Going Global: India’s Neighbourhood
Columns / September 4, 2015
Early this month, India and Bangladesh have put to rest what was possibly the strangest border dispute in the world.
Along their shared border were more than 160 enclaves—small plots of land that belong to one country but are surrounded by another country, and in some cases, surrounded again by another country, and so forth.
Similar border oddities can be found in other places around the world. Geography nerds will surely know about Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau between the Netherlands and Belgium. In some cases, half a restaurant or house could be in one country while the other half was in another. One could wake up in Belgium and shower in the Netherlands. Of course these countries are part of the EU, where most nations have no border controls, so such oddities are quaint tourist attractions. This is not how it is in India and Bangladesh, where even “silly” borders are serious business.
Before Aug. 1, the inhabitants of these small enclaves, some no more than a few square kilometers, would have to go through border control on the way to school, or to get groceries. It seems absurd—it would be one thing if these plots of land held any strategic or economic value, but they don’t. The reality is that ever since the departure of the British Empire, the governments of India and Bangladesh have been kicking the metaphorical can down the road, saying that they’d get around to it “eventually.”
Luckily, India has a pretty good relationship with Bangladesh, and a Pew survey conducted in 2014 suggested that 70 per cent of Bangladeshis have a favourable opinion of India.
Their relationship with Pakistan is a little rockier.
Their troubles started in the 1950s, when Britain left South Asia. The British decided it would be best to carve out the map along cultural lines—thus Pakistan, with an overwhelming Muslim majority population, governed by an Islamic republic, became their own country. India was a secular state with a Hindu majority and a Muslim minority. Today’s Bangladesh was actually part of Pakistan, then known as “East Pakistan” until they became independent in 1971. However, these divisions weren’t smooth at all, leading to the biggest populations transfer in history—millions of Sikhs and Hindus from new Pakistan moved into India, and millions of Muslims moved to new Pakistan. Many died along the way in violent clashes and riots.
There’s an area in the north—Kashmir and Jammu—which remains a difficult issue to this day. If you look the region up on Google Maps right now, you’ll see a spaghetti plate of dotted lines as India, Pakistan and even China claim varying extents of the land. Pakistan controls one-third, though “it’s basically run by military,” says Shinder Purewal, a political science professor at KPU.
“It’s really a delicate issue between the two, and it has been the source of three wars between India and Pakistan.”
Before the British withdrew, the region was inhabited mostly by Muslims, but was controlled by a Hindu Raja: Hari Singh. Though his people wanted the territory to become part of Pakistan, the Raja wished to remain neutral. Because of this, tribal militia crossed the border with support from Pakistan. With no one else to turn to, the Raja asked India for help, but would only get it if they agreed to become part of India. The Raja accepted this deal with reluctance. This led to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947.
But is the Kashmir region valuable? “In terms of natural resources, no, but strategically it’s very important, because you’re facing China, and it’s linking India also to Tibet,” says Purewal. “If the whole of Kashmir was under India’s occupation, then China wouldn’t be able to build any direct links to Pakistan, which they’re doing at present.”
“In terms of resources, it’s one of those spots where Indians would like to travel, because it’s a very beautiful valley. It has its attraction. It grows a lot of fruit, which is vital for the economy, but so far, nothing major [in regards to] under-the-earth natural resources.”