NEW DELHI – This month, India’s parliament took the first step toward a potentially momentous decision: to settle a boundary dispute with Bangladesh that dates back to the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. An agreement in this area would provide a major boost to the already warm bilateral relationship, not least by bolstering Bangladesh’s position in the region.
The demarcation of the India-Pakistan border by the British was a slapdash affair, concocted by a collapsing empire in headlong retreat from its responsibilities. The border itself was hastily drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer who had never visited India before receiving the assignment, and caused numerous practical problems.
In the eastern part of Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971, Radcliffe’s frontier created two sets of anomalies. In some cases, one country refused to relinquish territory to the other, resulting in so-called “adverse possessions”; in others, Radcliffe left small areas of one country completely surrounded by the other’s territory.
With 111 Indian enclaves spread over 17,000 acres in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves spread over 7,110 acres in India, a settlement would involve a net transfer of some 40 square kilometers (15.4 square miles) of territory from India to its eastern neighbor. That is not a huge area. Yet it has taken nearly seven decades to make real progress toward resolving the anomalies.