Adverse Possessions Cause India-Bangladesh Boundary Disputes

Sir Cyril Radcliff, the English gentleman, who headed the boundary commission during the partition of India in 1947, drew a straight line on a topographic map. As a result of this, hills, rivers, forests, human habitations, agricultural-fields, etcetera of India and Pakistan were tragically divided. It had a vast effect in the Eastern Indian region. That is, especially on the India-Bangladesh International Border, also known as the India Bangladesh International Boundary (IBIB).

Earlier, Bangladesh was a part of East Bengal, known locally as – Purbo Bango or Purbo Bangla, which was later renamed East Pakistan, locally called – Purbo Pakistan [of West Pakistan, known as – Poshchim Pakistan] of the present Pakistan State, and then Bangladesh after 16th December, 1971. Neither India nor Bangladesh have done enough to get rid of the ‘ghost of Radcliff’.

BSF and BGB frontier security soldiers
Soldiers of the international frontier security forces BSF and BGB are seen during patrol at the India-Bangladesh International Border at Dalu village of West Garo Hills district of the eastern Indian State, Meghalaya on 12th July, 2008.

It is a fact that the international boundary demarcation in the Indian Subcontinent cuts across communities and tribes. The three major river systems, the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, by cutting across the boundary-lines of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have further exacerbated the tension between them resulting from disputes over the share of water. This particular international border touches five Indian states – Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and West Bengal.

Apart from that, there are a number of disputes and problems on the India Bangladesh International Border (IBIB), which still exist. These have occurred mainly due to the very nature of alignment of the international boundary, a thickly populated area, close to the zero-line of the international border, non-demarcation of a portion of the international boundary (of about 5,974-kilometres), non ratification of the international boundary and phenomena such as ‘Adverse Possession’, ‘Changing of the Course of River’, ‘Char (that is, River Island) land’ and ‘Enclaves.’

One very interesting fact is that there are also some places on the Indo-Bangla International Boundary, whose occupants are Bangladeshi but are usually governed by the Government of India and vice-versa. A unique example of this is ‘Pyrdiwah’ (locally known as, Padua, under East Khashi Hills district of Meghalaya State in Eastern India). Pyrdiwah is an ‘adverse possession of India in Bangladesh’, while on the other hand, ‘Boraibari’ is an ‘adverse-possession of Bangladesh in India’. Both hamlets are being positioned on Indo-Bangla international border.

In the context IBIB, officials of the one of the elite forces of India, Border Security Force of India (BSFI) revealed, “There are various places along the demarcated India-Bangladesh International Border (which is called De-jure border), where the territory falls on the Indian part (which is actually the part of India) but under the occupation of Bangladesh and vice-versa. De-facto border does not coincide with the De-jure boundary. The places have fallen between De-jure and De-facto border is called adverse possessions (see sketch).

radcliff line
Sir Cyril Radcliff’s line partitioning India and Bangladesh that has caused many problems

As stated by Article 02, 03 and 05 of the India-Bangladesh International (demarcation of) Land Boundary Pact-1974, ‘the lands held by adversely will have to be changed after the above noted pact (that is, international boundary agreement) has not only been okayed and signed (that is, admissible for both the above nations) but also aforesaid international border strip maps are drawn or made properly’.

Repetition of the condition, because, there have been several examples, where the peoples of Bangladesh and the frontier guard – Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB), which was earlier known as Bangladesh Defence Rifles or Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) also have attempted to take control by force of adverse possessions, which are held by India. But, it is a fact that on the other hand, in consent of the international border pact between the above two nations, we haven’t meddled with our land held adversely by Bangladesh.”

“It is a fact that the most important, critical and confusing problem of the Indo-Bangla international boundary was the presence of adverse possessions. The plots of land that lie in the international border have been cultivating by the peoples, who have been dwelling there since pre-independence. Therefore, it is very difficult to acquire those stretches of land and build International Barbed Wire Border Fence (IBWBF) and International Border Road (IBR) to prevent incessant illegal influx, smuggling, religious fundamental activities, anti-Indian activities and insurgency. These things are visible in many places of Assam, West-Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya States of India. But, in these connections, Bangladesh Government referred the ‘accord of 1975’ to maintain status quo on adverse possessions and these small gaps, where IBWBF and IBR are unable to build due to insufficient ‘land’ (which is less than 150-yards or 137-metres),” according to one of the officials of the Indian National Building Construction Corporation Limited (NBCCL), which is engaged to make the IBWBF and IBR in IBIB, in the Karimganj district of Indian State, Assam.

