This Is How Assam And Arunachal Pradesh Resolved Their Border Dispute After Prime Minister Modi’s Nudge

This Is How Assam And Arunachal Pradesh Resolved Their Border Dispute After Prime Minister Modi’s Nudge

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Friday, April 21, 2023 04:24 PM IST
This Is How Assam And Arunachal Pradesh Resolved Their Border Dispute After Prime Minister Modi’s NudgeUnion Home Minister Amit Shah with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu.
  • The two states started making sincere efforts to resolve their disputes only after the Prime Minister’s nudge.

Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have finally resolved their long-festering border dispute. 

The chief ministers of the two states inked an agreement to settle the dispute in the presence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju in New Delhi on Thursday (20 April). 

Though many attempts had been made in the past to resolve the disputes at many places that both the states lay claim to along the 804-kilometre-long interstate border, they failed because of lack of political will. 

In 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the chief ministers of both the states to make serious efforts at resolution within a strict time-frame. 

Prime Minister Modi also asked Shah to oversee and facilitate the process.

Shah set a three-year deadline (till the end of 2023) for the two states to settle their border dispute. The chief ministers of both the BJP-ruled states agreed to the deadline and resolved to adhere to it. 

What The Border Dispute Was All About

After a series of clashes and battles between British forces and the indigenous tribes of the eastern Himalayas (present-day Arunachal Pradesh), the British brought the tribes under its rule. 

The British also established a geographical entity named the North-East Frontier Tracts (NEFT) that corresponds roughly to the present-day boundaries of Arunachal Pradesh and also many areas in the plains that fall in present-day Assam for administrative purposes. 

But the British left out some areas in the foothills that were under the control of the tribal chiefs from NEFT and included them in Assam. 

NEFT was re-designated as North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) with its administrative headquarters in Shillong, which was the capital of Assam till 1972 when Meghalaya was carved out of Assam and made a separate state. 

In 1951, a sub-committee headed by Assam’s first chief minister, Gopinath Bordoloi, made some recommendations on the administration of NEFT. It was on the basis of these recommendations that NEFT was redesignated as NEFA. 

But the Bordoloi committee also recommended that 3,648 square kilometres of land in the foothills of the Balipara and Sadiya Frontier Tracts (of NEFT) be transferred to Assam. That recommendation was also implemented.

NEFA was constitutionally a part of Assam and was directly administered by the Governor of Assam assisted by an administrative council. This arrangement continued till 1972 when NEFA was renamed Arunachal Pradesh and became a Union Territory. It became a full-fledged state on 20 February 1987. 

Since then, Arunachal Pradesh has maintained that the transfer of the 3,648 square kilometres of land was done in an “arbitrary and defective manner” without consulting and taking the consent of the local people. But Assam has been holding that the transfer was legal and constitutional. 

This led to continuous disputes between the two states. Also, when Arunachal Pradesh was granted Union Territory status, its southern boundaries with Assam were not demarcated properly at many places. This also triggered claims and counter-claims by people living on both sides of the inter-state border.

At many places along the inter-state border, local people on both sides started encroaching into and laying claims on fertile tracts of land on the other side. This also triggered clashes. 

As of 2021, there were disputes at 1,200 points along the 804-kilometre border. 

Past Attempts To Resolve The Dispute

Between 1971 and 1974, some efforts were made to demarcate the border, but that failed due to constant disputes and clashes between people living on both sides of the border. 

A tripartite committee, comprising representatives of the two states and the Union government, was set up in April 1979 to outline the inter-state boundary on the basis of Survey of India maps and discussions with all stakeholders. 

But that met with only limited success and a decision was made on demarcating only 489 kilometres (of the total 804 kilometres) of the border. But Arunachal Pradesh reneged on this and refused to accept the recommendations of the tripartite committee. 

Later, Assam also junked the proposals and moved the Supreme Court in 1989 alleging encroachments into its territory by Arunachal Pradesh. 

The Supreme Court appointed a local boundary commission headed by a retired judge of the apex court in 2006. 

This local boundary commission submitted its report in September 2014. It recommended transfer of some of the lands which were taken away from NEFT on the basis of the recommendations of the Bordoloi committee in 1951. It also urged the two states to arrive at a consensus through discussions. 

