(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
Both Assam and Meghalaya governments appear absolutely tired of the violent clashes going on between them over the issue of their borders and are now getting ready to seek a peaceful solution. As the first and immediate step, the two Chief Ministers have decided to start with six of the 12 “less complicated” areas of disputebetween them along the long borderand shelve “more complicated” ones forthe present as they are faced with multiple issues of different magnitude.They have agreed to constitute three regional committees to get the views of local people andframetheir recommendations. Assam seems to bewilling to approach the Supreme Court for an amicable solution to the dispute.
The committees consisting of five members each will be headed by a Cabinet minister and will include bureaucrats and local representatives. They will be visiting the areas under dispute and submit their reportwithin a month.
The two CMs are reported to have said that they will focus on “historical facts, ethnicity, administrative convenience, willingness and sense of people’s sentiments andcontiguity of the land which falls under the areas of difference”. The idea seems to be broad and well intentioned, but the “focus” is wide and includes disconnected points like past history and present administration and speaks of sentiments as well as reality of location of land.
Official border line between Assam and Mizoram drawn after reorganisation of Assam and what people of the area believe and claim as their territorydo not coincide leading to encroachments and cross border migrations. Added to this are strong ethnic identity and economic struggles for land and forest resources, which promoted search for livelihood while commercial ventures of “outsiders” deprived them of what they consider as their own resources. Infiltration of illegal migrants from neighbouring nations is a common problem faced in different proportions in all the States in the region worsening the situation.
After a violent incident in 2018, Mizo youth and some civil service organisations requested the Union Government to constitute a boundary commission to demarcate the boundary, but no decision was taken by the government.Frequent flare-ups were occurring along Assam-Mizoram border since June, starting with complaints of encroachments into the forest area of Assam by people from Mizoram.
On 26 July, exchange of firing between the police forces of the two States left six Assam policemen and one civilian dead and 60 injured. It led to retaliation by Assam with economic blockade. The blockade created such a serious situation that Mizoram Government had to advise its people to curtail their domestic consumption and avoid hoarding. It was reported that even vehicles carrying Covid-19 testing kits and other life saving drugs could not reach Mizoram.
Both States blamed each other for the incident. Local people of Barak in Assam imposed a blockade disallowing trucks with essential goods from entering Mizoram despite the agreement between the two States to withdraw their police from disputed area and leaving it to be manned by central paramilitary forces.
The sentiment of the local people was very strong and after prolonged discussions for many days, the economic blockade was lifted on 7 August after locals were assured of justice for police firing by Mizoram. The two States also agreed to allow neutral forces deployed by the Union Government to take control of the disputed areas for maintaining peace and not to send their police and forest forces for patrolling.
The border disputebetween the two States has a history of over 150 years entangled in many complicated problems. In the colonial era, it has undergone official boundary demarcations at least twice in 1875 and 1933. Mizoram had accepted only the first of these which fixed the “inner Line” boundary of Lushai Hills on the southern border of Cachar District of Assam. A joint memorandum by some political parties and NGOs to the Prime Minister in 2018 pointed out that the second demarcation was done without consulting the people of the area and excluded some Lushai inhabited areas from Mizoram and ignored its historical rights to use undemarcated areas and was unacceptable.
The Assam Forest Regulation adopted in 1877 under which extensive tracks of Lushai Hills came under Inner Line Reserve areawas cited as a glaring example of expansionist policy of Assam.Despite long standing grievances, the States did not witness violent clashes as in recent days.They signed an agreement in1980s to maintain the status quo at no man’s land set up in the border line.
The States Reorganisation Commission created only one state of Assam in 1956 in the North-East Region, which included in Assam present Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, andTripura. Manipur was centrally-administered. The Commission, which adoptedlanguage as the basis for creating States, kept Assam multi-lingual with numerous languages and dialects.
Very soon trouble started with demands for splitting up Assam and creating separate States for major ethnic groups. Assam consequently became a permanent party against which the demands and disputes for separate States were made. Nagaland was created in 1965. Mizoram in 1972, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura in 1974, and Arunachal Pradesh in 1992. This has not put an end to reorganisation. Border disputes are inevitable in the region. Assam’s disputes with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland are in the Supreme Court. Dispute between Assam and Meghalaya relates to boundary of erstwhile United Khasi and Jaintia Hill District.
Vast forest areas, hills, and rivers make the task of clear demarcation of boundaries between States difficult in the North-East Region. Mizoram shares borders with Assam, Manipur and Tripura, and alsowith Bangladesh and Myanmar thus having international border running to over 700 km. In 1972, it was made a Union Territory and was constituted as a State in 1986. The border line between Assam and Mizoram runs to about 160 km known as Lushai Hills. Second least populated State in India, it has its unique ethnic characteristics. Over 90% of its area are covered with forests attracting contractors and businessmen.It is a highly literate State.
Boundary and territorial disputes within a nation are mostly caused by conflicting claims over land, rivers, forests, and other mineral resources. History, geography, ethnic origin, and culture including religion and language are used to make administrative divisions called states, provinces, cantons, etc, in most countries.
North-East Region has been facing similar problems in all the States. Historical factors, people’s sentiments, strong community feelings overtake economic and developmental requirements. Wherever they are ignored or downplayed, there at some point agitations flare up to question the changes.
To be frank, narrow attachments and lack of unity in the units of the union of States are the cause for inter-State disputes all over India.
The clash is between the “past” and the present”. Past cannot always be the basis for present arrangements and for resolving current problems. That is, history cannot always decide contemporary issues. It is only a reference to what happened in the past. People do not want to march backwards to their roots, but want to grow with the times. — INFA