By Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan
The North Eastern region originally comprised the states of Assam, Manipur and Tripura. The states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram were subsequently carved out of Greater Assam with the North East Frontier Agency being amalgamated into the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The region, with differences in culture and identity, was earlier amalgamated into one major state which led to a conflict among the various communities and tribes. The ‘balkanisation’ of Assamand thereafter led to the formation of three major states that is Nagaland (1963), Meghalaya and Mizoram(1972) was essential.
However, a conflict between the states due to incorrect boundary demarcation escalated an already tenuous history of conflict amongst the communities that populate this land and as a result, this conflict spread outside Assam, and ‘radically redefined’ the political balance between all the local communities and tribes.This conflict is not only because to the growing need for an ethnic identity fanned and fuelled by political aspirations but also the need for the suppression of one ethnic identity over another, by trying to increase tribal territorial and resource aspirations.
Baggage of the Past
Formerly known as Lushai Hills, Mizoram is located on the southern fringes of Northeast India. The state shares borders with three north-eastern states of Tripura, Assam and Manipur, and a 722-km border with the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The two documents that are at the heart of this ongoing boundary conflict are a 1875 notification which differentiates between the Cachar Hills and Lushai Hills and a 1933 notification which demarcates the Lushai Hills (from where Mizoram has been carved out) and Manipur, are the major reasons of conflict between the two states. The state of Mizoram does not follow the notification of 1933, since the boundary was demarcated before the formation of the Mizo state.
Assam has been the common strand that connects all these North Eastern border disputes. The root cause of all these inter-state border disputes are the result of a decision to carve out new political states out of Assam which was necessitated by compelling circumstances based on the prevailing external and internal situation in the region during the 1960s highlighted the urgent need to effectively integrate this sensitive area with mainland India.
The 1962 border conflict with China and numerous ethnic insurgencies that spawned in the region threatened the unity and integrity of the country. In this context, the Government of India decided to carve out new political entities, with the dual aim of integrating this remote region as well as to fulfil the aspirations of various ethnic communities which were involved in these insurgent movements.
A case in point was the reorganisation of Arunachal Pradesh into a Union Territory in 1972 and its subsequent upgradation to full-fledged state in 1987 was a strategy of the Indian government to consolidate its position vis-à-vis China in the border negotiations. Similarly, the granting of the status of a state to Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya in 1972 and Mizoram in 1987 were steps to accommodate the territorial aspirations of the Nagas tribes, the Khasis, the Garos, and the Mizos.
Granting statehood definitely addressed their demand for a separate political identity but had a negative fallout in the form of these continuing border disputes between the mother Assam state and these newly created states. It is important to note that these states were hurriedly carved out of Assam without paying much attention to the tribal realities on the ground and because these freshly created state boundaries did not strictly conform to the ethnic boundaries of the region. Especially since there continue to be sizable populations of Mizos and Nagas in the Cachar Hills, making it possible for both Mizoram and Nagaland to claim these territories in Assam. The Central government had transferred areas that were a part of Assam, thus creating reasons for potential tensions. A case in point is the example of Dimapur which was given to Nagaland to provide it with a railhead. This decision caused heartburn among the Dimasas of North Cachar Hills, as historically Dimapur was their capital.
Unfortunately, the Central government did not create any mechanism that allowed these states to jointly address these disputes and left these boundary issues for a resolution at a later date. Later, these concerned states tried to resolve these boundary disputes amongst each other by holding negotiations between each other, which unfortunately failed and third party intervention was sought to resolve the matter. For instance, in 2005, the Supreme Court had directed the Central government to constitute a boundary commission to resolve various inter-state boundary issues in the Northeast. The Centre had earlier constituted two commissions, the Sundaram Commission (1971) and the Shastri Commission (1985), to settle the Assam-Nagaland border dispute. These commissions failed to resolve the matter as the concerned states did not accept their recommendations. In a significant move, Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya decided to co-operate with each other to solve their respective border disputes with Assam. They strongly favoured negotiations with Assam and opposed any third party intervention. Though the Assam government has so far been reluctant to hold talks, its dialogue with the Meghalaya government to resolve the Langpih and related issues marked a welcome change in this attitude and gave reason to hope for similar resolutions with other states.
It is time that the Centre took the initiative to facilitate a fair settlement of this festering border problem in the Northeast. It can do so by either persuading the concerned states to come to the negotiating table and seek a solution or by constituting a boundary commission whose recommendations would be binding on the parties involved. Needless to say, a quick and speedy resolution of these border issues has become necessary given the Central government’s renewed emphasis on the overall development of the Northeast. This goal can only be achieved by purging strife and promoting greater co-operation among these states to usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the region.
