Vol. 4 Num 127 Wed. October 01, 2003  

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Sovereignty of South Talpatty island

In recent days, it is reported that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence asked the Bangladesh Navy to ensure Bangladesh's sovereignty over South Talpatty Island. The Chairman of the Committee said that the island was an integral part of Bangladesh.

The ownership of the island has been in dispute between Bangladesh and India since it emerged in the estuary of the border river, Hariabhanga, after the devastating cyclone that swept through Bangladesh in November, 1970. The island is located about 4km, south of the Hariabhanga river that divides Bangladesh and India on the west. The approximate geographical location is reported to be at Latitude 21 degrees 36.0 North and Longitude 89 degrees 09.10 East. It is believed to be of U-shaped formation with the eastern arm elongated towards the north and had an approximate area at low tide of about 2 square miles in 1978 which may have further grown since then.

Both countries claim the island as forming part of their territories. India calls it "New Moore Island or Purbasha" whereas the name "South Talpatty Island" in Bangladesh is derived because of its proximity to Talpatty land area of the Sunderbans of Bangladesh. It had been an uninhabited island, though fishermen from the Bangladesh mainland were often sighted only seasonally during the dry season in the late 70s..

When Bangladesh became an independent nation in 1971, the government was engaged in the challenging task of reconstruction and rehabilitation of the war-ravaged country. In no time during this period, India drew Bangladesh's specific attention to the island. Bangladesh was reportedly told of the ramifications of the presence of this island in 1974 on demarcation of sea boundary in the Bay of Bengal when Indian delegation came to Dhaka.

Prior to the discussion of the sea boundary (maritime boundary) in the Bay of Bengal, it was realised that first the question of the border of the Hariabhanga river had to be determined. Ordinarily, in the case of navigable river, under international law, the boundary line runs through the middle of the deepest navigable channel ( Thalweg principle) unless agreed otherwise between the parties.

During the discussions, Bangladesh claimed sovereignty over the South Talpatty Island on the grounds that (a) the flows of the border river were to the west of the island and a satellite photograph confirmed the western orientation of the flow and (b) the island was a natural prolongation of the Bangladesh territory. The imagery of satellite photographs showed that the main channel of the Hariabhanga river turned a little right near the mouth of the river and entered the Bay of Bengal keeping South Talpatty to its left. In other words the Hariabhanga river flows to the west of South Talpatty island. This was also clear from the flow of the suspended sediments entering the Bay of Bengal. India disputed Bangladesh's position as it claimed that the flows of the border river lay to the east of the island, not west as claimed by Bangladesh.

The nub of the dispute over the sovereignty of the island rests as to whether the main flow of the border river Hariabhanga lies to the west or east of the island.

It is pertinent to note that two flows -- one from the border river and the other from Bangladesh inland river, Raimangal -- fall on the estuary. Bangladesh argued that India confused the flow of the Raimangal river with that of the border river, Hariabhanga. There were many discussions at the official level over the years to resolve the dispute but they remained inconclusive.

When in April 1979 the Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai visited Bangladesh, the President of Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman took up the matter with him. In the interest of good neighbourly relations, to resolve the dispute, Bangladesh proposed a survey by Joint Indo-Bangladesh team to locate exactly the main flow of the border river around the island. The commitment was reportedly confirmed by the Indian Prime Minister when the Deputy Prime Minister of Bangladesh called on him in New Delhi in the second week of May 1979.

Furthermore, in August 1980, during the visit of India's Foreign Minister to Dhaka, a Joint Press Statement was issued on August 18, 1980 and paragraph 9 of the statement read as follows:

" The question of the newly emerged island(s) (New Moore/South Talpatty/Purbasha) at the estuary of the border river Hariabhanga was also discussed. The two sides agreed that after study of the additional information exchanged between the two governments, further discussion would take place with a view to settling it peacefully at an early date."

Exchange of information envisaged in the above joint statement was intended to include the result of the joint survey to ascertain the physical location of the main flow of the border river Hariabhanga.

While bilateral discussions were pending to resolve the dispute, on May 9, 1981, India sent an armed ship "INS Sandhayak" with one helicopter and some military personnel to the island. Some huts, tents, one aerial mast and one pole bearing the Indian flag were seen erected there. Bangladesh was taken by surprise at India's aggressive mood to claim the island. Bangladesh on 11 May 1981 lodged a strong protest against such unwarranted, unilateral and illegal action of India that was in breach of the agreements reached at the highest political level.

Bangladesh, on 16 May 1981, urged India to withdraw the Indian navy ship from Bangladesh waters and to remove men and materials including the flag from the disputed island. India in reply reportedly stated that the intention of sending the ship was to collect additional hydrological information on the island but Bangladesh was not impressed with that reason because it was expected for a neighbour to inform Bangladesh of its intention prior to dispatching an armed ship to the island. Later India agreed to withdraw its ship and men and materials from the disputed island so that it would remain "no man's land" until it was settled peacefully.

It is a matter of great concern to note from a report in the Bangladesh media (DS 22/9/03) that Indian Border Security Force (BSF) established a base on the island which was regularly visited by Indian naval gunships. If the report is true, India seems to have followed "might is right" doctrine to claim sovereignty on the island, ignoring the legitimate claim of Bangladesh. The presence of BSF on the island amounts not only to serious breach of the solemn agreements concluded at the highest political level but also tantamounts to serious provocation to Bangladesh.

In accordance with international law and agreements between the two sides, the sovereignty of the island needs to be settled between the two nations. Bangladesh considers that India honours its commitment in the spirit in which they were made and in the interest of good neighbourly relations, it is argued that the reported base of BSF on the island should be removed.

India is 22 times larger than Bangladesh. India has over 1.2 million armed personnel while Bangladesh armed forces consists of only 137,000. That does not mean that a militarily weak country likes to be pushed around. India's conduct toward Bangladesh should not be intimidating but be based on the principles of "Gujral" doctrine of trust and confidence. India's dominance and its political appetite for projecting its power in South Asia should not be at the expense of the goodwill of the neighbours.

Furthermore, India wishes to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and should adhere to the principles of the UN Charter in settling "international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered" (Article 2.3 of the UN Charter). Bangladesh does not want more than India's scrupulous adherence to UN principles in its relations with it. The question is when and how will India acknowledge and implement the principles in resolving peacefully the sovereignty of the South Talpatty island?

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.