Soon after the BJP-led alliance returned to power in Assam for the second consecutive term and Himanta Biswa Sarma was sworn in as the state’s 16th Chief Minister, decades-long territorial disputes between Assam and its four neighbours started erupting into violent clashes.
Assam has long-standing disputes with Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The first three — all of them Christian-majority states — were carved out of Assam.
But never before have the long-festering disputes flared up simultaneously and so fiercely as has happened over the past few weeks.
Apart from Monday’s violence at the Assam-Mizoram border that claimed a few lives, clashes have also erupted on the Assam-Nagaland and the Assam-Meghalaya border. Violence was narrowly averted at a disputed area in the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.
The fact that the disputes flared up concurrently and so fiercely, and so close on the heels of the BJP coming to power in Assam, raises suspicions. This is more so in the case of the territorial dispute between Assam and Mizoram which have never led to any violence in the past.
Sarma said on Tuesday that the violence could have been a fallout of some recent actions by Assam: the state’s crackdown on drug trafficking, its refusal to allow Myanmarese nationals who fled the military junta in that country and entered India through Mizoram to settle in parts of Assam and enhanced vigil by Assam authorities along the border with Mizoram to prevent smuggling of timber from Assam to Mizoram.
Drugs are smuggled across the porous international border from Myanmar to Mizoram and then routed through Assam to the rest of the country.
Assam’s recent crackdown on drugs — confiscation and destruction of huge quantities of narcotics and arrest of drug runners — has hit the drug smuggling racket in which some powerful people in Mizoram are suspected to be involved.
Mizoram has also been providing refuge to many Myanmarese nationals who have fled the military junta that seized power in that country in February this year because those refugees have close ethnic ties with Mizos.
Mizoram was upset with Assam’s refusal to allow entry of these Myanmarese nationals into Assam.
Chief Minister Sarma said that these factors could have led to some ‘non-state actors’ in Mizoram to incite the belligerence by Mizoram police and locals staying in areas near the disputed territory, leading to Monday’s violence.
A well-planned conspiracy
However, what Sarma left unsaid (because he could not have done so since he occupies the post of CM) is that there is growing suspicion of much more than just these factors at play.
Because it is not a case of a territorial dispute with just one state spiralling out of control and resulting in bloodshed.
Since late May and early June, tension has been rising in many areas of Assam along its border with Nagaland. Some Nagas living on the other side of the inter-state border have become aggressive and have started encroaching into Assam’s territory at many places.
This had led to mobilisation of Assam Police personnel and the state’s commando force and their deployment at the areas along the interstate border that Nagaland lays claim to.
It has also led to counter-mobilisation of Nagaland Police and its armed battalions.
Sporadic clashes between locals in Assam and encroachers from Nagaland have been erupting with alarming regularity over the past two months. There has also been a few incidents of firing from Nagaland.
In end-May, a Congress MLA from Assam narrowly escaped an attack by some miscreants from Nagaland who even fired at him when he had gone to some areas where Nagas had encroached into Assam’s territory.
Since then, the situation has been volatile and Assam Police sources say that the belligerence of encroachers from Nagaland and Nagaland state forces can lead to violence.
Even as the border clash between Assam and Mizoram was raging on Monday, trouble broke out along the Assam-Meghalaya border. Assam says there have been repeated attempts by Megalaya police and various officials from that neighbouring state to establish control over areas in Assam that Meghalaya lays claims to.
On Monday, officials of Meghalaya’s power utility, backed by that state’s police, tried to erect electric poles in Assam’s territory. This led to intervention from the Assam Police and though civilians from both the sides have been clashing, they have not escalated into a major conflict.
However, the situation in the disputed areas along the Assam-Meghalaya border remains volatile.
It is learnt that some politicians from Meghalaya have been visiting places near the disputed territory and inciting locals. Some Mizo politicians are also learnt to have been doing the same in places along the Assam-Mizoram border since last week.
The attempts by state authorities of Meghalaya and locals from that state to establish control over the disputed territory is surprising since the chief ministers of the two states had agreed to resolve the border dispute through discussions last week.
The fact that Meghalaya Police and government officials from that state have attempted to unilaterally change the status quo in the disputed territory by establishing their control over it despite the chief ministers of the two states resolving to discuss the dispute proves that powerful forces having a vested and sinister interest in escalating the dispute are at play.
Earlier this month, tension flared up in some parts of the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh after some tribals from Arunachal entered Assam and started felling trees.
Arunachal lays claim to some areas within Assam.
The encroachment prompted a senior minister from Assam to visit the area and appeal for calm. Assam authorities also intervened promptly to prevent the situation from escalating.
