Patrolling the World’s Most Complicated Frontier

 /  Nov. 10, 2013, 11:54 p.m.


Jake HowryIn early October, Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) took the unprecedented step of inviting the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) to patrol their shared border from within Indian territory. The move is partially in response to the continued problems of illegal border crossings and transnational smuggling. Opening border patrols is a major step forward for relations between the two countries, whose border security has been historically marred by cross border killings at the hands of security forces—several hundred Bangladeshis have reportedly died at the hands of Indian border forces in the last five years.

But when discussing the India-Bangladesh border, many things are easier said than done. This is in part because India and Bangladesh share the most complex frontier in the world. Look at a map of Bangladesh’s northeastern Rangpur Division and one will find a mass of cluttered concentric circles known collectively as the chitmahals. The chitmahals represent 80 percent of the total number of enclaves in the modern world. In international law, an enclave is any part of a sovereign nation that is completely surrounded by another nation’s territory. The chitmahals include almost two hundred enclaves, twenty-four of which are considered counter-enclaves, enclaves within enclaves—like a geographic doughnut.

The border is the result of a poorly-conceived peace treaty in 1713, which ended a war between the Kingdom of Kuch Bihar and India’s Mughal Empire. The Mughal’s failure to dislodge Kuch Bihar chieftains from their lands during the conflict led the nations to settle in a manner fitting for the time: everyone kept what they controlled. The enclaves were settled into a number of later treaties, much to the chagrin of the British Empire, and became more complicated following the 1947 partition of India and the creation of East Pakistan, which would later become the independent state of Bangladesh.

It has been a problem that the neighboring countries have been attempting to resolve since 1958. The complications of managing enclaves across international borders leaves the populations of the chitmahals effectively stateless, with no infrastructure for education, water, electricity, or basic medical supplies. Passport controls get complicated quickly when the only route to mainland India or Bangladesh is through another country—or across four international borders in the case of Dahala Khagrabri, the world’s only counter-counter enclave. The most recent arrangement to resolve the problem of enclaves by exchanging land held by the two countries was scuttled over the summer by ministers from India’s northeast state of Assam, whose territory is most directly affected by the land swaps.

In the mean time, the India-Bangladesh border remains difficult to secure, with the proliferation of stateless space acting as a refuge from the police and security forces of both nations. In the absence of effective governance, the chitmahals are likely to remain a haven for smugglers and cross-border crime.

Not to worry though, because as the governments sees it, all of their border demarcation problems have been resolved.

Jake Howry