On March 29, Chief Ministers Himanta Biswa Sarma and Conrad Sangma of Assam and Meghalaya reached what they hailed was a “historic” out-of-court settlement in the decades-long boundary dispute in six of the 12 disputed areas. The Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre touted the “give and take” as a template for resolving other inter-State disputes in the north-eastern region.
Eight months later, the optimism is waning. A firing incident on November 22 by the Assam Forest Protection Force in Mukroh village, which both Assam and Meghalaya claim as their own, killed six people, including a forest guard, and injured two others, endangering the future of the settlement.
According to the March 29 agreement, Assam will receive 18.51 sq km and Meghalaya 18.28 sq km of the total 36.79 sq km of disputed areas in the six sectors of Hahim, Gizang, Tarabari, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pillangkata, and Ratacherra.
The disputes on Block I, Block II, Langpih, Khanduli, Psiar, and Barduar are yet to be resolved. Mukroh falls in Block I. Meghalaya claims that Mukroh is in West Jaintia Hills district, while Assam says the village falls under the Jirikinding police station area in West Karbi Anglong.
According to Sangma, it all started when Assam Police and forest guards entered Meghalaya and began firing. He stated in a tweet that “the root cause of the tension that has been building up in this and other areas has to do with the long-pending border issue between Assam and Meghalaya”.
Sarma, however, claims that the incident had nothing to do with the dispute and describes it as a clash between the villagers and the police. His government has said the firing incident took place when forest guards tried to stop a truck smuggling illegal timber.
Timber smuggling is just the trigger point, said Patricia Mukhim, author, commentator, columnist, and Editor of The Shillong Times. “In my interaction with the Mukroh villagers, they say they live in fear while going to their rice fields because the Karbi Anglong forest guards harass them all the time and make them pay for their produce, which includes non-timber forest products like broomsticks and hay. The villagers of Mukroh claim that all the land now under the West Karbi Anglong District Council is their ancestral land. They say that when they go to their fields, they are on tenterhooks until they return home,” she said.
Mukhim is of the opinion that the villagers of Mukroh would not have reacted the way they did on November 22 if the Assam Police and forest guards had arrested the so-called timber smugglers. What angered them was apparently the arrest by the Assam Police of three villagers returning from the fields, their car loaded with grains, in the early hours of the morning ( common during the harvesting season). “When word got around of these arrests, the entire village came out demanding their release,” she said.
According to Mukhim, “Borders between Assam and Meghalaya are hotspots of violence even in the West Khasi Hills such as Langpih where people have died from Assam police firing incidents. To try and resolve these border disputes requires sagacity and statesmanship, not political posturing. On the Meghalaya side, the border villages are not well developed and people languish in poverty with very little resources reaching them. Mukroh has no water supply system and villagers have to trudge miles to get water.”
The Mukroh incident has brought the two States face to face with the harsh realities of the region and the historical complexities in resolving the disputes around the remaining six disputed sites.
What will help the process of resolution betweeen Assam and the States carved out of it—Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh—are historical facts, continuity, administrative convenience, ethnicity, and public opinion.
The genesis of the Meghalaya-Assam border tussle can be traced back to British rule. For administrative convenience, the British transferred several villages they considered too remote to govern in what the Khasis claim is their ancestral land (Ri Hynniewtrep or Hima Khasi) to Kamrup district. “In 1875,” Mukhim said, “U Shillong Sing [a Khasi chieftain] demanded that 10 Khasi villages in Nuinah Mouza be transferred back to Khasi Hills. However, this demand was not paid heed to. Even after Independence, Assam continued to occupy and dominate these Khasi territories.”
In his report in the 1961 District Census Handbook on United Khasi and Jaintia Hills, E.H. Pakyntein, the Superintendent of Census Operations, Assam, wrote: “On the eve of [the] inauguration of the Republic of India, the numerous Khasi states in the old district covering an area of 3,788 square miles [9,810 sq km] were merged with what was previously known as the British territory to form the new district of United Khasi and Jaintia Hills.
“Subsequently, in November 1951, an area of 603.2 square miles [1,562 sq km] covered by Block I and Block II of the Jowai subdivision inhabited mainly by Mikirs (Karbis) was detached from the Jowai subdivision to form a part of United Mikir and North Cachar Hills.”
A notification issued by Assam government’s Tribal Areas Department on April 13, 1951 (No. TAD/R/31/50/149) states that the areas excluded from the United Khasi and Jaintia Hills district will be included in the Mikir Hills Autonomous district. Formerly known as United Mikir and North Cachar Hills, these two are now part of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council and Dima Hasao Autonomous Council, both in Assam.
Meghalaya was created as an autonomous State within Assam on April 2, 1970, under Article 244 A of the Constitution. According to the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act, 1969, enacted by Parliament, the autonomous State to be known as Meghalaya was to comprise (i) The United Khasi Jaintia Hills district as described in sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph 20 of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution but excluding the areas transferred to the Mikir Hills Autonomous District by the notification of the Government of Assam and (ii) the Garo Hills District.
