Take moral high ground, not territory

In this photograph taken on July 30, 2015, twenty-eight year old Mohammad Moinul (R) signs papers cancelling his application to migrate to India in Debiganj in the Bangladeshi district of Panchagarh. Bangladesh and India prepared July 31, 2015, to swap tiny islands of land, ending one of the world's most intractable border disputes that has kept thousands of people in stateless limbo for nearly 70 years.

What's remarkable about the historic land swop deal between India and Bangladesh is the sensible, civilised way in which the whole matter progressed and ended. This took place against the backdrop of a long-running complication involving parcels of land owned inside each other's territory. With the Land Boundary Agreement coming into force on Aug 1, a seven-decade-long issue involving 50,000 people has been laid to rest - with the switching of sovereignty over 111 enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 in India.

Territorial disputants generally tend to cite history to support claims. In this case, the origins of the tangle aren't too clear. Capricious local rulers in the 18th century could have traded the lands while gambling, while some blame the departing British colonialists - Bangladesh was carved out of the former eastern half of Pakistan, which itself was cleaved from the sub-continent in the Partition of India. With the agreement taking effect, the world's only third-order enclave - the Indian land parcel called Dahala Khagrabari was surrounded by a Bangladeshi enclave encased in an Indian one - has ceased to exist. Residents get to choose whether to stay and get new nationalities or uproot and settle elsewhere.

For Indians, the settlement marks a policy milestone as its relations with neighbours have frequently been hostage to narrow political interests and one-upmanship in domestic politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and its senior leaders had been trenchant critics of the land deal when it was agreed in 2011 by former PM Manmohan Singh. In office, Mr Modi wisely reversed that stand and declared the deal to be in India's interest. Aside from the benefits of removing an enduring irritant, New Delhi owes much to Dhaka for curbing anti-India insurgent groups inside Bangladesh.

Also noteworthy is Mr Modi's swift acceptance of a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on a maritime dispute with Bangladesh, even though the award was generally deemed more favourable to Dhaka. The previous year, it had similarly accepted another arbitration ruling from The Hague, this time on river waters shared with Pakistan. Recently, there are also signs that the Modi hard line on Pakistan, always a thorny neighbour, is undergoing a welcome modification.

All these send positive signals across the world. South-east Asian nations, several of whom are vexed by maritime disputes with China and the mainland's hardline behaviour, would hold up Mr Modi's approach as a beacon of how big powers ought to behave - especially with regard to the rule of law. As India builds up its military muscle, such statesmanship will help to tamp down expected insecurities about its rise. Hard power can instil fear but respect comes when you seize not territory but the moral high ground.


This article was first published on Aug 11, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.