On July 26th 2021, violence erupted at the borders of the northeastern states of Assam and Mizoram due to a sudden escalation of a border dispute. 5 Assam police personnel were killed, and at least 16 persons were injured when a Assam and Mizoram policemen allegedly fired at each other. There have been many violent clashes in the past in connection with the Assam Mizoram border dispute, including a major one that occurred in October 2020. The history of these clashes dates back to 1972, when Mizoram was carved out of Assam as a union territory, resulting in a border dispute. There have been several rounds of talks between the two states since 1995, but none of them succeeded into solving the issue. According to Assam, Mizoram has been intruding in areas 1-3 kilometers from the Interstate border. But Mizoram groups disagree, claiming that Assam has been pushing its people 10-12 kilometers inside their territory.
This conflict mainly steps from two notifications, dated 1875 and 1933. The 1875 notification that distinguished the Lushai Hills from the plains of Cachar, and the 1933 notification that demarcates a boundary between the Lushai Hills and Manipur. Lushai Hills was a erstwhile district of Assam that became Mizoram. Mizoram says that the boundary should be demarcated on the basis of notification in 1875 that distinguished the Lushai Hills from the plains of Cachar. This notification, based on the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873, makes it obligatory for Indians from outside to process a travel document to enter Mizoram. The point of conflict is the British era notification of 1933 that Assam follows. Mizo leaders say this 1933 notification is not acceptable as their ancestors had not been consulted. Assam leaders reject this argument since the scenario they say it was similar during the 1875 notification.
After the violence, both state chief ministers Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam, and Zoramthanga of Mizoram put out tweets blaming the other side for the situation at the Assam Mizoram border. Both sought the intervention of the Union Home Minister Amit Shah. At the heart of the violence is the long standing Interstate boundary issues in the northeast, particularly between Assam and Mizoram, and the states that were carved out of it. Ironically, the border dispute between Assam and Mizoram did not arise in 1987 when Mizoram got its present identity. The dispute dates back to the colonial times in the 19th century. Back then the region was under the control of British rulers who demarcated the boundary between the Lushai Hills (as Mizoram was known at the time) and the Cachar Hills (in Assam).
A regulation of notification was issued in 1873 for the purpose. The notification was called the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) of 1873 which defined the Inner Line Regulations, better known as the Inner-Line Permit (ILP) system. While BEFR was lifted in Assam and other northeast states, it continued to be enforced in Mizoram and Nagaland. Mizoram backed it with the inner line of the Lushia Hills notification of 1993. Mizoram insists on making this notification as the basis for delineating the boundaries with Assam. Based on the 1873 regulation, Mizoram claims of 509 square miles, or 1,318 square kilometer area of the inner line reserved forest notified 148 years ago. Assam is not willing to give up any of its territory.
After the 1993 notification, several attempts were made to resolve the boundary dispute, particularly after 1995, but it remains unresolved. In 2005, the Supreme Court suggested that the Central Government form of Boundary Commission to resolve the dispute. The Mizoram government has constituted a Boundary Commission that is studying the nuances of the disputes, by examining old maps and documents to present its case in a stronger manner. The latest round of clashes took place just two days after Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a meeting with the chief ministers of the northeast states. Border disputes came up for discussion at the meet. Assam Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said, he was hopeful that Assam’s border dispute with Mizoram could be sorted out peacefully. Mizoram Chief minister Zoramthanga referred to the border disputes being a colonial legacy and emphasized that a lasting peace between the states in the region could not be achieved without resolving the disputes. Politically, the BJP maybe in a fix, as it is part of the government both in Mizoram and in Assam.
Why is it a big deal?
An Indian killing an Indian. Now we might say what’s the big deal, we have riots, Indians kill Indians quite often, so what is so special? What is so special here is, uniformed Indians have killed uniformed Indians. It is the state police forces of two sensitive border states, who fought each other, resulting in the death of five or six police persons. Scores have been injured in both states, and Chief Ministers have been issuing statements. Both police chiefs have been issuing statements, district administrations have been issuing statements, as if India and Pakistan have had a skirmish on the LOC, or as if India and China have had a skirmish on the LOC. It is a national shame in 2021. It is also a national shame because this is a situation, where one party i.e. the BJP controlled all of the northeast, dominates it fully, sweeps it and takes great pride in it. It doesn’t rule every state in the northeast, but its rules the crucial states, plus all the other states are co-opted by it in the NDA, i.e. National Democratic Alliance. Also to bring the Chief Ministers of northeastern states together, the BJP has also set up the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).
