographical boundaries of another country. India and Bangladesh share the largest group of enclaves in the world, a historical legacy that has retained its existence despite Partition during Independence in 1947 and the later fragmentation of Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971. There are about a hundred thousand people living inside these enclaves, with no access to either basic fundamental rights or any form of livelihood.

One needs to understand that though the enclaves are part of the mother country (Bangladesh in case of the Bangladeshi enclaves, and vice versa) only politically. They do not belong to the surrounding mainland of the host country of course, but there is no border security put in place to make the borders into real compartmentalizing demarcations. The isolation is not to the effect of not allowing the residents to venture out of their enclaves. But the isolation is more in terms of their rights as citizens, access to resources, and most of all, acceptability in the surrounding areas which are Indian. But this porousness has also created issues for the enclave residents. The enclave areas are not under the surveillance of Indian police, and are for all purposed without any security. This makes them havens for criminal activities and transit points for smuggling.

As far as the history of the Indo-Bangladesh diplomatic relations in terms of the enclave issue is concerned, efforts started soon after independence of the two countries when the governments realized that the boundaries drawn by Radcliffe between India and Pakistan were far from being well-defined. Starting with the Nehru Noon Agreement in 1958, there has been repeated attempts to resolve the enclave issue by integrating the enclaves with their host country (integrating the Bangladeshi enclaves with India, and vice versa). In 1959, the then two Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Firoze Khan Noon of Pakistan signed an agreement under which all the enclaves were supposed to be exchanged, no matter how much land was lost or gained in the process. The agreement said,

Exchange of enclaves on the basis of enclaves for enclaves without any consideration of territorial loss or gain.”[1]

This exchange was based on the boundary that was already demarcated, and in reality, was only a small portion near Berubari. However, what the agreement did not consider were the people per se who were residing in these enclaves. With the exchange of enclaves, the residents lost their Indian citizenship and were forcefully made citizens of another country. Six residents of the enclaves petitioned against the government of India asking whether it was legal for a government to give away a part of its territory and take away the rights of citizenship from the people residing there since long.

To counter this problem, the 9th Amendment of the Constitution Act was made in 1960. According to Article I and Part I of First Schedule, it now became legal for the governments to exchange the land as had been agreed and signed by the Prime Ministers, known as the Nehru-Noon agreement. As a result, Dahagram and Angarpota became parts of India, while Berubari became a part of Bangladesh. Other enclaves, however, remained unexchanged. After this exchange in 1960, the relations between the South Asian countries underwent several trials and tribulations. India’s decision to offer refuge to the Dalai Lama after the Tibetan uprising in 1959 had already strained the relationship between India and China. With disputes arising over the control of areas around the McMohan Line, India and China declared war against each other on occupying Aksai Chin in the west and the Tawang province of Arunachal Pradesh in the East, soon followed by another war with Pakistan in 1965, over the control of Kashmir, also known as the Second Kashmir War. After five weeks of conflict and skirmishes, the war ended with the United Nations mediating the cease-fire. The bi-lateral relations between India and Pakistan went to an all-time low after the war. Moreover, during the decade of war, the enclave issue failed to attract the attention of the politicians and even the governments of both the countries.


In the meantime, during the 1960s internal problems within Pakistan was leading to an unrest among the people, and it finally culminated in the division of the nation in 1971, when it seceded from Pakistan and declared itself a separate nation under the leadership of Mujibur Rehman.

After the formation of Bangladesh, in which India had played an active role, there was hope among the enclave residents that their issue would be taken up for settlement. What happened on the contrary was quite intriguing, to say the least. In 1974, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, met Mujibur Rehman, Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Although earlier both the governments had recognized the plight of the people who were practically trapped in these enclaves with no access to even basic necessities, not much formal administrative effort was undertaken to sort out the problem. Finally in 1974 in the India-Bangladesh Accord of 1974 was signed.

According to this agreement, subject to ratification by both the governments, the enclaves of the two countries would be exchanged without any further delay and without any claim for compensation for the land lost in the process by either of them. Paragraph 14 of the Agreement further said:

“India will retain the Southern half of South Berubari Union No 12 and the adjacent enclaves, measuring an area of 2.64 square miles approximately, and in exchange Bangladesh will retain the Dahagram and Angarpota enclaves. India will lease in perpetuity to Bangladesh an area of 178 meters X 85 meters near ‘Tin Bigha’ to connect Dahagram with Panbari Mouza (P.S. Patgram) of Bangladesh.”[2]

The Bangladesh government ratified it in the same year, but silence is all that India had to offer. Subsequently, with different political parties coming to power in the two countries with varying foreign policies, the complications further increased.

The latest was the Land Border Agreement (LBA) between Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh announced in 2011, an intended exchange of the enclaves, where the residents will be given an option to choose their nationality. It approved by the Parliamentary Committee and ratified in 2015, though the full integration of the enclave residents to their host countries is yet to be operationalized.

My lack of confidence about the sincere execution of LBA comes as much from this long history of negotiation as from the role the Bharatiya Janta Party, presently in power at the Centre, had in the Tin Bigha Corridor issue in 1992. The Tin Bigha Corridor was a 15,130 square meter land corridor made to link the Bangladeshi mainland with one of the Bangladeshi enclaves closest to the border – Dahagram Angarpota. The Indian government intended to lease this piece of land to Bangladesh in perpetuity for 999 years. The BJP actively resisted the formation of the corridor to allow the enclave residents access to Bangladeshi mainland and hence, to available resources as citizens, with the logic that it was tantamount to ceding sovereignty in those areas to Bangladesh. There was added tension by the visit of LK Advani in the region, who had declared that the citizens of India will be protected, even if violence was necessary. Scholars like Jason Cons have shown how BJP pamphlets related to the Tin Bigha corridor had equated the event with territory loss due to partition in 1947. With this history in mind, it seems not too likely that BJP will be too eager to take the LBA to completion.

However, one factor that has influenced the state position is the long movement for integration by the Indo-Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Committee for the last decade with the demand to assimilate them with the host country. At the ground level, this movement has been successful in organizing the residents and holding regular protests, demonstrations and politically making their voice heard. This has had a significant impact on the local politics of Cooch Behar district in particular and in Bengal at large. As a result, enclaves have come up repeatedly in the bilateral dialogues held in recent times. With the agreement being finally ratified in 2015, the enclave residents are finally hoping for complete integration soon.

This is an excellent example of how internal pressure groups created a conducive atmosphere for influencing state foreign policy. Despite being an extremely sensitive territory dispute between successive governments, its resolution is a promising. The hope that the two countries will be able to solve their other disputes in similar lines continues.


[1] https://www.mea.gov.in/Uploads/PublicationDocs/24529_LBA_MEA_Booklet_final.pdf

[2] https://www.mea.gov.in/Uploads/PublicationDocs/24529_LBA_MEA_Booklet_final.pdf

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