Bordering on Civility

By Bridget Coggins

There are complicated border disputes, and there are complicated border disputes.

I’m currently copyediting my first book, which prompted me to take one last go at the “conclusions and policy implications” section in the hope that new insights would come with fresh eyes.[1] Unfortunately, I didn’t find any great new solution for the problems raised by my project, but I did come across the intriguing case of a recently resolved, long-stalemated international border dispute that is worth passing on because it seems to defy, at least in part, what we might expect of them.

First, some background information: my book examines the international politics of secessionism. One case I examine is the intractable conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (hereafter NK), a largely ethnic Armenian region within Azerbaijan. The conflict in NK is one of the so-called “frozen conflicts” in the Caucasus that emerged with the fall of the Soviet Union. NK, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war there from 1991 through 1994, when the hostilities were formally concluded, though the political dispute remained outstanding.

Among secessionist territories, part of NK’s intractability lies in the fact that it is entirely surrounded by Azerbaijan. By the end of the war, those fighting on behalf of NK had created a land bridge comprising approximately 9 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory connecting it to Armenia proper. But the occupation was envisioned as a temporary, strategic bargaining chip that would secure Azerbaijan’s acquiescence to independence and ensure the future safe passage of Armenians between Armenia and NK along the Lachin corridor. NK would give back the vast majority of the land if it could be assured statehood.

Map via Wikimedia.
Map via Wikimedia.

On its face the strategy was ingenious, except that it didn’t work. In the years since the war, the conflict has remained stubbornly unresolved despite international efforts at mediation. Further, little additional bargaining leverage accrued to the secessionists as a result of their territorial grab, and violence along the border is routine. But simply giving up the territory would also leave NK incredibly vulnerable to Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a historical case of separatism that seems similar enough to draw upon in the service of conflict resolution. Other separatist demands are too geographically — and therefore strategically — dissimilar.

With no other precedents among separatist conflicts, I turned to the Internet in search of enclaves, which for some reason had never occurred to me before. And this is how I came across the extraordinary case of the Cooch Behar territorial dispute between Bangladesh and India.[2] The region holds a complex of enclaves, exclaves, counter-enclaves and counter-exclaves that defies intelligible understanding without recourse to a map. If I lost you at “enclave” and “exclave,” according to Frank Jacobs in the New York Times:

“An enclave is a piece of sovereign territory (that may or may not be part of country X), wholly enclosed by country Y. For example, the Vatican is an enclave within Italy, even though it is not the dependence of a third country. Yet Monaco is not an enclave within France, because it also borders the sea.

An exclave is a piece of sovereign territory that is separated from its ‘mainland’ (country X), possibly but not necessarily by country Y. So Lesotho, entirely surrounded by South Africa, is not an exclave, because it is sovereign and does not ‘belong’ to a third country. But Llivia, a Spanish village north of the Pyrenees, is an exclave of Spain (as well as being an enclave within France). Ceuta and Melilla, tiny Spanish territories on the Moroccan coast, are exclaves of Spain, even though they sit on the Mediterranean Sea.”

Counter-enclaves and counter-exclaves then, are similar territorial units that are already within an enclave or exclave within a country. In the Cooch Behar region, India has 3 counter-enclaves and 1 counter-counter-enclave in addition to over 100 exclaves. On the Bangladeshi side, there are 21 counter-enclaves and 71 additional exclaves. Looking at the maps and chart will help.

Map via Jan S. Krogh, via The Economist.
Map via
Map via
Chart by
Chart by

As in NK, life in Cooch Behar is both difficult for its residents and complicated to govern. Its 150,000 or so inhabitants do not receive basic services such as schooling, medical care, water or electricity from either Bangladesh or India (though it might be worth pointing out that public goods provision is limited in both countries “mainland” territories in the region as well). Some of the other difficulties the population faces are utterly absurd. For example, in order to leave their lands and enter the other nation’s territory, residents must first receive a travel visa that can only be obtained in person from offices that can only be reached by crossing illegally into that country en route. Also like NK, the ‘claves lawlessness creates opportunities for criminal behavior to flourish, enables illegal migration and provides safe haven for groups utilizing insurgency and terrorism, pressing security issues for both governments.

Historically, Cooch Behar is emblematic of the lengths to which states will go to preserve even tiny portions of their territory, viewing them as indivisible wholes. A promising 1974 agreement on the exchange of lands to make the borders more intelligible went decades without India’s ratification. And given the increased securitization of the border issue between the two states (after all, India is building a fence) we might have expected that a militarized dispute would be more likely than what has actually occurred. As of August 25 this year, India and Bangladesh confirmed that they “have resolved all border issues…and all boundary problems”.

So after all of these years, what broke the stalemate and led to their reconciliation and simplification of the borders? The Economist argues that the time seemed ripe for India to reciprocate positively for Bangladesh’s assistance with counter-terrorism in its northeast and to thank Bangladesh for the use of its ports and roads. But it also seems that other, more pressing issues have emerged that simply lower the incentives for continued intransigence over Cooch Behar.

While it is too early to tell how the people living within these territories will be affected by the demarcation, it’s an incredibly complicated border dispute — in technical terms far more so than NK — that has simply been quietly resolved.

To be sure, the analogy between NK and Cooch Behar is imperfect: NK is secessionist, there are greater political interests at stake in its conflict, and it is far larger than Cooch Behar. Still, the border demarcation and land swap gives me some hope that time and the emergence of other priorities will overtake the continued benefits of precarious stalemate between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Does anyone else have an odds-defying example of conflict resolution to buoy our spirits?

1. Insert shameless plug: Power Politics and State Formation in the Twentieth Century: The Dynamics of Recognition available from Cambridge University Press in February 2014.

2. Although enclaves and exclaves exist in both countries, the term Cooch Behar only technically refers to the Indian side. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use it to refer to both sides.

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