But, say sources in Assam Police, some politicians from Arunachal are trying to incite locals to encroach into Assam’s territory.
This despite Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu declaring two weeks back that the boundary disputes between the two states would be resolved amicably out of court.
A title suit on the border dispute has been pending before the Supreme Court since 1989.
That all these disputes flared up suddenly (except in the case with Arunachal Pradesh where quick intervention from both sides led to a swift de-escalation) and resulted in violence had led many in the region to believe that there are sinister forces at work who have a vested interest in triggering trouble between Assam and its neighbours.
Also, the fact that some junior politicians in the four tribal states (Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya) have been inciting people to get aggressive and encroach into Assam, have confirmed suspicions that the outbreak of border disputes is part of a well-planned conspiracy.
The motive may be to show the new government in Assam, and especially Chief Minister Sarma, in a poor light. And also to use the inter-state border disputes and the violence as a stick to beat the BJP with.
The Congress has already started issuing statements to that effect. Senior Congress leaders have blamed Himanta Biswa Sarma for tensions flaring up along the state’s borders with the four states and also the Union Home Minister for failing to resolve the issue.
(That the border disputes were allowed to fester all the decades since Independence by the Congress, which ruled all the states for most of the past 74 years, is something that the party forgets).
The concurrence of the incidents along all the borders that Assam shares with its neighbours, the involvement of junior politicians in those tribal states in inciting trouble and the sudden escalation all point to a conspiracy.
The boundary disputes
While Nagaland, which was known as the Naga Hills districts, attained statehood in December 1963, the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills became Meghalaya in January 1972, and the Lushai Hills became Mizoram in February 1987.
The inter-state boundary between Assam and these three states were never properly defined and demarcated on the ground at many places. More so in the areas which were, in the 1970s and 1980s (when those states were carved out of Assam), covered with forests and devoid of any human habitation.
The inter-state territorial disputes are also a legacy of the British. Take the case of the Assam-Mizoram dispute over a 1,318 square-kilometer area, most of which is Singla Forest Reserve.
The British enacted a law (Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873) which restricted entry of people from the rest of the country to tribal areas of the Northeast. Present-day Mizoram was then known as Lushai Hills and part of Assam.
The British issued a notification in 1875 under the 1873 Act stating that the reserve forest is part of Lushai Hills and, hence, out-of-bounds for non-Mizos who will have to obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to enter tribal areas.
But a map of Assam prepared and published by the Survey of India in 1933 showed this very forest as part of Assam and not Lushai Hills.
Assam cites this (1933) map to claim that the Singla forest is part of its territory while Mizoram cites the 1875 notification to make the same claim.
The territorial dispute between Assam and Nagaland, however, is the most intense. Assam shares a 434-kilometre border with Nagaland.
Nagaland has been demanding, ever since the Naga Hills (which was part of Assam) became a Union Territory in 1957 (and, subsequently, a state), that all territories that had been transferred out of the Naga Hills by the British and made part of Assam be returned to Nagaland.
The Nagas lay claim to large tracts in the neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Assam, and also Myanmar, and assert that these territories were all inhabited by Naga tribes. Integration of all such territories into ‘Nagalim’ (greater Nagaland) is a dream that most Nagas hold very dear.
Assam says that Nagaland has already encroached into 66,000 acres, mostly reserve forests, in four districts of the state and is laying claim to more areas.
Assam rejects Nagaland’s demand for additional territory and says that Nagaland should respect the border that was demarcated when the Naga Hills was carved out of Assam and made into a Union Territory.
Naga civilians, backed by their state police, have often encroached into Assam’s territory and built structures, cleared vast tracts of forest lands to start cultivation and then refused to move out.
They have often forcibly occupied farmlands and even homestead land belonging to villagers of Assam in many border areas of the four districts.
The Assam-Nagaland border dispute has, over the years, claimed hundreds of lives, almost all of them civilians and police personnel of Assam.
There have been major flare-ups over the past few decades and countless meetings between the chief ministers and top officials of the two states have not yielded results.
Assam filed a title suit in 1988 before the Supreme Court pleading that the boundary of both the states be delineated. The apex court constituted a commission to undertake this task and though the commission has submitted its report, the matter is still pending before the Supreme Court.
Meghalaya also lays claim to some territories in Assam that, it says, belonged to it and were sliced away from the hills districts (which became Meghalaya in 1972) by the British and added to Assam’s plains districts.
As for Arunachal Pradesh, the territorial disputes are of very recent origin. The disputes are a result of residents of both the states encroaching and laying claim to areas on the other side of the border.
Most of these areas are under forests and residents of the two states have been trying to clear portions of the forests to set up farmlands and even build dwellings.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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