Major protests have erupted in Nagaland and Mizoram, as well as in Kuki-inhabited areas of Manipur, against plans to fence the 1,643-kilometre long India-Myanmar border.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah formally announced this plan on social media site X earlier this week.
Shah’s post read: “The Modi government is committed to building impenetrable borders. It has decided to construct a fence along the entire 1643-kilometer-long Indo-Myanmar border. To facilitate better surveillance, a patrol track along the border will also be paved."
The porous and unfenced international border has emerged as a major concern for security agencies in India.
Cross-border arms, drugs and human trafficking have increased exponentially in recent months and are posing a grave danger to India’s internal security.
Illegal immigration of tens of thousands of Myanmarese belonging to the Kuki-Chin-Zo ethnic group over the years has altered the demography of Manipur and is one of the primary causes of the ongoing ethnic strife in the state.
Also, Kuki-Chin militants belonging to armed groups in Myanmar have infiltrated into Manipur and are suspected to be involved in attacks on Manipur police and Meiteis.
The Assam Rifles (AR), which is tasked to guard the international border, faces accusation of being ineffective and even complicit in the influx of Myanmarese into Manipur and also Mizoram.
The AR, in turn, says that it is impossible to prevent entry of people, drugs and arms from Myanmar through an unfenced and open border.
What has also aided drug, arms and human trafficking, and the illegal immigration of Chin-Kuki-Zo tribals from Myanmar, is the Free Movement Regime (FMR) that allowed tribal residents on both sides of the border free movement up to 16 kilometres into each others’ countries.
The FMR was notified in 2018 as part of India’s ‘Act East’ policy keeping in mind the fact that tribals and indigenous people belonging to the same ethnic groups live on both sides of the border.
But ever since ethnic violence erupted in Manipur, the state government has been urging the Union government to scrap the FMR.
The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wrote to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) late last week asking it to issue the necessary orders to end the FMR.
Why The Protests Against Border Fencing And Scrapping Of FMR
People belonging to some Naga tribes, as well as sub-tribes of the larger Zo ethnic group, reside on both sides of the border.
Traditionally, from the pre-British days when these areas were largely unexplored and remained cut off from the rest of the world, people belonging to the sub-tribes and the larger ethnic groups — all were nomadic — used to move freely across the hills and valleys that are now designated as the states of Mizoram and Nagaland in India and the Sagaing and Chin provinces of Myanmar.
It was the British who drew artificial lines and designated them as borders. A fallout of the arbitrary demarcation of the international border by the British was the division of communities, villages and even families who suddenly found themselves on two sides of the border and as citizens of two countries.
An interesting example is that of Longwa village in Mon district of Nagaland where the border runs through the village chieftain’s house: his bedroom lies in India while the living room is in Myanmar (read this and this).
The Nagas and the Zo people argue that the areas they now inhabit on both sides of the international border were their composite homeland before the advent of the British colonists. Hence, it will be unfair to fence the border and scrap the FMR.
Fencing the border will end cross-border movement of people who not only share the same ethnicities, but often even close familial ties.
Also, a fenced border and an end to the FMR will affect cross-border trade of agricultural produce and minor commodities that sustain the economies of many villages on both sides of the border.
Many people on both sides of the border are dependent on this border trade and will be adversely affected if the open border is fenced.
Militant groups in Nagaland, and also the hills of Manipur, have a vested interest in keeping the border open and unfenced.
Many Kuki and Naga militant groups operate on both sides of the border. Some factions of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), for example, have their bases in Myanmar and raise funds through extortions in India.
These militant groups are involved in trafficking of arms and drugs and that is a major source of revenue for them. Powerful criminal gangs are also involved in drug and human trafficking.
These militant groups, and smuggling syndicates and cartels, have instigated protests against fencing the border and ending the FMR.
Why The Protests Are Unreasonable
International boundaries, and even inter-state boundaries, have divided not only the Naga and Zo people, but those belonging to many communities across not only the Indian sub-continent, but also the world.
There are Meiteis who are indigenous to present-day Myanmar. Those Meiteis have been living in what is today called Myanmar for centuries before the arrival of the British. Some of the Meitei kings ruled over parts of present-day Sagaing province and that is how Meteis settled down in Myanmar.
But Meiteis do not demand free movement across the international border. They have accepted ground realities, and the border which they insist should be inviolable.
Similarly, there are thousands of Garos and Khasis living in Bangladesh close to that country’s border with Meghalaya. They have been living there for generations. But, unlike the Nagas and Zos (or Mizos), they do not demand integration of those areas in Bangladesh with Meghalaya or free movement across the border.
The India-Tibet border has also divided tribes, communities and even families. As has the India-Nepal border along Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The earlier undivided Bengal is now split in two and Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) live on both sides of the border. This border, again drawn arbitrarily by the British, has also divided families and communities.
The same is the case with the India-Pakistan border. Kashmiris live on both sides of the border, as do Sindhis and Punjabis. One of the holiest Sikh shrines — the Kartarpur Sahib — lies across the border in Pakistan.
But the Bengalis, Biharis, Punjabis and many other communities living on both sides of the international borders with Bangladesh, Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan have accepted the inevitability of the borders dividing them and respect the sanctity of the borders even when they are arbitrary and artificial.
Hence, there is no reason why the Nagas and Zos should expect special treatment and be allowed to disregard the India-Myanmar border and cross it at will.
Both the Nagas and Zos have to accept that the India-Myanmar border is inviolable and cross-border movement can only be allowed through a strict visa regime.
These two communities should also realise that the open border has facilitated many crimes and largescale influx of people from Myanmar which cannot be allowed.
The Union government has to make it clear to the Nagas and Zos that their protests will be futile and the border will be fenced, no matter what.
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