In Guwahati, new hope for India-Bangla ties

Last Updated: Mon, Dec 03, 2012 04:25 hrs

The sun sets over the Brahmaputra in Guwahati as it has over centuries, the boats sail placidly along and people living on banks carry on their trade in small goods or big business just as they did the day before.

Some things are different though over this weekend, the highlight of which has been the visit of a group of members of Parliament from Bangladesh. They have met a variety of stakeholders, including chief minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi, the local business community, representatives from Assam's intellectual class and the press.

Guwahati is an easy-going Tier-II town, as most towns of its ilk spread across the country, but as the news of the visit of the Bangladeshi parliamentary delegation spread, its small, unassuming press club was inundated with journalists. On Sunday morning, the Eastern Chronicle screamed the following headline and other newspapers adapted variants : "Illegal immigrants in Assam? Bangladesh not aware."

In a state that has been roiling with agitations against "foreigners", code-word for illegal Bangladeshi and other immigrants for some decades now, you could look at the statements by the visiting Bangladeshis in two ways: The first, a denial of the problem that Assam has borne the brunt of in recent years, and the second, for both sides to admit that these refugees are primarily motivated by economic considerations - just like the thousands of Indians who illegally move to the US and Europe - in the hope that a better life awaits them across the porous border into India.

The big question is how poor countries with large populations can hold their people inside their sovereign borders, especially when threat hasn't worked and political promises have remained largely unfulfilled. Stories of how homes on the 4,096 km-long India-Bangladesh border have bedrooms on one side of the border and kitchens on the other side speak of the continuing apathy with which successive governments in both countries have refused to breathe sense into the circa 1947 Radcliffe Line.

But it seems the problem is more unique than plain indifference. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina signed the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) during Singh's visit to Dhaka last year, and finally it seems Delhi will move to introduce its ratification in this session of Parliament. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid is believed to have already initiated discussions with the Left parties and is expected to also consult the other major political parties to get their points of view. This exercise is essential because the ratification needs an amendment to the Constitution, which needs a two-thirds majority, and the government doesn't have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha.

The ratification of the LBA will pave the way for a hundred acres or so of land to be acceded to Bangladesh, along with the exchange of 111 enclaves and the adjustment of adverse possessions. Once this happens, the last 6.5 km of the border, pending since 1947, will be demarcated. It is believed the Bangladeshi parliamentary delegation also heard assurances to this effect, which is expected to help Hasina's Awami League government push their report card when it goes to the polls a year from now. Truth is, the new boundary will only streamline the map, not stop illegal migration.

For that - governments in Delhi and Dhaka, and much more importantly, governments in Guwahati, Agartala, Kolkata and Dhaka - have to sit together and think up creative solutions.

They will need all the help from local business and industry to transform this decades-old problem.

How about turning the problem on its head? If all sides can agree that porous borders are actually an aid, rather than an obstacle, to the development of their peoples, then the natural concomitant is to open up these borders to sub-regional trade in goods as well as transit trade, and fees for the transit country, between the provinces of India's North-East and Bangladesh.

If Dhaka can open up transit for Indian goods and people seeking to move from one corner of the north-east to the other, India would reciprocate by letting in Bangladeshis on valid work visas into its neighbouring north-eastern states.

Remember that Assam is really a country, not only because of its astonishing diversity but also because of its size and amazing richness of raw material.

Just like the Line of Control between the two Kashmirs is slowly opening up to greater trade and connectivity between Kashmiris from India and Pakistan, a porous border between India's north-eastern states - especially Assam and Tripura - and Bangladesh would go a long way in resolving the tinderbox of problems this region is currently sitting on.

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