In spite of that, police forces of two states have fought pitched battles on their borders. We see statements from Assam Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma saying, “I’m posting 4000 commandos on the border. We will protect the constitutional boundaries of our state”. Mizoram saying the same thing, “You take your police forces back, or we can’t restrain our civilians”. They don’t say the police. At the same time, Mizoram police at top levels has issued a statement which does not deny that they opened fire. They did open fire, if we see those videos, does look like an automatic was used, probably an LMG was used, as the Assam Police has alleged. Then both chief ministers, Zoramthanga of Mizoram and Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam tweets for help from the Home Minister and Prime Minister’s Office. This is unheard of for atleast 2 generations of Indians. We know that 1979 there was a big massacre, from the Naga side of the Assamese villagers in their border areas, because they have a border dispute. In 1985 again, there was a big Naga raidon a village in Merapani – the market was burnt and nearly 42 people were killed on the Assam side, 30 of them were Assam policemen.
History of the States
Let’s explore the roots of this problem and why does this keep coming up every now and then. There was one more incident between Assam and Nagaland in 2014. Again, a bunch of people were killed. But Assam-Nagaland is a more familiar problem. In any case, all these are problems that have common roots. How these states came into being, and how these legacy issues continue to persist? Initially, it was all Assam. Tripura was one territory, Manipur was one territory. These were both Union territory. The rest was all Assam. So what is Nagaland? Nagaland was the first state to break out of Assam in 1963. In 1957, couple of years after the Naga insurgency began, and got fuel in a big way, to empower the Nagas the Nehru government created an autonomous state within a state for the Nagas, but it was still part of Assam. A sort of a Naga district. In 1963 Nagaland became a state, because the idea was that the Ngas a tiny minority, a tiny minority of many minorities, were not getting a share of power under big large states.
This work was done in a hurry, so for all these tribal states, the question that kept kept coming up was you’ve drawn political boundaries, but what about our traditional boundaries? Which means my tribe used to go there, my tribal cousins live in such and such place. That’s why the Nagas keep saying I want Nagaland which integrate all the Naga inhabited areas of adjoining states. Even Myanmar into my new Nagaland, or a Naga homeland. So in the Northeast, tradition and modernity always clash. Don’t confuse tradition with old fashion, or a boring superstition. Tradition is a very important thing for tribal societies and they hold it very close to their hearts. Now when Nagaland was being set up, there was a concern that what will happen as it does not have an airport, it does not have a railhead. It doesn’t have an airport because it doesn’t have any flat areas. So Nagaland was given the tiny city then of Dimapur, which is now the busiest commercial city in that entire northeastern region. Dimapur actually could have been with the Assam because Dimapur, as the name indicates it was inhabited with a bunch of tribes in Assam. A lot of the Dimapur Assamese think that my Dimapur was given away to Nagaland. So a lot of these adjustments were made and everything has left side-effects.
Rich forest and land areas
Example there was a big forest area between Nagaland and Assam, more than 400 kilometers. Both sides there is a reserved forest, much more of it is on the Assam side because reserve forest is in the plains. Now that reserved forest was a very lucrative area. It still is. The plywood companies moved in due to the big huge trees. We can see trees which had been cut, stem was so wide that you would find yourself officers putting a dining table there, and hosting 12 people for tea. Or people telling you that look, there were slices from these trees from a single piece of which you can make a dining table for 8-12 people. So most of the forest wealth has been cut, mostly illegally. Why? Because both sides keep fighting in terms of who it belongs to. Whoever goes in and controls it locally, could make a deal with those plywood factories. Those plywood factories are nearly finished now, because those trees are finished. These are Reserved forests only in name, and that’s where a lot of fighting has been taking place.
In 1979, there were more than 50 massacred, in 1985 more than 40 massacred. The fight was always about reserved forest. Now only flat land is left there, because the big trees are all gone. Flat land has value, and it is somewhere next to that that Nagaland has also found some signs of oil reserves. Nagaland has had a complex history. Nagaland, when they signed the peace accord in Shillong, they also wanted some control over the natural wealth found in their state. So, under Article 371 of the Constitution a special dispensation was created. So they weren’t letting ONGC prospect for oil there. So that is an ongoing problem between Assam and Nagaland. Then there is a problem between Mizoram and Nagaland.
