The “narrow domestic walls” that Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore disdained and wished their inexistence are real and have fragmented history, culture and human lives over centuries. In the North East, these invisible walls are the genesis of a violent history that has only grown uglier over time.
The north-eastern region has a history of inter-state border dispute that has remained unresolved for decades, and in some cases, for over a century. The intermittent flare-ups along the borders have not only made life of the common populace difficult but also exposed the lack of political will to solve the issue. The recent incident along Assam-Mizoram border left six police personnel dead and several civilians injured. Not only that, commuters, who were oblivious of the unfolding of events along the border, were harassed, allegedly by Assam police, on the highway connecting the two states.
A few months ago, NGOs and local bodies in Meghalaya had objected to the construction of a transit house along the Assam border in Ri Bhoi. Residents of Pilangata under Jirang constituency often complain about encroachment on tribal land by residents of Assam. On August 7, members of the Khasi Students’ Union were stopped by Assam police from staging a demonstration in the border village of Sabuda. Last month, Assam police allegedly uprooted an electric pole set up by MeECL at Longkuli village in Ri Bhoi leading to tension in the area.
It is not surprising that Assam has been the ‘constant factor’ in all the disputes given that it is the mother state of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. The politically, economically and culturally powerful state, which is also the gateway to the North East, shares long borders with the three neighbours and has often been blamed for being a bully.
“There is a common feeling that Assam being the richer and bigger state is using its vantage points against the smaller states by resorting to economic blockades,” replies Ricky Lalbiakmawia, senior leader of Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) and finance secretary of North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), to a question on Assam’s attitude towards other states.
Langpih, one of the most backward border localities in Meghalaya, has often experienced Assam police’s high-handedness.
These incidents along the borders are recurring. Nonetheless, solution to the border problems has remained elusive for various reasons, one being lack of political will and unwillingness to consider history. “The Centre should be asked why the border issues remain unresolved because Mizoram, and I think Meghalaya too, had appealed to the Union government to intervene,” says Lalbiakmawia.
As the labyrinth along the ambiguous boundaries gets denser, one may think it necessary to look back at history to find a solution. “These are complex issues,” NESO president Samuel Jyrwa says.
The over six-decade-old problem has been discussed at various political and bureaucratic levels but nothing could stop the recurrence of violence along the borders in Ri Bhoi, East Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills districts. There were allegations of encroachment and harassment by a “haughty neighbour”. There had been numerous appeals to both state and central governments to expedite solution but nothing has yielded result so far.
John Kharshiing, the advisor to and spokesperson for the Federation of Khasi States, points at the constitutional anomaly that no one tried to rectify.
The Instrument of Accession (IoA), which was signed by the Union government and Assam Province on one hand and the Khasi states on the other on August 17, 1948, clearly lists the Khasi land boundary. However, the IoA is yet to be incorporated in the Constitution. At the same time, the First Schedule of the Constitution defines the territory of Assam as, “The territories which immediately before the commencement of this Constitution were comprised in the Province of Assam, the Khasi States and the Assam Tribal Areas, but excluding the territories specified in the Schedule to the Assam (Alteration of Boundaries) Act, 1951 (and the territories specified in sub-section (1) of section 3 of the State of Nagaland Act, 1962] (and the territories specified in sections 5, 6 and 7 of the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971).”
“Why would the territorial boundary of Assam have Khasi states? This is a constitutional anomaly. This has to be corrected first,” Kharshiing says.
Assam’s former premier Syed Muhammed Saadulah had pointed out the anomaly during the last reading of the Constitution in Parliament. “Although the Constituent Assembly is not to find remedy for that, yet I must send a note of warning that this small District of Khasi Hills embraced 25 native States, most of which had equal rights with the suzerain power in Delhi. They were asked to join the Indian Dominion in 1947. An Instrument of Accession accompanied by an Agreement were executed by those Chiefs… I know that these Khasi people were late in the day and nothing can be done in the third reading but I request those Hon’ble Members… to see that this wrong is righted in no time,” Saadulah had said.
Even late Purno Sangma, father of the current Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, had advocated for the IoA and urged the Centre to honour the agreement. “But our chief minister (Conrad) has refused to look back at history. And without history, the (border) arrangement will only be cosmetic,” says Kharshiing.