Later, Meghalaya became a full-fledged State on January 21, 1972, as part of The North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971, which created Meghalaya, the States of Manipur and Tripura, and the Union Territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. The Act states that Meghalaya shall comprise of (a) the territories which immediately before [the day of its formation] were part of the autonomous State of Meghalaya formed under the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act, 1969; and (b) so much the territories comprised within the cantonment and municipality of Shillong as did not form part of that autonomous State. Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, was the capital of Assam prior to the forming of a separate State.
For the past several decades, political parties and organisations in Assam’s Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao (erstwhile United Mikir and North Cachar) have been demanding an autonomous State comprising the hill districts of the State.
On December 5, the Hyniewtrep Integrated Territorial Organisation (HITU) submitted a memorandum to the Meghalaya Chief Minister demanding that “all further negotiations on this matter should be stopped immediately and the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Chief Minister of Meghalaya and the Chief Minister of Assam should be rescinded immediately”.
Signed by HITU president Donbok Dkhar and general secretary Wanbun N. Dkhar, it says: “The official map of the Government of British India of 1896 proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the Government of Assam and its people have forcibly and illegally occupied the Khasi-Jaintia tribal land which is on the thousands of square kilometres. This is a blatant misuse of the constitutional and legal machinery to oppress us after we have suffered from British Imperialism and [we] expect that this MDA [Meghalaya Democratic Alliance] government will do what is right for the Khasi-Jaintia and Garo Tribes, including other tribes who want to come back or remain in Meghalaya.”
Two distinct issues
Elwin Teron, noted activist and writer and currently Adviser to the Chief Executive Member of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, believes that there are two distinct issues involved in the dispute with Meghalaya. One is the interpretation of the boundary definition contained in the Assam government’s 1951 border notification, and the other is the issue of the “re-transfer” of Blocks I and II to Meghalaya.
“The first issue has persisted because of the failure of successive governments to hold a joint survey supervised by the Survey of India. The second issue is political and requires consultations with all stakeholders, which has not been done, allowing the wounds to fester.”
According to Teron, the alleged “injustice” meted out to the Khasi-Jaintia community by Assam gained prominence in the NGO circle in Meghalaya. In 1955-56, when the authority of Mikir Hills District Council started levying house tax and landholding tax from all communities, the Nongphyllut (a Jaintia sub-tribe), a community living deep inside Hamren subdivision, resisted it, and politicians from Khasi-Jaintia turned it into an ethnic issue.
Politicians in Meghalaya also opposed the replacement of land pattas issued by the Jowai subdivision during the British period with the ones by the Mikir Hills District Council alleging malafide intent. “The issue gets prominence during elections in Meghalaya, but after the election no government ever takes serious steps to resolve the issues,” said Teron.
Teron insists that the Mukroh firing incident “has nothing to do with the border dispute, but from timber smuggling, which is not a one-sided affair”.
“When one travels a few kilometres from Mukhroh towards Meghalaya stacks of timber can be seen in the villages along the road and inside sawmills here and there. All the wood is from the Karbi Anglong forest and the smugglers belong to both sides of the border; officials are apparently complicit in their actions. Local people tell me that seizure of trucks takes place whenever a dispute arises over the sharing of the spoils, and this appears to be one of those times. An inquiry will reveal more.”
Timber smuggling is something that unemployed people on both sides of the border engage in. “It is a manifestation of the collective failure of the State governments on both sides to give gainful employment to their people,” Teron said.
Meanwhile, the Assam government has suspended the officer in charge of the Jirikinding police station as well as the Forest Range Protection Officer in charge of the area and transferred the Superintendent of Police of West Karbi Anglong district. Chief Minister Sarma said that he did not approve of the Mukroh firing, stating that other methods could have been adopted to handle the timber truck case. He, however, insisted that the Assam-Meghalaya boundary was a constitutional boundary and that both States were in possession of maps.
Asked by journalists about the Meghalaya Cabinet’s decision to set up border outposts in disputed areas, including Mukroh, Sarma expressed his hope that Meghalaya would refrain from doing anything inside the constitutional boundary of Assam.
“If they [Meghalaya] do something, that will not have legal validity,” he said. Sarma also called for a status quo in which neither State would enter the other’s territory until the boundary dispute was resolved.
Both States have instituted probes into the incident, and Meghalaya has demanded that the Central government launch an inquiry by the National Investigation Agency or the Central Bureau of Investigation. With Assembly elections due in Meghalaya in February-March in 2023, Sangma is walking a tightrope on the boundary issue, which looks poised to become a key electoral plank.
- On March 29, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam and Conrad Sangma of Meghalaya reached an out-of-court settlement in the decades-long boundary dispute in six of the 12 disputed areas.
- Eight months later, a firing incident on November 22 by the Assam Forest Protection Force in Mukroh village, which both Assam and Meghalaya claim as their own, killed six people, including a forest guard, and injured two others, endangering the future of the settlement.
- Sangma says “the root cause of the tension that has been building up in this and other areas has to do with the long-pending border issue between Assam and Meghalaya”.
- Sarma, however, has said the firing incident took place when forest guards tried to stop a truck smuggling illegal timber.
- The process of resolution betweeen Assam and the States carved out of it—Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh—depends on historical facts, continuity, administrative convenience, ethnicity, and public opinion.