Cachar – The Gateway to Assam
Let’s take a look at the map of Assam. In the south we have the Cachar district. Cachar is an administrative district in the state of Assam in India. After independence the undivided Cachar district was split into four districts in Assam: Dima Hasao district (formerly North Cachar Hills), Cachar district alongside Hailakandi and Karimganj. Cachar is mostly inhabited by Bengalis. Lot of them immigrants from East Pakistan or Bangladesh. That’s why demographics of Cachar and Brahmaputra Valley, i.e. Cachar Valley and Brahmaputra Valley , is completely different. If we look at this little district or this little region of Cachar, see how sensitively is it located. Just one district, borders Manipur, borders Mizoram, borders Bangladesh, borders Tripura, borders Meghalaya, and it is the gateway of all these states to Assam.
Vairengte – The Gateway to Mizoram
The point where we enter Mizoram from Assam, is the place where the fighting is taking place, Vairengte. Vairengte is the gateway to Mizoram. Vairengte is a town in the Kolasib district of Mizoram state, India. The territory of Cachar, which is in context here, is from the Hailakandi district. Usually, someone came to my territory, set up a shop, or so and so came into my territory, and setup a COVID testing camp, etc. So one thing led to the another and led to another. There was a fighting, and police came in and they were fighting. So this is what happened.
Clashes in these Regions
But this is not the only one. Even before that, there have been fights between the population in both sides, sometimes the police getting involved, but fortunately we haven’t seen any deaths. On 10th of July, an Assam police party which is going towards this sensitive region, so the Mizo said, they said they were coming into their territory, they were attacked by IEDs. Explosions were heard far away. Fortunately, no major injuries took place, although some injuries did take place. In October 2020, there were again clashes between people of the two states. In Lailapur, Hailakandi district of Cachar, and in Vairengte, in the Kolasib district of Mizoram. Vairengte is also known for the the Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS), a training and research establishment of the Indian Army specializing in unconventional warfare, especially counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare. CIJWS is one of the premier counter-insurgency training institutions in the world. Vairengte is also a sensitive place.
Now, Assam border with Mizoram is 165 kilometers. Let’s go back to the map of the Northeast. It is out of the original Assam that other states were carved out. Sequence in which it was done is, first Nagaland, then Meghalaya, then Mizoram, then Arunachal Pradesh were carved out. Tripura and Manipur was already there, but once again the route to reach any of these was via Assam. Assam is the heart and the spine of the Northeast as you see in this map. But while the heart and spine of the Northeast is in Assam, we also see that the head of the Northeast is not in one place. Because to the northeast of Assam is Arunachal Pradesh, to the northwest we have West Bengal and Bhutan. Then to the east of Assam we have Nagaland, to the southeast of Assam we have Manipur. To the south of Assam we have Mizoram and Tripura. Assam also shares border with Bangladesh in the southwest. So Assam shares border with all these regions. Assam is a place where everybody comes for education, medical treatment, etc. Assam is like the Big Brother.
Populations of NE States
Let’s take a look at the population. Mizoram has a population of aout 13 lakhs, one of the smallest states in the Northeast. Nagaland has a population of around 22 lakhs. Arunachal Pradesh has a population of about 14 lakhs. In terms of area, Arunchal Pradesh is the 14th largest state in India. It is sparsely populated due to it’s vast area. Manipur has a population of 31 lakhs. Tripura is the largest of these other states, with 41 lakhs in population. Meghalaya has a population of 34 lakhs. Total population of all these states is 1.55 crores. Assam’s population on the other hand is 3.5 crores. So Assam is more than twice as big in population than all these states combined, and that’s why expectation from Assam always is a bit of generosity, because you are the Big Brother, so be helpful like a Big Brother. But don’t play the Big Brother. Because these Northeast states, with their rich tribal heritage, do not like domination – either by mainland Indians i.e. Delhi, or locally i.e. Assam. So there is always the Delhi hostility, that Delhi is controlling everything. Locally, locally it’s also about Assam, because the reason they all became separate states was they did not want to be part of Assam, and they did not want to be governed from Assam.
Nehru first of all made Nagaland into a state, because he knew that the Chinese had got very involved with the Naga insurgency and he had to do something to create a single strong political force in the Nagas. Mrs Gandhi on the other hand saw problems elsewhere. Just as she took over in 1966 the Mizo insurgency started. In fact when the Mizo insurgency started in 1966, Zoramthanga, who’s the current Chief Minister of Mizoram, was with the Mizo National Front (MNF) underground. In fact, he became the secretary to Laldenga, the founder and leader of MNF, Vice-president to him. And in fact, after Laldenga passed away Zoramthanga took over. So Zoramthanga is somebody who has fought in the underground for many years. He has gone to East Pakistan for refuge and training, because they had the sanctuaries there, i.e. overall he’s been there and done that. So these people have seen the toughest times.
