Border disputes in the Northeast: Durable peace is possible

[ Suhas Chakma ]

A report titled ‘Border disputes in the North East: The Raging war within’, being published the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), highlights the human toll of the border disputes. Apart from regular destruction of standing crops by the police from 1979 to 26 July, 2021, at least 157 persons were reportedly killed, at least 361 persons were injured, and more than 65,729 persons were displaced in the border clashes between Assam and the states which were born out of Assam, ie, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya.

Out of the 157 reported deaths, the maximum number of deaths took place in the Assam-Nagaland border dispute with 136 deaths, followed by Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border dispute with 10 deaths, Assam-Mizoram border dispute with seven deaths and Assam-Meghalaya border dispute with four deaths.

Out of the 361 persons injured, the maximum number of people were injured in the Assam-Nagaland border dispute with 184 persons, followed by Assam-Mizoram border dispute with injuries to 143 persons, Assam-Meghalaya border dispute with injuries to 18 persons and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border dispute with injuries to 16 persons.

The dispute between Assam and Mizoram relates to the claim of Mizoram that its northern side based on the boundary set for application of the inner line of 1875 under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 and not as per the boundary redrawn as per the 1933 notification. Similarly, the boundary dispute between Assam and Meghalaya relates to boundary of the erstwhile United Khasi and Jaintia Hills district notified in 1835. The boundary dispute between Assam and Nagaland relates to the rejection of the Nagaland State Act of 1962, which had defined the state’s borders as per the 1925 notification under which Naga Hills and Tuensang area, by Nagaland that demands inclusion of all the Naga-inhabited areas in Assam into its territory. The boundary dispute between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh relates to transfer of about 30,000 sq kms of land from the then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), the current Arunachal Pradesh, to Assam, based on the recommendations of the Bordoloi Committee report of 1951.

The states usually approach the Supreme Court to resolve the disputes. The demarcation of boundaries is an executive task and the Supreme Court usually recommends the establishment of boundary commissions. However, if any of the states does not accept the recommendations of the boundary commissions, including those appointed by the Supreme Court, little progress can be made.

In the past, the recommendations of the boundary commissions have been consistently rejected. On the Assam-Meghalaya border dispute, Meghalaya had rejected the recommendations of Justice YV Churachand Committee, which had awarded Langpih to Assam, while Assam had accepted the recommendations. But Assam itself had rejected the recommendations of the three-member boundary commission appointed by the Supreme Court on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border dispute, which in its 2014 report recommended the transfer of around 70-80 percent of the disputed land to Arunachal Pradesh. The Centre had also constituted two boundary commissions, ie, the Sundaram Commission (1971) and the Shastri Commission (1985) to settle the Assam-Nagaland border disputes but both the states rejected the recommendations of these committees.

Following the violent clashes between Assam and Mizoram Police on 26 July, 2021, the Assam and Nagaland governments on 31 July agreed to withdraw their armed police forces from the disputed areas in the Dessoi valley reserve forest area within 24 hours. This was followed by the Nagaland House adopting a resolution on 5 August, 2021 for resolving the border dispute with Assam out of court and amicably with the involvement of the local people of both the states.

On 6 August, 2021, the Assam and Meghalaya governments also decided to start settling the “less complicated” areas of dispute, first along the 884.9 km border, and formed three regional committees, consisting of five members each, headed by a cabinet minister to first get the views of the people living in the disputed areas and prepare a recommendation within 30 days for a decision at the level of the chief ministers.

With the aim to bring down the temper following the clashes on 26 July, Assam and Mizoram signed an agreement on 5 August to withdraw forces from all disputed border areas and work towards lasting peace.

On 15 July, 2021, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu stated that Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have agreed to find an out-of-court solution to their interstate boundary dispute. It remains to be seen whether Assam’s initiatives are part of the attempts to find a genuine solution with its neighbours or one-upmanship to counter the allegations of expansionism by leaders from Mizoram. The will of the ‘local people’ and promise not to give “an inch” have been the common refrain of the political leaders.

The issue has never been the absence of technology and expertise to draw the boundaries of the states but the absence of political will. Satellite mapping to demarcate boundaries and settle such disputes as being suggested by the ministry of home affairs cannot manufacture the political will over claims on territories based on borders drawn by the colonial British as early as 1835, ie, about 186 years ago. Past experiences indicate that the search for solutions is akin to the search for the Rosetta Stone.

Yet there are a number of measures that can be taken to maintain the status quo till final solutions are found. The RRAG recommended to (i) identify the line of de facto control of the areas and deploy police from both the states who will operate under coordination of the CRPF with respect to any dispute including maintenance of law and order; (ii) jointly ensure maintenance and enforcement of law and order along the line of de facto control; (iii) conduct biometric documentation of the residents living within the disputed areas on both sides of the states and issue IDs and declare their names through gazette notification to prohibit settlement in new areas unless agreed by both parties; (iv) prohibit new settlement or establishment of structures by any individual and entity, including state entities, in the disputed areas; and ensure mutual consent from both the states for any activity, including entry of police along the line of de facto control. (The contributor is the director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group.)