Resolution Of Boundary Disputes Between Northeastern States Will Need Much More Than Satellite Imagery, Here’s What Can Be Done To Resolve Them

Resolution Of Boundary Disputes Between Northeastern States Will Need Much More Than Satellite Imagery, Here’s What Can Be Done To Resolve ThemMizoram chief minister Zoramthanga (Twitter)
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  • Given that Assam and the tribal states have valid, though opposing, points of views, the only way out is through negotiations.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah has managed to broker a temporary truce between Assam and Mizoram whose dispute over ownership of a forest took a violent turn early last week. Shah has also mooted the idea of using satellite imagery to demarcate the inter-state borders in the region.

The North Eastern Space Application Centre (NESAC), a joint venture of the Department of Space and the North Eastern Council (NEC), will be commissioned to provide accurate satellite imagery of the entire region.

It can be assumed that based on satellite images produced by NESAC, either that agency or some other government agency will produce detailed maps complete with all geographical and physical features. Based on these maps, the inter-state boundaries will be demarcated on the ground.

This physical demarcation based on satellite imagery will, the Union Government hopes, bring to an end all territorial disputes.

But that may be wishful thinking. While this exercise will resolve some boundary disputes in stretches that are not demarcated on the ground and two states dispute where the inter-state boundary runs through, it will not work in places where one state lays claim to territories lying within another state.

That is exactly the nature of the dispute between Assam and Mizoram. Mizoram claims ownership of a reserve forest that lies within Assam and along the Assam-Mizoram border. Mizoram’s contention is that the forest was declared a ‘restricted area’ for non-tribals through a notification issued by the British in 1875 under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873.

The 1873 Act made the tribal areas of the Northeast off-limits to non-tribals, who were mandated to acquire a permit (the Inner Line Permit or ILP) for entering those restricted tribal areas.

Mizoram contends that since the forest was notified as a restricted area and denoted as part of the Lushai Hills in the 1875 notification, it is the rightful owner of the forest.

But a Survey of India map prepared in 1933 shows the forest as within Assam and not part of Lushai Hills (which was a district in Assam before being made a separate state).

Assam prefers to go by this map and asserts that ‘constitutional boundaries’ drawn up while creating the tribal states of the region should be respected by all.

Thus, in this case, there is no dispute over the inter-state boundary and where it passes through. The dispute is due to Mizoram’s demand that the boundary should be redrawn to include the forest in Mizoram.

Similar is the case with many stretches along Assam’s borders with Nagaland and Meghalaya. Nagaland lays claim to many areas within Assam (along the inter-state border) that’s inhabited by Naga tribes.

As is the case with Mizoram, Nagaland also contends that the inter-state border has been erroneously demarcated and areas which should have been part of Nagaland had been given to Assam.

Ditto with Meghalaya, which claims some villages inside Assam along the Assam-Meghalaya border as its own. These villages, too, are inhabited by Khasis or Garos who are indigenous to Meghalaya.

Nagaland also lays claim to areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, besides Myanmar, that are inhabited by tribes which proclaim themselves to be part of the greater Naga family.

Thus, Nagaland acknowledges its existing borders with its three neighbouring states and also where the actual demarcation lies on the ground.

But it challenges the border as erroneous and asserts that areas which should have formed part of Nagaland have been given to other states. Nagaland, and the other states, want these ‘wrongs’ corrected, and correcting them would mean re-drawing the interstate boundaries.

Thus, application of satellite imagery would not solve the territorial disputes between the Northeastern states. Because, in many cases, it is not the boundary or border, or where it runs through, that is disputed.

Satellite imagery is of no use in resolving a dispute like that between Assam and Mizoram over the forest which lies within Assam but is being claimed by Mizoram.

Resolving these disputes needs bilateral and even multilateral talks between the states at the political, administrative as well as community levels.

It must be remembered here that while people in the plains (of Assam) view land from a legal perspective in terms of ownership to be proven by documents, tribals of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya view land and territory from a community perspective.

To the tribal, land and territory belongs to the community even though it may be cultivated by an individual or a family may be residing on it. Tribals, traditionally, have never had any documents to prove their ownership over any tract of land. Their claims over any land or territory is based on their sense of community ownership over such land. Even today, many tribals when asked will tell a visitor that his village land extends to the base of a distant hill or one bank of a river some miles away.

“Our forefathers used to hunt inside that forest,” or “my grandfather used to take his cattle to graze on that grassland.” or even “we used to carry out jhum (cut, slash & burn) cultivation in that forest on that hill,” are often taken as valid claims of community ownership of land in tribal states.

Land in the tribal areas do not belong to the government or the individual, but to the community. Ownership of community land cannot be transferred even to the government without the consent of the community. And artificial (inter-state) borders drawn by government entities make no sense to the tribals, and hold no sanctity for them. A tribal will consider any land or territory, and even land under forest cover, as land belonging to his community if his forefathers had unchallenged access to that land or territory to hunt, cultivate, graze cattle or stay on.

It is thus that Mizos living along the Assam-Mizoram border (where the violence and firing resulting in six deaths took place) lay claim to a forest that happens to be in Assam now. Their forefathers may have hunted inside that forest, or may have even practised jhum cultivation in some patches inside that forest.

Mizoram’s claim over that forest is thus based on this tribal perspective and cannot, looking at it from the tribal point of view, be faulted.

Assam’s perspective that the forest falls within its territorial limits that have been well-demarcated in maps also cannot be faulted. Assam maintains that the boundaries were drawn up when the Naga Hills (which became Nagaland), Lushai Hills (which became Mizoram) and Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills (which became Meghalaya) that were districts of undivided Assam were hived off as separate states.

Assam says that the sanctity of those boundaries must be maintained. Assam also contends that during the formation of these states, Assam had been very generous and had given up significant portions of its own territory to these tribal states.

That is true, and Nagaland’s commercial capital Dimapur is a prime example of this. Dimapur was given to Nagaland even though it was traditionally inhabited by the Dimasas (a tribe of Assam) because Nagaland (a hill state) wanted access to a railhead and some plains tracts.

Assam contends that the ‘constitutional boundaries’ that were drawn during the formation of these states should be respected and no claims should be made over territories that lie within Assam.

Given that Assam and the tribal states have valid, though opposing, points of views, the only way out is through negotiations. Those negotiations have to be conducted with an open mind and in a spirit of give and take.

The Union Government should facilitate such negotiations, but should not dictate terms to any side. Apart from being a facilitator, the Union Government should also incentivise the negotiations and a permanent solution to the territorial disputes.

The Union Government should offer attractive financial and development packages, and other incentives, to a state that acts responsibly, reasonably and charitably towards its neighbour(s). That is the only way to get the states in the region to drive toward an amicable solution to the long-festering territorial disputes.

Also, and this is vital, the local communities should be involved in these negotiations. In fact, it would be very wise to get the local communities living along the disputed sections along the inter-state borders to start negotiating.

They can be helped, and encouraged, by state-level politicians and bureaucrats. Once the local communities arrive at a basic agreement, the same can be taken forward and given a final shape by the political and administrative authorities of the states involved.

As has been said, ownership of tribal community land cannot be transferred without the consent of the community and, thus, the local tribals need to be involved in the negotiations. A top-down approach will not work here.

Another advantage of this approach (of involving the local communities) is that they (the local communities) are intricately dependent on each other. They have close trade and other links and understand the importance of peaceful coexistence.

It is, thus, best to adopt a bottoms-up approach to solving the territorial disputes between the Northeastern states.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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