Who’s the referee?
Assam-Meghalaya border disputes
By Patricia Mukhim
“In 1985, a Committee headed by YV Chandrachud, retired chief justice of India was constituted to go into the claims and counter claims by Assam and Meghalaya on their areas of dispute.”
Even before any talks on the Assam- Meghalaya border disputes could be formally held, the Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma has fired the first salvo by claiming that Meghalaya had made 53 incursions into Assam thus far. The documentation for those incursions have obviously been recorded in Assam Police dairies. I may sound naïve but Meghalaya has neither the wherewithal nor the gumption to intrude into areas under dispute between the two states. On the contrary, there is clear documentation by Meghalaya Police of the number of times that Assam police have given the people of Langpih a bloody nose. Quite a few residents of Meghalaya residing along the disputed areas have even been killed in firing by Assam Police. In March last year, the MLA of Boko, Nandita Das visited Langpih and accused Meghalaya of incursions into 14 villages belonging to Assam since 2016. Das said she had written to the then CM, Sarbananda Sonowal and PWD Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma about this since she wanted road connectivity in the area but there was no response from either of them.
In 1985, a Committee headed by YV Chandrachud, retired chief justice of India was constituted to go into the claims and counter claims by Assam and Meghalaya on their areas of dispute. The Committee awarded Langpih to Assam based on the maps presented by the State. Meghalaya rejected the Chandrachud Committee recommendations based on maps provided by the then United Khasi and Jaintia Hills District Council and that of the traditional chieftains (syiem) of the area. So how does this dispute get resolved today unless Assam agrees to cede those areas under conflict or Meghalaya agrees to let them go?
The border dispute between Assam and Meghalaya has seen enough bloodshed and bickering. Assam has set up police outposts and settled its people in the villages inside Meghalaya on the basis of its ancestral claims to these areas. They include 12 disputed areas of Upper Tarabari, Gazang reserve Forest, Hahim, Langpih, Borduar, Boklapara, Nongwah, Matamur, Khanapara-Pilangkata, Deshdemoreah Block I and Block II, Khanduli and Retacherra.
Assam’s contentious borders with Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh too have been the location of some bloody and ugly reprisals from both sides of the border. In Assam’s Barak Valley three districts share a 164 km long border with three districts of Mizoram. Border disputes started ever since Mizoram was created in 1987. In a recent incident people from Mizoram allegedly lobbed grenades at the road construction workers in Cachar district of Assam near the Mizoram border. Thankfully there were no injuries on account of the blast. Ironically the incident happened a day after the chief secretaries of Mizoram and Assam met in New Delhi to discuss the ongoing border dispute between both states. What does this imply but that the people of Mizoram do not agree to the claims of Assam on their land! As can be expected the meeting remained inconclusive since Mizoram sought more time on Assam’s proposal to maintain status-quo along the border and withdrawal of security forces from the disputed areas.
In their recent visit to the border villages under Ri Bhoi district Congress MLAs George Lyngdoh and Mayralborn Syiem heard the villagers complain about high-handedness from the Karbi Anglong District Council which lays claim to those areas under Meghalaya. Jatalong village with 63 households and a population of over 300 people is now mapped as belonging to Assam by the Survey of India. Further, Jatalong is now declared a reserved forest. There are two Blocks under dispute between Assam and Meghalaya in Ri Bhoi district since 1950. But what is distressing is that the farmers of the area who grow wheat, ginger and broomsticks, are reportedly being harassed by the Karbi Anglong District Council of Assam which collects about Rs 8000 per truck load of agricultural produce.
This writer had visited the same areas in November 2020 and found a police outpost of Assam Police in areas which are evidently in Meghalaya territory. Meanwhile, a particular community has been settled there by Assam Government. The community is engaged in farming, cattle and goat rearing. The Rangbah Shnong of the area spoke to us about the problems they face there and said they felt orphaned since the border dispute seems to be unsolvable and an ongoing headache for them even while there does not seem to be any aggressive action or contestation by Meghalaya Government.
But Meghalaya is not alone in this situation. There are regular skirmishes in the Assam- Nagaland border. Unlike the Meghalaya Police which is more benign, Nagaland Police have not taken things lying down. To be talking of a give and take policy when it comes to resolving border disputes between Assam and Nagaland or between the four states of the region and Assam is like asking the avaricious big brother to concede to give away what he already possesses. Is that even possible unless the big brother discards his precious avatar and turns gracious and magnanimous? And what would be the election reprisals if the big brother takes such a decision? This matters in the politics of optical illusions being played today.
For the moment Himanta Biswa Sarma nurses ambitions of being India’s future Prime Minister. In the North East, Himanta is seen as the natural leader because he heads the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) Look at how our own political leaders from Meghalaya are making a beeline for Dispur. Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma has visited the Assam CM for issues that are seemingly related to the border disputes but which political observers believe revolves around matters related to the MDA Government in Meghalaya which has been sailing on stormy seas for a while now. Assembly Speaker, Metbah Lyngdoh and Health Minister AL Hek have all been confabulating with Himanta for different reasons. The BJP in Meghalaya has been fighting internecine battles for a while now. Some want the present BJP president Ernest Mawrie to step aside and let health Minister AL Hek take over as President- an action that violates the one man one post principle of the BJP. Mawrie and Hek have been meeting Himanta to resolve this matter. In a sense therefore, Himanta is the Prime Minister of the North Eastern states by virtue of being the NEDA chief.
In Assam, Himanta has marshalled two Bills – one against cow slaughter and the other to implement the two-child norm. The only other state where the two-child norm is being proposed is Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. The legislation banning cow slaughter will have its impacts on the tribal states since the cattle have to transit Assam and the cattle merchants are from Assam. Already our cattle butchers are feeling the pinch and not getting the requisite number of cattle for slaughtering. So far, the Government of Meghalaya has not taken up the issue of cattle shortage with Assam when that is the only protein that the majority of Meghalaya’s residents rely on. This shortage has led to beef prices spiralling here. Meghalaya is one state where price rise never seems to be an issue.
Considering that all the six states plus Assam are part of NEDA, might it not be possible that the above two laws might also surreptitiously enter the tribal states also? We never know, for politics makes strange bedfellows. For now, Himanta is one up on everyone else. I don’t see how the border dispute can be resolved through a give and take policy when Himanta stands to gain in stature by wresting areas belonging to the other states and making them part of Assam. The only way out is to have an independent mediator. But is Union Home Minister Amit Shah going to be that referee? Only time will tell.