On July 11, 2021, two grenade explosions jolted Dholakhal in Assam’s Cachar district. The Dholakhal village is located along the inter-state border of Assam and Mizoram.This latest clash along the Assam- Mizoram border reignited tensions and created instability and insecurity along the border villages. The main reason for this escalation is believed to be timed with visits of several senior officials, including the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police (Cachar).
This attack was followed by counter attack from the members of the villages.The main reason for the clash is related to the border demarcation which has been a thorn in the relations between the two states and thus a permanent solution to the conflict is a must for peace and stability. Although the main reason for the clash were these miscreants, their underlying sentiments could be traced to the border dispute which ‘still acts as a thorn’ in the relations between the two states.
Earlier Incidents. Minor violent clashes took place in the region during the 1972 demarcation of the border alongside the districts of Cachar, Hailakandi, and Karimganj border. However, in 2020, a major incident occurred on the border where members of both communities clashed with each other. This led to the loss of property on both sides. However, with the intervention of the Centre, the situation was brought under control and peace was restored.
Steps Undertaken to Solve the Conflict. There was a meeting in Meghalaya consisting of officials of both the states of Assam and Mizoram with the sole purpose of finding a solution to this boundary issue wherein they agreed to maintain status quo along their respective interstate boundaries. However, owing to the dynamic nature of the situation, there is a need for a permanent negotiated mutually accepted solution to this problem between the states.
Reasons for these continued Boundary Incidents
Resources. The presence of important natural resources plays an important role in these boundary incidents. To occupy a resource-rich land, is beneficial for trade and economic purposes of any state.
Ethnic Identity. One of the main reasons for the border conflict is the presence of different ethnicities near the border region. Groups mainly clash in order to suppress the minority ethnic group. At times two ethnic tribal identities clash in order to dominate the region.
Lack of Effective Boundary Demarcation. A common factor among the major border clashes, in the North East, has been Assam, especially since the three states involved in these incidents, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya were carved out of Assam. Border demarcation has been improper and the borders have been demarcated as per convenience of the involved parties, therefore, leading to many undefined and complicated local boundary disputes. The single most important factor was that the local tribes residing in the area were not consulted upon before demarcating these interstate borders.
Historical Evidence. Another important reason for clashes is played by history. All the states involved seem to have connected historical evidence and all of them tend to quote these historical evidences in order to justify their land/border claims.
Ongoing Insurgency. The presence of insurgent groups in this region further complicates the situation. The Insurgents further restrict free movement of people across the border thereby creating a safety issue which diverts the attention of the states towards defending their own territorial integrity, thereby, leaving less time to focus on finding a solution to the conflict.
Legal Delays. There has been limited or negligible progress, in cases with respect to border conflicts. Such delays lead to exhaustion of economic means in the region, thereby contributing to instability in the same.
Recommended Steps for Conflict/Boundary Resolution
Proper Demarcation of Borders. There is a need for a legitimate ‘Centre led’ initiative to resolve the border issues. The Centre can decide to maintain the status quo in the region or find a ‘common rationale’ to demarcate the border.
People to People Engagement. All ethnic majority and minority tribes residing in the region, must be respected and developed. The concept of a ‘shared’ North East Identity could bring the people together. Education can be an effective tool to facilitate people-to-people connect.
Involvement of the Supreme Court. The active involvement of the Supreme Court in matters pertaining to legal issues could fast-track the decision-making process and thereafter the implementation process. Establishment of a ‘court monitored boundary commission’ to look into the demands of all the conflicting parties involved, and thereafter, suggest a solution, is essential.
Political Solution. With the NDA in power in all these states and at the centre, a political solution to these vexed boundary disputes seems relatively easy to push through. The presence of common leadership in most states can lead to an agreement on border issues as well as the presence of the centre leadership would lead to faster implementation of the solution in the region.
The Act East Factor. Maintaining a peaceful North East is vital for India’s ‘Act East Policy’ as the NorthEast Region is the doorway to the ASEAN regions. All the states gain by being connected to one another and for this peaceful borders to ensure ‘free’ movement of people and trade are essential.
It is time to find a permanent solution to the border conflict in North East, as it would not only lead to peaceful relations between the various states involved but, in the long run, will act as an important juncture for India’s ‘Act East Policy’ owing to its proximity to the ASEAN countries. Moreover, the presence of China via its BRI near India’s North- East makes it all the more important to solve the North East ‘internal border conflicts’ as soon as possible.
(The author, a veteran soldier, is a second generation officer of the 11th Gorkha Rifles, and has served in the Indian Army for almost 40 years. He was later appointed the Chairman of the Cease Fire Monitoring Group located in Kohima where he was chartered to bring the various insurgent groups to accept an ongoing Ceasefire with the GOI. He also had the distinction of serving as the Indian Defence Attache at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)