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Aug 20, 2013 | 10:26 GMT

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India: Border Disputes, Local Politics and Relations with Bangladesh

India: Border Disputes, Local Politics and Relations with Bangladesh
(PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

The decision by the Trinamool Congress in India's West Bengal state to block a parliamentary discussion on settling India's long-standing border dispute with Bangladesh is again bringing the country's local-versus-national political competition to the fore. Weeks after the ruling United Progressive Alliance decision to support Telanganan statehood, West Bengal's chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has again clashed with the central government, refusing to cede any of West Bengal's territory to rival Bangladesh even as the Darjeeling Hills region of her constituency renews its calls for statehood. Rather than taking its place within the often-contentious space of Indian political theater, the Aug. 19 move to table the still unratified border treaty with Bangladesh could have larger ramifications for India's foreign policy and position in the region.

India's border with Bangladesh was originally agreed upon in 1974 following the latter's independence from Pakistan in 1971. While New Delhi supported Bangladesh's Awami League and East Pakistan's bid for independence, some border disputes have lingered. Since independence, the 2,429-mile border has presented some opportunities for Indo-Bangladeshi cooperation but, more frequently, conflict and tensions. Bangladesh has to contend with the risks of being almost completely surrounded by its larger neighbor. Dhaka's own contentious domestic political history has seen fluctuating relations with New Delhi, since the ruling Awami League favors closer relations with India, and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party historically has preferred a better working relationship with Pakistan.

In particular, the presence of Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves on either side of the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh has presented security and political obstacles to relations between the two nations. Drug and weapons smuggling, the cross-border transit of militants and large influxes of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into India are chief among India's concerns. The marshy, relatively flat geography of the region also makes clear border demarcations difficult. This led to a minor border skirmish between New Delhi and Dhaka in 2001, when both were ruled by center-right nationalist parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Dhaka.

Map - Bangladesh

Since India's current center-left United Progressive Alliance government was re-elected in 2010, followed by the Awami League's landslide victory in the same year, relations between the two South Asian countries have improved gradually. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even signed a preliminary border agreement over the disputed Tin Bigha Corridor in 2011. It is this border treaty that the Indian government is hoping to pass in the current monsoon session of parliament despite rising opposition from the Trinamool Congress and the Assamese Asom Gana Parishad parties in West Bengal.

Impeded Efforts

Hasina's landslide victory was seen as a boost for New Delhi's regional ambitions. Singh's government began a steady outreach campaign to Dhaka, hoping for cooperation on a number of issues. Surrounded by India on three sides, Bangladesh largely separates the Indian mainland from its Northeastern states, with the two connected only by the narrow Siliguri Corridor. Along with India's northeastern provinces and with northwestern Myanmar, Bangladesh forms a wider region rife with conflicting sectarian and local identities controlled only loosely by the government. New Delhi has struggled to prevent militants from moving across these borders and from using parts of Bangladesh as a base of operations to launch attacks against India, and traditionally poor relations with Dhaka have only further impeded these efforts.

The government in Dhaka has increased its monitoring and the number of arrests of regional Islamist militant groups, and it even signed a new extradition treaty with India on Jan. 28 that established legal channels to extradite militants across their border, although political concerns have obstructed the treaty's ratification. India has also struggled to rein in the political aspirations of its local chapters of Islamist organizations, including Jamaat-e-Islami and related militant groups such as Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, and likely welcomed the Bangladesh Supreme Court's decision to ban Jamaat-e-Islami. But the United Progressive Alliance's own domestic political constraints have prevented it from reaching an accord on either water-sharing agreements on the Teesta River or long-standing border disputes with Dhaka, leading many in Bangladesh to criticize Hasina for being too accommodating of Indian interests without gaining anything for Bangladesh in return.

New Delhi does not want to see the center-right and Islamist-aligned Bangladesh Nationalist Party return to power; its more strongly nationalist policies and reliance on Islamist votes is not amenable to Indian policies in the region. But despite New Delhi's outward support for Hasina and the Awami League, there is very little India can do to affect domestic Bangladeshi politics or stability. Bangladesh's internal workings have proved resilient to Indian influence and political machinations since Bangladesh gained independence. Moreover, political considerations restrain New Delhi from conceding to Bangladesh's territorial and water demands, leaving Singh's government with few options to bolster the Awami League's faltering political position outside of rhetorical support ahead of India's upcoming 2014 national elections. The utility of this backing is quickly coming into question.

Challenging India's Ambitions

Hasina's embattled Awami League strongly needs a foreign policy victory to offset the rising support for the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and India's United Progressive Alliance is eager to help its Bangladeshi partner. However, India's domestic political challenges are significant barriers to this border agreement and to India's broader regional ambitions as well. India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has hinted that it might be willing to support the border treaty during the current monsoon session, underscoring the fact that an Awami League government in Bangladesh — less sympathetic to Pakistan and regional Islamists — is on the whole a better partner for India's regional strategic imperatives. 

But as the 2014 national elections draw closer, the chance to garner critical local support in West Bengal seems to have overtaken long-term strategic planning, with the Bharatiya Janata Party supporting the Trinamool Congress' attempts to stall the ratification of the border treaty. The United Progressive Alliance government is likely to continue pushing ahead during the rest of the monsoon season, but with serious risks to its own standings after the 2014 polls. The United Progressive Alliance could end up boosting the Awami League yet helping the center-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party come to power. This highlights a frequent challenge to India's ambitions: a relatively weak central government in constant competition with local politics, even in the realm of foreign relations.

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