Situating the Local in Bilateralism: Assessing Local Impacts of the India–Bangladesh Enclave Exchange

Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
1 School of Conict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies,
Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.
2 The University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology, Bengaluru,
Karnataka, India.
Corresponding author:
Surya Sankar Sen, School of Conict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced
Studies, Bengaluru, Karnataka 560012, India.
Situating the Local
in Bilateralism:
Assessing Local
Impacts of the
Enclave Exchange
Surya Sankar Sen1,2
In its fundamental essence, bilateral relations outline a mechanism
through which two countries seek to actualize their individual national
interests through collaboration on select issues. Such conceptualizations
often obscure the relevance of issues and narratives at local levels, which
constitute the sites of its practicalization. The predominance of national
interest-focused approaches in negotiating bilateral relations, particu-
larly in the sphere of conflict management, often casts aside local narra-
tives underlying the issues and conflicts it seeks to address. The resultant
gap between the advocated and actual necessities of resolution at the
ground may lead to the persistence and emergence of local tensions
subsequent to its ‘settlement’ at the national and bilateral levels.
The bilateral resolution of the India–Bangladesh enclave issue
presents an interesting case to engage with the conceptual and practical
facets of this mechanism of state action and its impacts at the local
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
25(1) 52 –72, 2021
2021 Jadavpur University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0973598420979761
Sen 53
level. Based on an ethnographic survey of local perceptions of residents
of three enclaves in Cooch Behar district, West Bengal, this article will
examine the impacts of national interest-based mediation in localized
conflicts, to engage the problematic of the ‘local’s absence from bilateral-
ism’s conceptualization in international relations.
Bilateral, national, local, conflict, enclaves
The Position of the ‘Local’ and ‘National’ in
The standard definitions of bilateral relations presuppose it to be centered
on the fulfillment of its signatories’ national interests, derived from a
singular, indisputable ethos of the ‘national’ which undergirds policies of
state objectives. Contrary to this unvarying conceptualization of the
‘national,’ its constitutive tenets are subject to transformation over time,
in response to changes in certain empirics (Van Dyke 1962). The
‘national’ therefore exists at the level of perception, textured by domestic
and international factors such as regional power structures, international
alliance systems, and national governance. This in part constitutes the
subjectivists’ criticism of the fixity underlying general conceptualizations
of national interest. In doing so, they situate the intentionality of action
in individuals and collectives in stark contrast to the state’s normative
abstraction and objectivity. The larger subjectivist criticism is against
this presumption whereby the demands of the majority are viewed to be
reflected in the actions of the few helming the state (Grayson 1952).
Therefore, an understanding of what constitutes the ‘national’ and the
areas covering its interests must engage the possibility of a subjective
ordering of issues as national interests (Schilling 1956; Welch 2005) and
the factors prompting the same.
The presumed objectivity of state action often predicates mediation in
localized issues on its potential impacts on the preservation or pursuit of
its interests. This is applicable to India’s federal division of authority,
which is tilted in favor of the political center in its provision of overriding
capacities. However, the heightening of a ‘local’ issue is conditional. A
local issue is often viewed as restricted to a particular space, whereby the

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