World’s most complex land border?

A better template for Jewish enclaves in a Palestinian state can be found in India-Bangladesh

British colonialism, a partition plan in 1947 along religious lines to create two separate countries, an unclear border which created territorial enclaves within the territory of the other state, a governmental initiative for families to swap homes located in enclaves on the opposite side of the border, treaties, international mediation and a proposal for land swaps while giving the residents a choice of nationality.

Sounds familiar? Ring any bells?

These are some of the characteristics of a border dispute between India and Bangladesh (formerly between India and Pakistan) which is perhaps the most complex land border in the world. Last week, the Israeli press reported that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has tasked his cabinet secretary with researching the highly complicated Belgian-Dutch border arrangement, perhaps as a possible model for Jewish settlements in a Palestinian state. I would argue that the complicated set of Bangladeshi enclaves in India and Indian enclaves in Bangladesh could be, at least in some aspects, a better case study than the sleepy region of Baarle-Hertog /Baarle-Nassau which is divided between two European countries.

Before anyone begins his/her research, here are the basics:

An enclave is a part of the territory of a state that is enclosed within the territory of another state. If a territory is connected to the rest of the country by a single point (bridge, single road, railway, etc), it will be considered an enclave as well. The main difficulty is obtaining right of passage by the State whose territory surrounds the enclave. According to Prof. Moshe Hirsch from the Hebrew University, the right of a specific passage is often regulated by a special agreement, otherwise the rules of customary international law apply – only private citizens, officials and in some cases  armed police have the right of passage to an enclave. However, there is no right of passage for military forces or passage through the airspace of the country that surrounds the enclave.

The Indo-Bangladeshi enclave complex is conventionally called the ‘Cooch Behar’. The complex exists on both sides of the northern part of the Indian-Bangladeshi border, but is named only after the Indian half of the area.

The enclaves came into existence in 1947 with the partition of British India. A decision was made to divide the British colonial land along religious lines –the eastern half of Bengal made up predominantly of Muslims became the East Bengal state of Pakistan and the predominantly Hindu western part of Bengal became the Indian state of West Bengal. This new international border was hardly a straight line; it was marked in an irregular zigzag pattern, which left hundreds of enclaves – Pakistani territories surrounded by India and Indian territories surrounded by Pakistan.

The exact location of the new border between Pakistan and India became a point of friction and despite a few treaties and international mediation some important parts of the border are still contested. The enclaves were situated in this largely sensitive borderland, but neither India nor Pakistan dared to annex the enclaves of the other side, and the status quo remained even during the wars in 1948, 1965, and 1971. The countries tried to resolve it through a system in which Hindus whose land was in East Pakistan and Muslims whose land was in the Indian state of West Bengal could swap the land by moving into each other’s houses on the opposite side of the border. It is worth mentioning that this system was quite successful and continued until war broke in 1965.

In 1971, a war ensued between the east and the west parts of Pakistan, which resulted in the creation of an independent East Pakistan, known as Bangladesh. Nowadays, there are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh with a population of 15,000, and spread over 17 km² (similar to the size of the city Ariel and local council Efrata combined, for example).

Bangladesh has 51 enclaves in India, totaling approximately 7 km² with a population of 37,000. Most of the Indian and Bangladeshi enclaves are small and located several kilometers from the border in their host country. Since the creation of those enclaves, there has been complete loss of contact with their home country with one exception; the Tin Bigha corridor between the large Bangladeshi enclave of Dahagram/Angarpota and the mainland of Bangladesh. This small corridor also connects an Indian village to mainland of India and therefore in 1992, the governments reached an agreement to allow India to retain sovereignty over the corridor whilst granting Bangladesh the right to rent access to it in perpetuity.

Map of the Indo-Bangladeshi enclaves (photo credit: The Telegraph - Calcutta)
The Indo-Bangldeshi enclave complex (photo credit: The Telegraph – Calcutta)

The home countries have been making formal claims of sovereignty over their enclaves, but as mentioned above, there is no actual contact and therefore the enclaves have become stateless spaces that have not been integrated into the modern political system of India or Bangladesh. The home countries have not been able to maintain control over the enclaves or provide basic services, such as health, education or sanitation.

In 1974, New Delhi and Dhaka signed a comprehensive treaty, known as the Indira-Mujib agreement, in which the parties resolved to exchange enclaves “expeditiously” and hence give citizenship rights to the stateless residents of the enclaves. India also agreed not to claim compensation for an additional area being assigned to Bangladesh. Although ratified by Bangladesh, India dragged its feet due to the rocky relationship between the two countries. In 2011, a protocol was signed to provide a final settlement for the India-Bangladesh boundary, but New Delhi has not ratified the protocol as well, which has created resentment in Dhaka. Some say India has not ratified the agreement because of its resistance to cede territory which will disrupt the true nature of the Hindu homeland in India, as described by early Indian nationalists – a sentiment amplified by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Tonight, Jews will celebrate the holiday Purim and read the biblical book of Esther about King Ahasuerus, whose empire stretched from India to Ethiopia. Maybe after Purim, it is time to take a closer look at India and its border dispute with Bangladesh and see if we can learn a thing or two.

About the Author
Ohad Shpak, is an Israeli lawyer who specializes in real estate and civil litigation. He is one of the founders of Israel's Democracy Guard, an NGO dedicated to strengthen the fundamental values of the Israeli democracy as a Jewish and democratic state, fighting political corruption, and protecting human rights. In addition to his legal experience and practice, Mr. Shpak currently advises corporations and private clients on issues related to the Middle East - foreign and security policy as well as regulatory and business affairs. Ohad is fluent in Hebrew, English and Farsi.