Supporting the fact, another organization – Indian National Project Construction Corporation Limited (NPCCL), which is also involved in construction of the IBWBF and IBR in IBIB, pointed out, “Therefore, erecting IBWBF and building IBR along the international border areas are difficult problems. It could not be possible to make the IBWBF either depriving the Indian peoples of their respective lands or extricating the Bangladeshi nationals from the illegally occupied Indian lands, which is under adverse possessions of Bangladesh. If it happens, then it can create nothing but a bloody tussle.”

However, in this matter, BSFI officials further stated, “We will carry out our duties overcoming all the problems. So, that our (that is, Indian) farmers could be allowed to do their duties in their respective plots of land, that is, passages in adverse possessions (at their own risk) through manned International Border Gates (IBGs).”

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Unfortunately, the matter is not as simple, easy and clear, as it seems to be. Sentiment of the inhabitants is also a factor to be reckoned with here. The peoples residing on the international border (Khashi Tribe people in Meghalaya State, Assamese people in Assam State and Bengali people in West Bengal and Tripura States) desire to maintain their traditional life as they did in the past.

“When the total length of the international border was measured all together, at that time the total amount of adversely held areas by Bangladesh and India was approximately 3,017.16 acres and 2,587.25 acres respectively (A list of Adverse Possessions of both countries are given below in Table-I & Table-II). About 52 pieces of land practically belong to Bangladesh but actually are in adverse possession of India, and about 49 pieces of land, that belong to India but are actually under the adverse possession of Bangladesh. These are small pieces of land, varying in size from 5 acres to 500 acres, created due to geographical, historical, political, social, cultural or other reasons, but remain in the possession of one country even through by physical demarcation they should be handed over to the other,” said experts.

Another group of socio-political observers stated, “India seized 47 tracts of Bangladeshi land in adverse possession, while Bangladesh grabbed 43 tracts of land, which belong to India. That means, around 2,749.15 acres of land is in the adverse possession of Bangladesh (in other words, enclaves surrounded by Bangladeshi territory), while India possesses around 02,922.25 acres of land that lie in the adverse-possession.”

“Except Adverse Possessions and 3 major disputed areas – (Dispute of Daikhata in Berubari Area under Indian State-West Bengal [opposite Nilphamari district of Bangladesh], Dispute of Lathitilla and Dumabaroi {which is locally called Dumabari} Area under Indian State-Assam [opposite Maulvibazar district of Bangladesh] and Dispute of Muhuri River under Indian State-Tripura [opposite Feni district of Bangladesh], with a total 5.974 kilometres out of) 4,096.70 kilometres international border between these two countries is clearly defined,” analysts said.

Earlier, India and Pakistan had already demarcated 3,000 kilometers out of 4,000 kilometers of international boundary in the east before 1971. But, after three years (in 1971), an agreement was reached between the then Prime Minister (PM) of India, Indira Gandhi and the then PM of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman in 1974 (which is popularly known as – Indira-Muijib Pact, 16th May, 1974). This 1974 accord between the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Government of the Republic of India concerned the demarcation of the international land boundary between Bangladesh and India and related matters.

Out of 4,096.70 kilometer international border area between the two nations, India and Bangladesh share 2,979.70 kilometres of International Land Border (ILB) and 1,116 kilometres of International Riverine Boundary (IRB), while both countries share around 54 rivers. Presently, the two countries finished demarcation of 4,096.70 kilometers international border area, except 5.974 kilometres (Indian State claimed) / 6.374-kilometres (Bangladesh State claimed), which were the chief spots during ‘Partition-1947’, ‘Indo-Pak War-1965’ as well as the ‘Liberation War-1971’ between above two states, India and Pakistan. Not only that, but these particular 5.974 kilometre stretches of ILB and IRB territories were used as a ‘corridor’ for imparting training to Mukti-Bahini (that is, Liberation Force) of Bangladesh (under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibar Rahman) to liberate their country – Bangladesh, during the ‘Freedom Movement of Bangladesh, 1971’.