Efforts Made After Modi’s Nudge In 2021

The two states started making sincere efforts to resolve their disputes only after the Prime Minister’s nudge. Union Home Minister Shah’s constant interactions with Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu also took the process forward. 

As a first step, both the states decided that only those disputes that were raised by the two states before the SC-appointed local boundary commission would be discussed for resolution and fresh disputes or claims will not be taken into account.  

Arunachal Pradesh had, in December 2007, presented the commission with a list of 123 villages whose lands were disputed. The two states decided to limit the dispute to only these 123 villages. 

The chief ministers of the two states adopted a formula based on a micro approach to resolve the long-festering boundary dispute. As per this formula, 12 regional committees, one each for each border district of Arunachal Pradesh and the counterpart districts of Assam, were set up. 

Each committee was mandated to examine and suggest steps for resolution of the boundary dispute only of that district. 

The regional committees were asked to undertake joint inspections and ground-level verification of claims by both the states, speak to all stakeholders including the local people, take into account the demographic profile and historical perspective of each disputed area and then make recommendations. 

The committees were also asked to keep in mind administrative convenience and contiguity, proximity to the inter-state border as well as the will of the local people, while making recommendations on which disputed tract of land should go to which state.

The regional committees started working intensively, undertaking multiple visits to all disputed areas in each district, talking to all stakeholders and explaining all issues in detail to them. 

The first joint meeting of all the 12 inter-state regional committees was held at Namsai in Arunachal Pradesh on 22 August 2022.

The Namsai Declaration was signed after detailed discussions at the joint meeting. The most important part of the declaration was that the number of villages whose areas were disputed would be restricted to 86 instead of 123.

At that meeting, an agreement also evolved on 37 disputed villages. It was decided that Arunachal Pradesh will retain 28 of those villages, and surrender its claim over three villages. Six ‘disputed’ villages which could not be located in Assam were also to be retained by Arunachal Pradesh if they can be traced at a later date.     

The Namsai Declaration also said that the Union government would be asked to decide the fate of the four disputed areas of Balicho, Dipik, Pacho and Dikalmukh. The residents of Balicho, Dipik and Dikalmukh wanted to live in Arunachal Pradesh while a majority of the people of Pacho wanted to remain in Assam. 

Nearly two weeks ago, the two states had finalised the agreement to resolve the dispute and differences remained over some small pockets and technicalities. Those were also resolved at a meeting between the two chief ministers a few days ago. 

Why The Disputes Could Be Resolved This Time

The Assam Chief Minister said that successive Congress governments in the two states and the Centre were never serious in resolving the disputes. 

“This time, the Prime Minister made it very clear that the disputes would have to be resolved very fast and in a spirit of give and take. Modiji asked Amit Shahji to keep a close watch on the dispute resolution process. This close and constant monitoring was completely absent in the past and is the primary reason why the disputes could be resolved this time,” Sarma told Swarajya. 

Khandu also credited the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister for the resolution of the dispute. “This time, the PM and the Union Government were invested in the process. The PM and Union Home Minister were constantly urging us to resolve the disputes,” Khandu told Swarajya

Assam Border Protection and Development Minister Atul Bora, who was closely involved in the entire exercise, told Swarajya that in the past, the Union government was never really interested in a swift and amicable resolution of the border disputes. 

“The Congress governments at the Centre followed the ‘divide and rule’ policy and were also never really interested in the Northeast. That changed dramatically after the NDA under Narendra Modiji came to power in 2014,” Bora said. 

What The Resolution Means

As Home Minister Shah rightly said, amicable resolution of border disputes between the two states is essential for progress and development. 

Chief Minister Sarma said that the resolution of border disputes between the northeastern states “will usher in peace and development in the entire region”. 

“All these decades, a lot of development was hampered due to border disputes between the different states of the region which also caused bad blood between them. Once all the disputes that Assam still has with Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram are resolved, a lot of the energy of these states that were expended on keeping disputes under control can be directed towards development efforts,” said Arunachal Chief Minister Khandu. 

Shah said at the ceremony where Assam and Arunachal Pradesh signed the agreement on Thursday that the resolution is “an important milestone towards achieving the Prime Minister’s dream of a peaceful, developed and conflict-free North East”. 

Peace, explained the Assam Chief Minister, is a prerequisite for progress and even a dispute in one pocket is a big impediment to progress. 

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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