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Conflicts over interstate border disputes in North East: historical context

Conflicts over interstate border disputes in North East: historical context

Pranab Acharya

Armed clashes between Assam and Mizoram over a border dispute last July have heated the political situation in the entire North East. Six Assam police personnel were killed in the clash. Although such an ‘armed war’ between two states within a country is a spectacular event, it is not the first instance. This clash has been happening since the sixties of the last century.

There is a dispute with Assam over the demarcation of four neighbouring hilly states. These four states are Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. And in the midst of this conflict, there are occasional armed clashes with Assam, like the eruption of a dormant volcano. In the sixties and late seventies, there were many incidents of armed conflict between Assam and Nagaland on the then undivided Shivsagar and the present day Dayang forest border of Golaghat district and later on the Merapani border in the eighties and nineties.

This boundary dispute began about one and a half hundred years ago during British rule. Now the question– why is this conflict still going on, even after seventy-five years of India’s independence? And why is this conflict occurring only with Assam?

To answer this question, we must look back to the past.

It may be recalled here that in 1824-25, the then Burma (Mayanmar) invaded Assam, taking advantage of the internal conflicts and civil strife of the Ahom dynasty. Unable to resist the onslaught of powerful Burma, the Ahom king found no way but to seek refuge with the British. The colonial British also took the opportunity to intervene in the conflict and declared war on Burma. Burma was defeated in the war.

A treaty between the British and Burma was signed in Yandavu, the then capital of the King of Burma. According to the treaty, the Ahom kingdom became part of British India. At that time, the size of the Ahom kingdom was not as large as present-day Assam. More interestingly, apart from the only western frontier, the border of British-ruled Bengal, the Ahom kingdom did not have any definite boundaries to the north, south and east. At that time,the undivided Goalpara district (consisting of today’s Dhubri, South Shalmara, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Chirang and Goalpara districts) was also part of Bengal and not part of Assam.

Moreover, Nagaland, Mizoram, Kachari and Meghalaya were not under British occupation till then. Similarly, Manipur and North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA),i.e. present-day Arunachal Pradesh, were not annexed by the British. Later, in the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the British occupied the rest of the northeastern states one by one. After occupying these territories, the British annexed all the states, except NEFA and Manipur, to Assam as separate districts.

Manipur was given the status of a native tax state, and governance was established as an independent agency in NEFA. When Lord Curzon divided Bengal in 1905, the portions of East Bengal and Kachar were annexed to Assam.The British government eventually abolished the partition of Bengal in 1911 because of the massive agitation launched by the leaders of Bengal.

But even after the partition of Bengal was annulled, Bihar and Orissa were maintained as separate provinces. Surma and Barak valleys, i.e.Shrihat (Sylhet) and Kachar districts,andGoalpara district,remained connected with Assam.The small Ahom kingdom became a huge Assam state. Later, the Kachar district was divided into two parts.

The plain part became known as Kachar district,while the hilly region, called North KacharHill district, became what is now known as Dima Hasao district.Until then, the boundaries with the hilly states had not been demarcated. In the seventies of the nineteenth century, the British colonial government began demarcating the northeast. To this end, the British government enacted a law in 1873 called the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) Act, 1873.

The primary purpose of setting this limit was to facilitate the expansion of the garden area to the British tea garden owners. At that time, the English capitalists established tea gardens extensively in Assam. Therefore, the inclusion of fertile and tea-growing areas in Assam, especially in the upper Assam and the adjoining hill districts, became the main goal of the British.

That is why the British rulers unilaterally changed the boundaries of the hill districts of the time of setting the boundaries. This process of demarcation continued till the 1930s.

The current length of the Assam-Mizoram border is 175 km. This limit was set unilaterally by the British rulers in 1933, which was never accepted by the residents and village heads of Mizoram. Since independence, every government of Assam, including the present government, has taken a firm stand on this 1933 boundary.

It is pertinent to mention here that the British government, under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873, fixed the boundaries of Kachar and Mizoram in a meeting with the then village chiefs (village elders) of Mizoram in 1875. Both sides had then accepted the 1875 limit as final. The British government also issued a gazette notification in 1875 regarding these limits, and an agreement was signed with the Mizos.

Conflicts over interstate border disputes in North East: historical context

Two years later, in a gazette notification, the British government declared this boundary of the Kachar-Lusai Hills district as the basis for the Inner Line Reserve Forest demarcation. At that time, Mizoram was known as Lusai Hills. It is also worth mentioning that before setting this limit, the British unilaterally reduced the area of Lusai hills to Assam five times. The final boundary of the Kachar-Lusai hill district was finally fixed in 1875 by mutual consent. But again, in 1933, without any negotiations with the Mizo, the British government redefined a large area of the LusaiHills, including Kachar.

Mizos strongly protested and refused to accept this unilateral new limit. In the last two years, there have been numerous armed clashes between the residents of Mizoram and Assam in the area of Vairengte in the Kolasib district of Mizoram bordering Kachar, Mamit district of Mizoram bordering Karimganj district and Loylapur bordering Hailakandi.

Since independence in 1947, there have been numerous clashes over border disputes between the undivided Greater Assam and the hill districts. But the conflict has escalated since the hill districts were separated from Assam and given the status of separate states. Although occasional interim peace agreements were signed between the states concerned through the mediation of the central government, these conflicts and clashes did not stop in any way.