After Bangladesh had liberated herself from the cruel clutches of Pakistan with the help of India (that is, the Indian Army) and the people of both the nations, India annulled a few pacts. These pacts were India-Pakistan Agreement – 10th September, 1958, Indo-Pak Treaty – 23rd October, 1959 and India-Pakistan Accord – 11th January, 1960, which revealed about the settlement on certain international boundary disputes between the Government of India and the Government of Pakistan relating to the boundaries of the Indian States – Assam, West Bengal, Tripura (which was earlier recognized as – Indian Union Territory) with former East Pakistan (which was part of present Pakistan, but, presently – Bangladesh) and Punjab with earlier West Pakistan (but presently – Pakistan). This intention for imperfect demarcation was short lived, because after independence, the Government of Bangladesh turned it down. The Government of India expressed that the desire for territorial exchange would be only fulfilled, when the entire international boundary will be properly demarcated.

Earlier in 1958, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then PM of India took the initiative to demarcate the boundary-line between India and Pakistan without retardation and so didn’t wait for the governmental process to be over in the eastern part of India. As a result, many important places or spots were not given proper attention at the time of making the list, which were termed as the places of “Adverse Possession.”

Pandit Nehru’s desire for demarcating the boundary at last came into force, when the Indian Parliament in 1960 passed the Indian Constitutional Amendment Bill with a two-thirds majority, which helped both India and Pakistan to finalise the international boundary in the ‘West’. In the ‘East’ also the same thing was going to be arranged with Pakistan, but unfortunately after the Pakistan lost the battle (War of Liberation, 1971) with India and the creation of a new state – Bangladesh under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibar Rahman. With the birth of this new state or country, Bangladesh on 16th December, 1971, the discussion for making permanent international boundary set forth in the year, 1972. The famous – Indo-Bangla Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation & Peace, 19th March, 1972, between the two countries was clearing the path for the resolution of all border disputes and exchanging of lands that fell in each others’ territory.

During the annual meetings of India’s frontier international border guard – BSFI, and the Bangladesh frontier international border force – BGB at the level of Director-general, the Bangladesh Government repeatedly raised this issue. India’s stand was that the BSFI was not competent to take any action, as it was basically a political decision or matter. For their part, the BGB had been insisting they had the mandate from their government to raise this issue with India. Article 4 of the Indo-Bangla (demarcation of land boundary) Accord, 1974, connected the two sides to maintain peace and tranquility on the international border and eschewed the use of force for making any changes at the said boundary.

Later, in December, 2000, foreign secretary-level talks held in the capital of India, New Delhi, took the decision to set up two new Joint Working Groups (JWGs).

The first working group was to demarcate the contentious 5.974 kilometre international borderline, which remains disputed and the second was to go into the question of exchange of territories in ‘adverse-possession’ and ‘enclave’ (locally called – Chhitmahal). Ideally, the Joint Working Groups were to be a multi-disciplinary task force comprising not only diplomats but also officials of the border security agencies, irrigation experts and people specialising in repatriation of disputed settlements. India had initially proposed this to Bangladesh in December, 1999, and the then Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh, Shafi Sami, came to India to discuss setting up of a JWG about the international border, and it was finalised in February, 2001.

The discussion of making a new map for the area in controversy was set about. It was to offer options to those Indians living on Bangladeshi soil, in Adverse Possessions and Enclaves, either to stay in Bangladesh or to return to India; being allowed to carry on their agriculture activities. Similar provisions were also given to Bangladeshis, living on Indian soil in Adverse Possessions and Enclaves.

Further, another option was to remake the Radcliff line, to resolve the adverse-possession areas. This would allow a give and take mutual agreement between the two states and perhaps, this was going to take place by 6th September, 2011 to 7th September, 2011 in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, during the visit of Indian PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Nevertheless, scholars claimed, “The chief cause of the displeasure between the two states regarding adverse-possession was in 1947, when Sir Cyril Radcliff, the British Engineer, was assigned the work of demarcating the boundary between the two new independent countries – India and Pakistan. The legacy of his quick injudicious task, is the clash between two states that until today leaves us paying a heavy price.”

