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For the Love of No Man's Land

Sushma Swaraj’s debate on Land Boundary Bill enhances New Delhi-Dhaka relations

Published: 10th May 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th May 2015 10:47 AM   |  A+A-

Sushma Swaraj1

NEW DELHI: Just as Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj got up to speak in Rajya Sabha, an independent MP from Odisha pleaded for “two minutes”. A stickler for rules, the deputy chairman resisted, but Swaraj—who earned laurels for her piloting of the bill—sat down. Then the Rajya Sabha echoed to ‘amader (our) Bangladesh’, sung in a broken teary voice by 85-year-old A V Swamy.

Sushma Swaraj.jpgAs observers hailed the passage of the much-delayed Land Boundary Bill, it was the unprecedented emotional content of the debate that may be the main turning point in recent India-Bangladesh ties. “Everybody expected the Bill to be passed with two-third majority, but this unanimity in approach, and more importantly, the rhetoric is what will people notice back in Bangladesh,” said a senior diplomat, who has worked on India-Bangladesh ties.

Swaraj, who credited the opposition and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the landmark bill, was the star of the week.

Bangladeshi diplomats in the visitor’s galleries in both the Houses were jubiliant.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech before the Nepal constituent Assembly was hailed as a game changer, six hours of debate in Parliament and the passage of the Bill without a single negative vote, may prove to be no less important.

Tariq Ahmad Karim, former Bangladesh high commissioner to India and one of the principal architects of the agreement, watched the live debate from the Rajya Sabha. “I tried to see as much as I could. Truth to be told, I became rather emotional. This is a game changer,” he told The Sunday Standard.

Karim, who is now a World Bank advisor, said that recordings of the debate should be shown again and again on television in India and Bangladesh, for their true impact. “Not just on TV, they need to be shown in classrooms, so that they can analyse it,” he said. “It will show how the opposition can make noise inside Indian parliament despite less numbers and the government has to actually factor that in.”  The Indian High Commission in Dhaka must have had the same thought. On its website, it lists links to 22 YouTube videos to the debate in Rajya Sabha.

Rajeet Mitter, Karim’s counterpart in Dhaka at the time of the signing the Land Boundary Agreement in 2011, also kept a close watch on the debate. “It was a matter of personal satisfaction,” he said. “The debate reflected the acknowledgment of how much progress has taken place in India-Bangladesh ties in last few years and how supportive the Sheikh Hasina government has been to India’s interests,” he told The Sunday Standard.

Sushma Swaraj2.JPGThe parliamentary debate also comes as a shot in the arm for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with Dhaka going through a political crisis as opposition BNP, and their ally, take to the streets through strikes and rallies.

Recently, a sliver of hope that BNP would come back to electoral politics after the boycott of parliamentary polls in January 2014 also came to naught, after the withdrawal of their candidate just before polls opened.

As Hasina’s popularity dipped, there were more questions raised about her strategies, especially her alignment with India.

“India not delivering its promises was seen as a factor in the loss of her popularity,” said Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a Bangladesh expert in Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. Major General Abdur Rashid, head of Bangladeshi think-tank Institute of Conflict, Law & Development Studies, noted that Bangladeshi politics had two important strains of “political Islam” and “anti-India”, which are used against the ruling regime in Dhaka.

Maj General Rashid said from Dhaka, “Even the opposition BNP had for the first time come out in support of Indian Parliament approval for the Bill. This has perhaps happened for the first time.”

Controversy

■ Trinamool Congress and Asom Gono Parishad were against the Bill during UPA regime, claiming it would lose territory. BJP had also opposed it during UPA regime due to opposition from the Assam state unit.

■ West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee came around after intensive courting by Sushma Swaraj, who promised to honour the package demanded by the state for rehabilitation of new Indian citizens.

Benefit

■ Ending statelessness for thousands of denizens of 201 enclaves who were neither Indian or Bangladeshi citizens for last 60 years.

■ Border demarcation will lead to better border management

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