Spirit of North East or does something else matter?

By Albert Thyrniang

Security forces are killed in gun battles in international borders not in interstate boundaries. But in a shocking incident on July 26, six Assam policemen lost their lives and at least 50 were injured at the Assam-Mizoram border in a police firing between the forces of the two North Eastern States. Viral videos and images emerged from the scene and were widely shared on social media. National media reported and debated the clash between the two neighbouring states. The two states are now moving towards de-escalation but the damage has been done.
The North Eastern region comprising seven states (8 if Sikkim is included) is seen as a united block that has long been neglected by the centre. We have also often complained of discrimination that people from the region face in ‘mainland’ India because of their looks, dress and culture. Generally people from the rest of India know us as hailing from the North East. The July 26 tragedy revealed that the seven states are not so united after all. We are not really sisters. We often end up in flared-up boundary disputes. The next day following the bloody clash parliament was informed that out of the seven border disputes in the country four are in the North East with Assam involved in all of them.
The Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma is the focal point in the tragic confrontation. Two days before the hostility Sarma met his Mizoram counterpart, Zoramthanga in Shillong in the presence of the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah. Both agreed to settle the simmering border dispute amicably. Earlier when he met the Meghalaya Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma, Sarma stressed on peaceful resolution adopting a ‘give and take’ policy to keep the spirit of North East alive.
The expectation was negotiations across the table. On the contrary suddenly about 200 fully armed Assam Police personnel led by IGP Anurag Agarwal proceeded to the disputed area. Whatever the claims and counter claims be, it is now established that the Assam police crossed the CRPF gate and overpowered the police post manned by the Mizoram police. This looks like a well-planned action. Sources say the order came directly from the Assam Chief Minister’s office. The most converged view links the incident with the political ambition of the new Chief Minister of Assam. Having fulfilled his ambition of being Chief Minister by rebelling against the then three-time Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi; forming the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a NDA regional sub-group ensuring a ‘Congress-mukt’ in the North East and especially by leading the BJP to return to power in the last elections, he now wants to consolidate his position in his state. He wants to be seen as the undisputed leader of Assam. And what better way to do so than by raking up the border disputes with the neighbouring states? Though Sarma may talk peace but he has iterated over and over again that Assam will not surrender an inch its land. Prior to the 26th firing he had accused Mizoram of encroaching into Assam land. The aggression that unfortunately led to loss of lives was to defend the state’s boundary. The aggressive stand in the aftermath of the violence has won hearts. Even the most vocal critic, Akhil Gogoi had to support his political adversary.
There are also allegations of a hidden agenda. The Assam government plans to settle the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh left out from the state’s NRC via CAA in parts of the 509 square miles disputed border with Mizoram. If this is true Sarma could be a hero in the Barak Valley. The plan may not be in the interest of Assam’s indigenous tribes but who cares if political ambitions are achieved?
Prior to the tragic clash Sarma had offered to resolve the border disputes with all neighbouring states before India’s 75th Independence Day. The man with a growing clout wants to make a mark during his tenure. And what better mark than solving the long pending disputes! He wants to live up to the image as the most powerful politician in the North East. Incidentally on the same day the Assam police were also involved in skirmish at Iongkhuli village on the border with Meghalaya. Shillong MP, Vincent Pala sees the personal ego of the Chief Minister of Assam in the surge of border clashes. From being a big brother, he seems to nurture bullying desires.
Sarma has also antagonised some tribal leaders. Ever since he occupied the hot seat he has been uttering Hindutva voices. He stated that ‘most of us’ descended from Hinduism. He introduced a cow protection bill that proposes banning of cattle transport to neighbouring states. Post the fatal incident social media users in neighbouring states are sympathetic towards Mizoram. The fate of NEDA has also been questioned. Things have started to cool down. Conversations between the two states, with the centre as the facilitator, are on. Sarma has directed the police to withdraw the case against Mizoram Rajya Sabha member, K. Vanlalvena for his ‘shoot them all’ remark. Mizoram has indicated its willingness to reciprocate by removing the name of the Assam Chief Minister from its FIR. Time will heal. NEDA may be unaffected. As he himself voiced the ‘spirit of the North East’ may be preserved. But even if it is in jeopardy it does not matter. His main aim is to be an accomplished Chief Minister for a long time. Everything else is a means to that direction.
The background of the dispute traces back to two colonial border demarcations of 1875 and 1933. The 1873 delineation of the then Lushai Hills with Assam’s Cachar district in the Barak Valley was carried out in consultation with Mizo chiefs and hence the people of Mizoram accept this demarcation. The 1933 Survey of India’s demarcation that begins at the tri-junction of Lushai Hills, Cachar district and Manipur was allegedly notified without consulting Mizo chiefs and ‘unreasonably excluded Lushai (Mizo) inhabited areas like Cachar Zion, Tlangnuam, Lala Bazar and Banga Bazar’. Hence the boundary is not acceptable to Mizoram. Ever since Mizoram became a Union Territory in 1972 and then a full-fledged state in 1987 the border disputes have been simmering from time to time leading to scuffles.
We know that the British left India in a mess. After being in the sub-continent for 200 years and approximately looting $45 trillion in today’s value the colonial power got out of the country without overseeing the smooth partition of India and Pakistan resulting in one million deaths and 15 million displaced as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction in 1947. Till date the two nations are enemies squabbling over the international border.
Unfortunately, one of the remnants of colonisation are the unsettled interstate disputes. The Assam-Meghalaya dispute also has its roots in the British demarcation of the United Khasi-Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills districts under the then Assam province. Political circumstances and developments, including the creation of Meghalaya in 1970, were accompanied by the unsettled boundaries till date. Historically many of the villages in disputed areas might have been under the administration of traditional heads from Jaintia Hills and Khasi Hills. Many villages have Khasi names but things have changed now. I have been in some of these areas. For all practical purposes they fall under Assam administration. Government offices, hospitals, schools, police outposts etc are under Assam government. Demography has also changed. Some of the settlers are non-tribals who had to flee Meghalaya during the violence. Everyone craves for a fast-track solution but the ground realities are different. The Committees on border dispute may find it hard to navigate practical suggestions.
While politics is played out even for personal gains, the disputed areas have suffered for no fault of theirs. They are nobody’s children. They are victims of total neglect. They are without basic amenities like schools, roads, water and electricity. Just imagine, the aforementioned skirmish with Meghalaya was because the Assam police went in buses to remove electric posts that Meghalaya had erected in the village. Till this day and age the village is in darkness. When one state supplies electricity the other removes the posts. When one states builds a road the other halts the work.
Successive central governments have not taken border disputes seriously. The present government seems to show a little more eagerness. It has set the 75th Independence Day as the dateline. Though the Centre says it will be utilising satellite mapping to demarcate boundaries and settle interstate boundaries in the North East but will that demarcation be acceptable to all? With agreeable solutions not in sight, outside the box suggestions like the ones offered by the editor of this paper to turn the contested areas into economic zones and educational hubs where they are homes to IT parks, health centres and tourist facilities should be considered. These areas could also become centrally administered territories for the overall development rather being hosts to petty politics.
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