Himanta Biswa Sarma
On the other end, we have Himanta Biswa Sarma, who himself has had his rebellious days having been in various events in Assam, some students union and also has having had fairly close election with ULFA. Although there is no evidence of having been involved in anything violent at that point. So these people have known how uncertain things can be in the Northeast.
Formation of the NE States
It was in 1969 that Indira Gandhi first created two autonomous states within a state, and these autonomous states were Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. In 1971, she came up with what is called as Northeastern Areas Reorganization Act. That is what defined these new states. And with that reorganization the Union territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh were created, so they were no longer autonomous regions within Assam. And Union territories of Manipur and Tripura were made states. So Mizoram, which was actually originally Lushai Hills and then became autonomous, now became a Union territory. Later in 1987 it became a full-fledged state. And in the same year Arunachal Pradesh also became a full-fledged state. Arunachal, we remember was called NEFA before that, short for North-East Frontier Agency.
Indira Gandhi and the 1971 Act
The North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971 was a major reform of the boundaries of India’s North-East region into States and union territories. When did Indira Gandhi move this law? She moved this law on December 1917. Why is that important? Because 16 December 1971, she just finished the Bangladesh War liberating Bangladesh, and she knew that because India had this northeastern soft underbelly, this was a time to settle that problem. So she declared Arunachal Pradesh to be a state. Let the Chinese do what they wanted. Calculation was if the Chinese did not come in to intervene when India was defeating Pakistan, why would they come in now? So she declared Arunachal Pradesh Union territory with immediate effect, away from the earlier Northeast Frontier Agency status. So the region was further integrated into India. Similarly, she created these other states, including Mizoram very importantly. Because the idea was that local leaders there should get their own share of power, and similarly Meghalaya. Earlier, the major tribes of Meghalaya, i.e. the Khasi, the Jaintia, and the Garo tribes, all had resentment against the Assamese domination. Also the fact that their main city, Shillong, was the capital of combined Assam was a cause for discontent. In fact, even when Meghalaya was given its autonomous status, then many of the most important areas of Shillong municipality were kept outside of it, so that Assam’s capital could remain there. But she knew that these are regional ambitions, and that is how these Union territories were created, and later became states.
Cause of Conflict
A lot of it was done in a great hurry. In that great hurry, a lot of history, ethnicity, tribal claims, they were overlooked. For example, if I bring you just back again to Hailakandi, Vairengte. What is the problem here? The Mizo say that the British drew the boundaries of Mizoram, Lushai Hills, or the Mizo tribal traditional areas in 1875. This was under the Bengal East Frontier Regulation (BEFR) of 1873. So the British drew these boundaries, they say in consultation with Mizo or Lushai tribal chiefs. So the Chiefs said this is the boundary, the British said okay, we will accept that that is our boundary. Whereas once again in 1933 the British redrew those boundaries. The Mizos say when the British redrew those boundaries, they never consulted our chiefs. This is true, because the 1875 boundaries were put out in Assam gazette. Now the Mizos say take it back to our traditional boundaries that the British acknowledged in consultation with our Chiefs in 1875. Whereas when Government of India drew these States and their maps, they went by the latest maps i.e. the maps of 1933. So that is where the problem arises from.
Into the Future
Now one would have thought with a very strong government in Delhi, a very strong home Minister, with complete control over all of the northeast, such a huge focus in the northeast, complete peace and space is developing. We would have thought that these problems would have been settled by now. But that has not happened. Amending Citizenship on the basis of religion created utter disarray in these regions. None of these tribal states want any of that to happen, because they are very insecure and very protective of their ethnic identities. If a state has a population is a 13 lakhs in an area which is almost as big as Punjab and Haryana combined, they worry about even 500 people coming in it. That’s the reason many of these states Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh have inner line permit restrictions – so they restrict who comes in. And it’s after CAA and NRC that Meghalaya has also been demanding this. So some of what’s happening today is also a result of that lack of understanding of the Northeast, the sensitivities, and also a lack of appreciation of the northeastern ethnic minorities, small groups, not religious minorities, and their keenness to preserve their ethnic identity. The people of the NE region will not trade that for anything.
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