IDSA COMMENT

The India-Bangladesh Border: A New Beginning

October 10, 2011

The year 2011 marks a new beginning for India and Bangladesh, which signed a series of agreements to manage their common border. The March 2011 Agreement on the non-use of lethal weapons by the Border Security Force (BSF), the Coordinated Border management Plan signed in July 2011, and the Protocol to the Agreement concerning the Demarcation of Land Boundary signed in September 2011 are some such accords that are expected to transform the India-Bangladesh border from a border management nightmare to a zone of peace and prosperity. All these agreements are an outcome of a cooperative framework – the corner stone of India’s approach to managing its borders.

One of the most important initiatives undertaken as part of this framework was the setting up of bilateral institutional interactions to address and resolve various challenges along the borders. These interactions take place at the national, regional and local levels between ministers/officials of the concerned ministries as well as between officers of the border guarding forces at regular intervals. As far as the India-Bangladesh border is concerned, these interactions have been quite effective not only in sensitizing each country about the other’s perceived threats and challenges but also in providing a platform to discuss various measures for improving management practices. Several delicate and intractable issues, which had been a source of tension between India and Bangladesh, are in the process of being solved through this cooperative framework.

One recurrent issue had been the BSF personnel’s firing upon, and the resultant deaths of, Bangladeshi citizens transgressing the border. While the Bangladeshi side used to argue that BSF personnel were killing innocent people, the BSF would assert that its personnel were firing at smugglers and hostile illegal migrants. After much discussion and deliberation, a common ground was found in the form of the BSF agreeing to use non-lethal weapons to warn potential illegal migrants or smugglers twice before resorting to the use of firearms. To be at first implemented on an experimental basis, an agreement to this effect was signed between the border guarding forces of India and Bangladesh in March 2011. The implementation of this agreement has reduced the number of people killed along the border. According to the BSF, so far this year only seven people have been killed in such firing in contrast to the 55 deaths in 2009.

Another significant outcome of the cooperative framework was the signing of the Coordinated Border Management Plan on July 30, 2011. The aim of this plan is to “enhance quality of border management as well as ensure cross-border security” by addressing challenges to the peace and sanctity of the border posed by human and drug trafficking, gun running and cross border crimes. Under the Plan, India and Bangladesh have agreed to conduct joint coordinated patrols in areas susceptible to trafficking and other crimes based on shared intelligence inputs. Such joint coordinated patrols by the border guarding forces of the two countries have already started in select areas along predetermined routes and these have resulted in improved coordination between them.

Rampant smuggling along the border is yet another border management challenge which both countries are seeking to curb by agreeing to reopen border haats (marketplaces). Before 1972, border haats used to help people residing on either side of the border to trade their surplus produce in return for essential items. But these haats were shut down during Bangladesh’s war of liberation, which not only led to economic hardship for the people but also fuelled widespread smuggling across the border. Realising the need for border haats, India and Bangladesh decided to re-open two such haats as part of a pilot project. The first of these opened at Kalaichar-Baliamari (West Garo Hills-Kurigram) on July 23, 2011. It will be held once a week every Wednesday from 10 am to 4 pm. It is expected that trade in this haat alone will total US$ 20 million a year. A second border haat will be opened at Ballat-Lauwaghar. If the project proves successful, more such haats will be opened.

The most significant of the challenges, namely, the border dispute comprising 6.1 km of an undemarcated stretch, enclaves and adverse possessions, has also been resolved through consultations. India and Bangladesh had established two Joint Boundary Working Groups I & II in 2001 in order to discuss the issue of undermarcated areas and enclaves and adverse possessions, respectively. These Groups met four times over ten years and came up with a mechanism to resolve the dispute, culminating in the Protocol to the Agreement concerning the Demarcation of Land Boundary between India and Bangladesh on September 6, 2011.

Though the intent to resolve all outstanding border disputes as well as to deal with various challenges to border management through consultations and deliberations have been common to both countries, intermittent strains in the relationship and political uncertainties in Bangladesh had earlier precluded a resolution. However, with the change in the political dispensation in Bangladesh, first with the installation of the caretaker government and later with the return to power of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government, bilateral relations returned to an even keel and created a conducive atmosphere for resolving outstanding border disputes as well as for formulating cooperative border management practices.

The new initiatives taken by India and Bangladesh have ushered a new beginning in the bilateral relationship as well as in the management of their common border. Yet, these are only baby steps and a lot still needs to be done. The success of the initiatives and projects undertaken so far will depend entirely on the manner in which they are implemented on the ground because it is here that the real test of any project or plan lies. For instance, the initiative to use only non-lethal weapons will reduce killings but only if it is implemented strictly and at the same time the BSF personnel are trained to judge an adverse move and react professionally. Similarly, joint coordinated patrols can be effectively sustained only if intelligence sharing between the two border guarding forces are institutionalized; after all, shared intelligence is the core of such patrols. Similarly, the border haat project must be implemented properly and their numbers and scope widened so that corruption in issuing licenses to traders could be minimized and as large a number of people as possible benefit from these haats.

Last but not least, the agreement on the demarcation of the land boundary has generated protests in Assam against the alleged surrender of territory to Bangladesh. Much would therefore depend on how successfully the Indian government implements this agreement. In addition, growing trade and commerce between India and Bangladesh would inevitably result in the large scale circulation of goods and people across the border, which would demand a border that is soft yet properly regulated as well as backed by sound infrastructure. India and Bangladesh need to cooperate to create a border that not only enhances trade efficiency but is also secure.