“The home ministry is aware of all the agreements, which are national solemn commitments and need to be fulfilled. As the Assam CM (Himanta Biswa Sarma) has rightly pointed out, Parliament has to redraw the boundary,” he adds.
Last week, Conrad and Himanta held a meeting in Guwahati to solve the border problem. The state governments have agreed to set up three regional committees which are to submit their reports within 30 days. They have also agreed to focus on six of the 12 areas of difference along the border.
Jyrwa says NESO is optimistic that this time the problem will be resolved.
According to Ranjan Chatterjee, former chief secretary of Meghalaya, the border problem should be solved amicably as the states are “part of the same country that is India”.
“Talks at various levels do act as shock absorbers but cannot take away the shock of the people completely… It is time that the borders are demarcated,” said Chatterjee, who had served both in Assam and Meghalaya.
A century-old wound
The history of dispute between Assam and Mizoram over the 164.6-km border is 150 years old and is marked by frequent violence. While the latter wants the 1875 notification under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873, as the basis of boundary demarcation, the former harps on the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act of 1971, which was based on a notification issued in 1933. Assam claims that the 1875 notification was for administrative purpose and did not draw the boundary line between Cachar and the Lushai Hills.
The first major border clashes were reported in the early nineties when Assam tried to extend its control over the reserve forests. Several clashes followed from the beginning of the next millennium.
The current situation along the inter-state border remains tense following the recent violence that prompted the chief ministers of the two states to take to Twitter for a blame game. Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a closed-door meeting with the chief ministers of the north-eastern states last month to resolve the issues but they remained inconclusive.
Circle of violence
The Assam borders along Arunachal Pradesh, erstwhile North East Frontier, and Nagaland have also had a history of violence that continues even to this day.
The gateway state shares over 800-km of boundary with Arunachal Pradesh and 434-km border with Nagaland. As far as the dispute with the former state is concerned, it started when in the seventies Arunachal Pradesh became a Union Territory. The state had refused to accept the 1951 notification based on Bordoloi Committee that attached the plains belt of Darrang, Dhemaji and Jonoi to Assam. Several attempts were made to resolve the problems but all talks fell through. In 2020, Assam flagged the problem of encroachment on its forest land by Arunachal Pradesh. Now, the issue is embroiled in political mesh.
Nagaland’s demand for its territories was raised even before India got independence. The state wants all the Naga-dominated areas in North Cachar and Nagaon districts to be part of its territory. Again, attempts to resolve the problem did not succeed.
A border dispute may have its political connotations which act as a hindrance to resolution. In the process, what is lost is the common man’s peace of mind and sense of security as well as natural resources.
“There are five reserve forests along the Assam-Nagaland border. Those were absolutely ravaged and deforested until the Godavarman judgment (of 1995) came into being and put a stop to deforestation,” says Chatterjee.
Talking about the predicament of border villagers, Chatterjee points out that perspectives of people have changed. “Let us not continue the fight of our ancestors. Let us not procrastinate the peace process. We must teach our children to love our neighbours. People need safety and security of life,” he says.
NESO’s Jyrwa and All Assam Students’ Union’s Samujjal Bhattacharya echo Chatterjee’s view. Even before talking about the political nuances of the border dispute, the student leaders rue people’s plight along the borders.
Bhattacharya puts the onus of not reaching a consensus on the geographical boundaries on the Centre and the respective states.
“Both governments have to be
sincere because people are suffering. They neither have development nor security over property. As a student body, we cannot resolve the border problem but we can raise the problems pertaining to border residents and put pressure on governments for fast resolution,” says Jyrwa.
As the solution is delayed, precious lives are being lost on both sides of the imaginary line and a sense of alienation is taking over the residents’ social and economic belongingness. If the debate has to go on, then respective states can at least ensure the safety of the border populace.
“The state should take development to those people,” Chatterjee suggests.
The dilapidated road leading to Garo-Nongthymmai village from Pilangkata is a stark example of how the mass suffers when the corridors of power shake with heavy words and thumping of sheafs of historical documents. Residents here say the Meghalaya government does not care to build the road and the neighbouring state tries to woo them with development bait.
“But we know that if we accept
it, then we lose everything. Shouldn’t our government understand that,” a resident had said a few years back as he pointed to an encroached land.
Political and geographical borders aside, any government should realise that it is the people who constitute a state or a country and the “only true borders lie between day and night, between life and death, between hope and loss”.
~ Team Sunday Monitor