Presently, the main agreement relating to the India-Bangladesh international border was the Indira-Muijib Pact, 16th May, 1974, between India and Bangladesh, concerning the demarcation of the international land boundary between Bangladesh and India and related matters. Article 2 of this pact envisaged that all the areas in adverse possession of each country would be measured and demarcated at the earliest.

Bangladesh ratified the Indira-Mujib agreement, 1974 in their Bangladesh Jatio Sangshad (National Parliament of Bangladesh), in 1975; but it is yet to be ratified by India in her parliament. The Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India was of the opinion that ‘the ratification by Bangladesh is conditional on the entire border being demarcated and India will only ratify the treaty when the process is completed’.

It is expected the areas in adverse possession and 5.974 kilometre ILB and IRB stretches would be finally exchanged after the ratification of the deals in the parliaments of both nations (In Bangladesh Jatio Sangshad and Indian Parliament). It is thought that a pact was signed between the two nations on 7th September, 2011 in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, by the two premiers – Sheikh Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh and Dr. Manmohan Singh of India.

Whatever other facts there may be, it is thought the true cause of delay in the work of demarcating the international boundary between India-Bangladesh, is the fear of losing “vote-banks” as well as the indifferent attitudes of the Congress-led Indian Government and nothing else.

“Actually, the India-Bangladesh International Border is a ‘peculiar’ one. It is also a fact that this particular international border has divided natural boundaries such as forests, hills, rivers, social, economical and cultural boundaries such as human habitations, agricultural fields and religious places, etcetera. It is an impossible task to seal the international border, because the territory has some kind of porosity that will always be there. There are some parts in the IBWBF that stand just on the international boundary, which can’t be fenced as the terrain is either riverine or has thick vegetation,” said the former Director General (DG) of Border Security Force of India (BSFI), Ashim Kumar Mitra at a press conference at New Delhi, the capital of India on 7th October, 2006.

Yet, the Government of India has given orders to the agencies like BSFI to go-ahead to erect the IBWBF within 150-yards of the zero line of places, where human habitation couldn’t exist or didn’t allow leaving the space for it. Later on, when the Indian Union Home Ministry had instituted scrutinisation on the works related to the creation of IBWBF that required leaving 150 yards (137 metres) of land from the actual zero-point, some unwanted situations or chaos or problems created by the IBV peoples of both sides. It led Indiana to lose vast ‘land’ areas in and around the entire India-Bangladesh international border. It was at this juncture; the Government of India took a decision and issued a directive that the IBWBF be constructed from the zero-point. But, Bangladesh said that they were unwilling to undertake any construction or erection within the 137 metres from the actual international boundary – zero-point.

Presently, almost the entire India and Bangladesh international border ‘demarcation’ has completed including the 5.974/6.374-kilometres, which falls in the area of Indian States – Assam, West Bengal and Tripura respectively. That is, 2.874-kilometre area in Assam as well as 1.5 kilometres in West Bengal and 1.6 kilometres in Tripura. Since 1947 and afterward (or 1971), out of 4,096.7 kilometres Indo-Bangla international boundary, these three most disputed patches (which comprises 5.974 kilometres), always created vulnerable situations, such as ‘conflict’ (most of the time) between the two neighbouring countries. These three vulnerable or most disputed areas were –

Firstly : Area of ‘Muhuri Char’ (River) in Belonia Sub-division of South Tripura district in Tripura State of India, which lies on Indo-Bangla international border. Here, the disputes persisted at least in a 1.6 kilometre area of this riverside, where Bangladesh insisted in keeping the river completely under their territory. For the villagers and fishermen the river-bed is important for their survival and so, it created a bone of contention for both sides. The Sir Cyril Radcliff Line, 1947 and the Indira-Mujib Pact, 16th May, 1974, said that the international border should be at the midpoint of the river.

