The Mukroh horror: The ‘We only’ attitude can go haywire
By Albert Thyrniang
After the unfortunate Mukroh incident normalcy is almost back. The firing, killing six persons and injuring many others, almost soured the relations between Assam and Meghalaya at a time when both states are engaged in parleys to settle the five decade old border dispute. Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma may state otherwise but the root cause of the Mukroh shooting is the thorny border impasse. Assam considers Mukroh part of West Karbi Anglong while Meghalaya insists the village is its own. Assam has set up a forest check gate near Mukroh which Meghalaya claims is within its territory.
Soon after the sensational shooting, claims and counter claims emerged. In Meghalaya the reports were that the Assam forest guards pursued a truck carrying timber from the village forests. Assam insisted the occupants of the truck were smugglers. Those killed were alleged to be wood lifters. In Meghalaya people accused the Assam police and the foresters of unprovoked firing while the Assam officers defended it, insisting the firing was in self-defence. Reports emanating from Meghalaya claimed the spot of occurrence is well within West Jaintia Hills District of Laskein Block and hence Assam personnel had no business being there while Assam is sure that the location is in its constitutional boundary. That is the reason the OC of Jrikyndeng did not refer to his counter-part in the Meghalaya side. Hence the border issue is both the remote and immediate cause. Reportedly the people of Mukroh have been facing constant harassment from guards at the forest gate near the village. Anger was accumulated for a period of time.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. From reliable sources it is confirmed that deceased were not smugglers (certainly not all). Secondly, the firing was not totally unprovoked. Sources also say everything was about to be settled. The village leaders and a local Member of Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC) were assured that ‘captives’ would be released. However, all of a sudden there was a provocation by someone which triggered the abrupt firing. Smuggling of wood in the area is also a reality.
The longstanding boundary dispute between the neighbouring states is due to the complicated boundary definition. The North- Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971 failed to assign a clear boundary not only to Meghalaya but also to Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. The Act of parliament that provides for the establishment of the states of Manipur, Tripura and the formation of the State of Meghalaya and the Union territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh leaves a legacy of disputes between the ‘mother’ state, Assam and its ‘children’. Specifically with respect to Meghalaya, No. 5 of the Act states that the boundary of the Meghalaya shall be ‘the territories that comprised the autonomous State of Meghalaya formed under section 3 of the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act, 1969 (55 of 1969)’ which in turn reads, ‘Meghalaya shall comprise of tribal areas of the United Khasi Jaintia Hills District and the Garo Hills District.’ The United Khasi Jaintia Hills District is defined by sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph 20 of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution. To make it simpler the Sixth Schedule states that the area of the United Khasi Jaintia Hills District constitutes the ‘kingdoms’ of the 25 Khasi states who signed the Instrument of Accession to join with the Indian union in 1947. The United Khasi Jaintia Hills District was later bifurcated into Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) and Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC). In Garo Hills there is Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC). The areas of these ADCs basically form Meghalaya’s constitutional boundary.
The matter should have been settled there. There should not be any more dispute. But that is not the case. The hill state asserts that the territories of the ‘Syiems’ extend to the areas claimed by Assam. Denying any encroachment, Assam, on the other hand, says Meghalaya has no record to back its claims. Rendered powerless, the ‘Syiems’ probably were unable to protect their territories. It did not help that post-Independence Assam administered Meghalaya too. Therefore, we now have the 12 areas of differences (probably more) along the 885 km shared border.
A major part of the dispute stems from the 1951 committee’s recommendations headed by the then Assam chief minister, Gopinath Bordoloi seeking the transfer of Blocks I and II of Jaintia Hills to the then Mikir Hills (now Karbi Anglong) district. Following an act of the Assembly, the Assam government issued two notifications on April 13, 1951 tagging the two Blocks to Karbi Anglong for administrative convenience. Meghalaya rejects the forceful move contending the areas originally belong to its districts, Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Studies have to be made as to why the notifications were issued. Some see it as a step to preserve Kaziranga which was declared a wildlife sanctuary 1950. Allegedly the population in and around the now national park and UNESCO designated World Heritage site were given compensation in areas included in Mikir Hills.
The KHADC might have passed a resolution urging the re-transfer of Block-I and II areas to Meghalaya. Groups like the JSU might have also demanded for the same but to resolve the issue is hard. Karbi Anglong will oppose vehemently any move of a re-transfer. However, for a long lasting peace and co-existence probably the best and the wisest approach is the give and take policy. During my two year of stay in Umswai (Block I, 36 km from Mawlasnai), I heard stories of how the Jaintia king used to come once a year in a horse cart to collect taxes from his subjects. As the article the other day indicates practically the whole of the West Karbi Anglong might have been once under the Jaintia kingdom. Names of villages, places, hills, rivers, etc., suggest that. However, it would be unwise to expect that the whole of it is re-attached to Meghalaya. It will simply not happen. It is much more convenient for Umswai villages and many others to remain in Assam. One important note! Nepali villages have come up along the border because of the Shillong violence exodus in 1979 and after. Are we willing to embrace the people we persecuted and committed crimes against? However, Pnar villages in Block I and Khasi villages in Block II are willing to belong to Meghalaya. It takes large hearts from both sides to make adjustments for a bigger cause. Disputes of two states cannot hold innocent people to ransom denying them their rights.
In the past both the state governments made attempts to resolve the stalemate. No tangible outcomes emerged. In July 2021 headway was made when Meghalaya chief minister, Conrad K Sangma and his Assam counterpart, Himanta Biswa Sarma agreed to move beyond the ‘status quo’. The ‘easier’ six out of 12 areas were taken up. The fruit of the constituted Regional committees that went to the ground for consultations was the MoU signed on 29 March, 2022 between Assam and Meghalaya before union home minister Amit Shah in New Delhi.
The second phase to resolve the remaining six areas including the complicated Block I and II and Langpih were to commence soon. The Mukroh firing will delay the process as the chief minister indicated.
The New Delhi pact was considered as a major achievement of the NPP-led MDA and the BJP government in Meghalaya and Assam respectively. While the Meghalaya CM hailed the agreement as ‘historic’ his Assam counter-part called on other states in dispute to emulate the two eastern states. Inside and outside the Assemblies both stated that only their government have achieved the impossible and declared in uncertain term to complete the process before 2024 as desired by the Prime Minister. In Meghalaya the target was before the Assembly election 2023.
Amidst protests and dissatisfaction that many Meghalaya villages were ‘handed’ over to Assam, the allegations that all stakeholders were not consulted, the demand to revisit the memorandum, the CM stood firm. The party that takes most of the credit is the NPP. Party functionaries brag that only its government has accomplished what others have failed. The idea is to take mileage before the February 2023 polls. The plan was to claim that only someone and during his term of office that the border issue are resolved once and for all. It was an over-ambitious move to settle the long and complicated dispute in two years. Now the chief minister and his party plead that politics be kept out of the border, but it was they who began politicising it in the first place.
The attitude of indispensability can go haywire. The state government had to deal with the tense situation, unjustifiably resort to internet shutdown, faced the wrath of agitating groups, cancelled all festivals, contended with the ‘embargo’ of Assam vehicles, bore the fuel shortage. The ‘me alone’ mentality and self-glorification has many lessons to teach us. Hopefully, we learn the lesson of interdependence.
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