NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has inched closer to settling a long-simmering border dispute with Bangladesh, possibly signaling a softer line from nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi than when he was in opposition.
On Monday, a parliamentary committee urged the government to table a constitutional amendment that would pave the way for a land swap deal that Bangladesh and India have been negotiating for years. That followed a speech by Modi at the weekend that suggested a solution was in the offing.
In addition to Bangladesh, India has intractable territorial disputes with Pakistan and China. Modi called off peace talks with Pakistan in August but last week appointed a special envoy to China, a move that will allow border negotiations to resume.
A deal with Bangladesh would end decades of uncertainty for tens of thousands of citizens living in enclaves on the “wrong” side of their homeland’s border.
Dozens of enclaves exist on either side of the border, a historical oddity left after British India’s partition in 1947.
The proposed solution would enable each side to acquire the enclaves within its borders, along with other disputed territories. On paper, the exchange appears to leave India with about 10,000 acres less territory and affects the more than 50,000 people living in the enclaves, as of a July 2011 headcount.
People living in the enclaves would have the right to move to live in their original country of nationality or to become nationals of their ‘new’ country after the exchange. Most are expected to stay put, according the Indian government.
Neither country would lose any territory they currently control, said Shashi Tharoor, head of the parliamentary committee and a minister in the last government.
“It is merely regularizing the existing reality in a way that permits both countries to extend normal public services to the residents of these areas,” he told Reuters.
Despite the BJP’s past objections, Modi seemed to back such a deal on Sunday during a speech in Assam, one of the Indian states that would be affected.
“Whatever we do, there might be a perception of a short-term loss, but ultimately Assam will gain,” said Modi, who discussed the border with his Bangladeshi counterpart last week.
Modi said the deal could help curb illegal immigration from Bangladesh, a hot political issue in border areas. Bangladesh’s foreign secretary declined to comment on the proposed deal.
Enclave dwellers in India welcomed the prospect of a deal.
“I will finally have the chance to obtain an identity,” said Jamal Hussain, a 20-year-old farm worker who lives in Masaldanya enclave nestled within West Bengal.
Not everyone was happy.
“The land of Assam that is supposed to be handed over belongs to Assam,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, an advisor to the influential All Assam Students’ Union. “[The BJP] are taking a U-turn today. How can that be?”
But as the Modi government looks to tackle bigger regional problems, resolving the border dispute with Bangladesh would be a solid start, some say.
“They have to sort out some of the issues that are low-hanging fruit,” said Anand Kumar, of the New Delhi-based think-tank the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
Reporting by Krista Mahr and Tanya Ashreena in New Delhi and Serajul Quadir in Dhaka; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Robin Pomeroy