Secondly : Area of International Border Villages (IBVs) – ‘Lathitilla’ and ‘Dumabaroi’ under Patharkandi Block in Karimganj district of Indian State, Assam that lies on the Indo-Bangla international boundary. Here, the disputes persisted at least in a 2.874 kilometre area. The villagers of these IBVs had been paying tax to Indian Assam State Government regularly out of coercion. The astonishing fact was that the original map or diagram (prepared during the British period) was reportedly missing and from that time onward, no permanent decision could be taken here. The Indian Government had been emphasizing repeatedly that the Government of Bangladesh must show the original one, likely to be kept in the archives of district headquarters at Sylhet, in Bangladesh.

Thirdly : Area of ‘Daikhata’ under Boda Police Station of Panchagarh district in Rajsahi Division of Bangladesh (opposite Coochbehar district of Indian State, West-Bengal) lies on the Indo-Bangla international border and here the disputes persist at least in a 1.5 kilometre area. The root cause of the dispute in this particular spot was the change of a small river course.

International Border Disputes

According to officials of the International Border Force (BSFI), “The territorial disputes generally occur because of tampering or attempts to tamper with the existing boundary, which occur due to some natural or human consequences. Natural Causes – Generally arises in riverine areas, where International Border Pillar (IBP)s either get up-rooted or eroded or washed away. Human causes – Practically arises due to deliberate efforts to nibble or encroach upon the established boundary. But, historically, the boundary disputes occur for various causes :

Firstly : Territorial Boundary Disputes & Positional Boundary Disputes – Generally or outwardly it may appear to be the same. But, it is not that every territorial claim means nothing but a boundary difference. It is between, what it is and what it will be. That is the line or land claimed and the line or land held to be claimed. It occurs due to the land claimed has a singularity of its own and the title of it is proved by the acts that involve with the areas as a whole. The limits of the area can easily be identified only when its status is settled. Further, the dispute appears because of the attractiveness of the area or a piece of land, which has an alluring attractive power. There is no such matter with regard to positional disputes and the title can only be proved by locating the boundary line.

Secondly : Functional Boundary Disputes – These arise, when one country believes that it has been adversely and unfairly affected by the functions of a neighbouring country along the boundary, that is, blocking of passage of ships through an area.

Thirdly : Resource Development Disputes – These disputes often occur due to the utilization of resources of the border areas. The most common is the problem of sharing of waters of a river flowing from one country to another.

Fourthly : Disputes Due To Maps – It is a fact that the boundaries are marked on maps. In case they are not, there may be an effort to use the fact as evidence that no boundary existed. The scale of the map is also important and maps rapidly decline in usefulness as the scale is reduced. However, accuracy of the maps is also very important. The scale, accuracy and the accuracy with which a line is drawn on the map are all important to avoid disputes. Maps are regarded as strong evidence of what they purport to portray. They may be termed and treated as admissions, considered as binding, and said to possess a force of their own.

Fifthly : Disputes Due To Changing River Courses – In fact, there are several places on the India-Bangladesh international border, where the international border between the above two countries is taken along the mid-stream of the river. The land that comes up due to change in the course of the river is called – ‘River Island’ (locally known as, Char or Char-land) and these particular char-lands are causes of disputes along the international boundary as they emerge on the side of the territory of either country depending upon the direction of the change of the course. The boundary being midstream of the river, a close watch has to be kept on the emergence of these char-lands failing, which claims and counter claims start as the civilians start cultivating this land immediately on its emergence (See details about Char and Char-land in this earlier story – Saga Of Char Lifeline in Brahmaputra Valley : A STORY OF VANISHING ISLANDS IN NORTH-EAST INDIA.

Another interesting point is that apart from these disputes, another new dispute arose between the two countries, over ‘New Moore Island’ or ‘New Talpatty Island’, which was claimed by both countries (similar to the case of ‘New Muhury’, few years ago) in the Bay of Bengal Sea, where India and Bangladesh share the international (sea) maritime border.

This international border that lies between India and Bangladesh was never free from dispute, rather this particular international boundary was braided by a lot of disputes, other than the 5.974 kilometre areas in the three (Indian States – Assam, West Bengal and Tripura) different sectors. However, the international boundary had not yet been consented and the disputes between two nations were of various types and of dimensions.

Editor’s Notes:

1. There are extensive tables for this story, laid out in the PDF document at this link.

Shib Shankar Chatterjee
Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Statesman & The Telegraph Contributor-cum-Correspondent from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of South Asia, specially, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar.