The boundaries of nation-states are often lines arbitrarily drawn by rulers or victors in wars. The resulting anomalies can linger for decades unless governments make a serious effort to remove them. The enclaves on the India-Bangladesh border are a legacy of the last days of the British raj in India. But the fact that the two countries could never agree on an exchange of the enclaves indicates a lack of political will. There are hopeful signs that both New Delhi and Dhaka want to settle the issue at last. Both sides have always known that an exchange of the enclaves makes no great difference to their territorial profiles. It has also been an open secret that the laws of neither country apply to the residents of the enclaves. In fact, the enclaves have remained lawless lands, where the inhabitants live at the mercy of criminal gangs. These also offer shelters to offenders from other areas in both countries. Living literally on the edge makes ordinary residents of the enclaves too far removed from mainstream social and political activities. For both political and administrative institutions, they remain marginal people whose existence is barely recognized.
However, the shadow of the enclaves frequently falls on bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh. These are a large part of the border dispute between the two countries. The fact that the two sides now are keen to settle the issue reflects recent improvements in India-Bangladesh relations. Many of the irritants in these ties, such as barbed wire fencing and illegal migration across the border, could be removed if the boundary disputes are resolved. Governments in both New Delhi and Dhaka owe it to the people of the enclaves to treat them as normal citizens having their constitutional and legal rights. True, the exchange of the enclaves will require New Delhi to pass an amendment to the Constitution. But, if the issue had not been settled in all these decades, it was not because of any legal obstacle. There never was enough political will in either country to think seriously about the people living precariously in the enclaves. When the two countries exchange the final ‘strip maps’ of the enclaves in Dhaka later this month, they will move one step closer to fulfilling a very old promise. It may also strengthen India-Bangladesh ties as never before. Both sides should be careful to ensure that the opportunity is not lost.