Recently, Mizoram’s Kolasib Deputy Commissioner Lalthangliana told reporters, “A few years ago, an agreement was signed between the two states to end the conflict and maintain stability. But the residents of Loylapur violated the agreement by entering the Mizoram area and building houses and settlements. After that, Mizo residents came and set fire to those houses and doors. ” While the armed clash between the two police forces in the two states in July may seem like a spectacular event in Indian politics, it is not at all surprising to those who are aware of the tribal character of the region. Until the British took over the hill areas, the livelihood of the hill tribes was primitive.

No state system was formed there. Naturally, there was no question of setting state boundaries at that time. The British were the first to incorporate them into their territory artificially. At the level of primitive tribes, conflicts between tribes over territories were part of a traditional way of life. Their mentality was a follower of that way of life. As it turns out, although these tribal groups are enlightened in modern Western education, they are not yet free from the tribal group mentality of the past.

Moreover, the richness of modern Western education has also given rise to a national consciousness among these tribal groups in the hills and plains. This national consciousness has given birth to a kind of narrow tribal nationalism. As a result, a new level of violence has been added to the conflicts over border disputes. And it has manifested itself in the recent border clashes.

Similar incidents are seen on the Assam-Nagaland border, Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, Assam-Meghalaya border. Such clashes on the Assam-Nagaland border have repeatedly taken horrific forms. The first armed attack on the border by the Nagas took place in 1965. Then one after another, terrible clashes took place in 1968, 1979, 1984-85, 2007 and 2014. More than 100 Assamese were killed in the 1984 conflict. In the 2014 clashes, Nagara set fire to at least 200 houses along the border. It is worth mentioning here that this conflict started from the beginning of the formation of a separate state of Nagaland separated from Assam. It is worth mentioning here that in 1866, Nagaland was annexed to Assam by forming Naga hill district.

After independence, Nagaland was separated in 1957, the central government adopted the Nagaland State Act in 1962, within the limits set unilaterally by the British in 1925. The independent state of Nagaland was formed in 1963 under this Act. But the Naga leadership flatly refused to accept this limit. On the other hand, the Assam government is not willing to move an inch from the 1925 limit set by the British.

The attitude of the Assam government is also firm in the case of the rest of the states on the question of boundaries. The total length of Assam-Nagaland border is 512.1 km. Nagaland borders five districts of Assam. And there are border disputes in all the five districts ofShivsagar, Jorhat, Golaghat, Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.

The Assam government has, from the outset, taken an extremist Assamese nationalist stance on border disputes. This fierce nationalism took a very aggressive form during the tenure of the late Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha. After completing the language-based state formation process by the central government in 1970, the situation in Assam became turbulent as the government of Assam, a multilingual state, made Assamese the state language. As the Bengali-speaking people of Barak started a movement in protest of this decision, the Assam government brutally suppressed the movement. In the Brahmaputra valley, the attack on innocent Bengalis took a terrible form. Many Bengalis became homeless due to the unilateral attack of Assamese extremists and took refuge in the neighbouring state of West Bengal. Many houses were set on fire. Many Bengalis were killed in the riots in the Brahmaputra valley.

The Assam government aimed to forcibly assimilate the non-Assamese, regardless of the hills and plains, with Assamese culture. Williamson Sangma, a minister in the Assam cabinet and a Garo leader at the time, asked the then-Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha whether Assamese would be compulsory as a state language for the non-Assamese hill tribes. In response, Chaliha said, yes, it will be so. Soon after, the Garo, Khasi, and Jayantiya leaders demanded the secession from Assam and the formation of a separate state of Meghalaya. And finally, in 1972, a separate state of Meghalaya was formed.

At the same time, the Lusai hill district was also separated from Assam, and a separate state of Mizoram was formed. Due to this aggressive position of cultural hypernationalism, the government of Assam has had to pay a substantial price and still has to pay. The infamous Bongal Kheda (‘drive away the Bengalis’ movement) of the sixties has finally driven other tribal peoples of Assam away from the Assamese. In the sixties, the extremism of the Chaliha-led government had reached such an aggressive stage that even during a famine in a hill district, the government sat idly by.

In the 1960’s, there was a severe famine in Mizoram. Mizoram’s leaders repeatedly appealed to the state government for help but were disappointed. The Chaliha government did not send any aid to the Lusai hill district or Mizoram. It is noteworthy that soon after, the Mizo National Front, led by Laldenga, took the path of armed rebellion.

The role of the central government in resolving border disputes since independence is also highly reprehensible. No central government has made any effort to resolve these long-term issues quickly. Rather, it has followed the principle of “British divide and rule” and adopted complete inaction. The stubborn position of each interest group is responsible for the fact that this problem has not been resolved for so long. However, the greater responsibility rests with the Assam government; the governments of different periods of the centreare also equally responsible.

If the centre had been active, and if the Assam government had been flexible enough to abandon its stubborn position, the hill states would have been naturally flexible, an acceptable solution to the border dispute would have come out for all, and there would have been no unnecessary bloodshed.

In addition to increasing the mutual friendship and cooperation of the seven states of the North East, the seven states would become seven sisters in the true sense of the word.

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