THE long-drawn-out dispute over the demarcation of the inter-State boundary between Assam and Mizoram reached a flashpoint on July 26 when the Mizoram Police opened fire killing six Assam Police personnel and injuring about 50 police officials and personnel. One civilian was also killed. Mizoram claimed that the Assam Police fired first, inviting retaliatory firing at the Vairengte area of Kolasib district in Mizoram.
On July 25, Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a meeting with the Chief Ministers of the north-eastern States in Shillong. The meeting discussed, among other issues, Assam’s boundary disputes with Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.
Soon after the firing incident, a Twitter war broke out between Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga. They levelled accusations and counter accusations, tagged the Prime Minister’s Office and Amit Shah, and shared video clips of the clashes. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam and the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram are constituents of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) of which Sarma has been the convener since its inception in 2016. Aizawl, Kolasib, and Mamit districts of Mizoram share a 164.6 kilometre-long boundary with Assam’s Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts. Both States claim ownership of the 509 square miles (1,318.31 sq. kilometres) of Inner Line Reserve Forest. Construction work allegedly by Mizoram in the Lailapur area of the reserve forest is reported to have triggered the flare-up.
At a meeting convened by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla in New Delhi on July 28, the Chief Secretaries of Assam and Mizoram had a prolonged discussion on the withdrawal of police forces and agreed to the deployment of Central Armed Police Forces along National Highway 306 and resolution of the boundary dispute through mutual dialogue. An official press release issued by Mizoram said both sides agreed to deploy or maintain their respective police forces within their respective areas as before. However, the deployment of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) failed to defuse the situation as a set of unilateral measures taken by both States resulted in an escalation of the crisis.
The Assam government issued a travel advisory to its residents to avoid travel to Mizoram. It directed the police to search every vehicle coming from Mizoram at the inter-State check post and release them only after confirming that they did not carry illicit drugs. The Assam Police lodged first information reports (FIRs) against the Mizoram Police and K. Vanlalvena, Mizoram’s Rajya Sabha member. In retaliation, the Mizoram Police lodged FIRs against Himanta Biswa Sarma and officials and personnel of the Assam Police.
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On the Assam side of the boundary, people blocked the National Highway, leaving vehicles carrying essential commodities to Mizoram stranded. Some miscreants destroyed a railway line connecting Mizoram’s lone rail head at Bairabi. Mizoram airlifted supplies from Kolkata to replenish its depleting stock of essential commodities.
As the clamour for Central intervention grew louder, Amit Shah urged Sarma and Zoramthanga to take coordinated action to defuse the tension. Soon after Amit Shah’s telephonic discussion with the two Chief Ministers, Mizoram withdrew the FIR against Sarma and Assam officials, and Assam reciprocated by withdrawing the FIR against Vanlalvena, the Deputy Commissioner of Kolasib, and other officials. However, Sarma said cases against the Mizoram Police officials would remain.
Sarma decided to depute Agriculture Minister Atul Bora and Irrigation and Guwahati Development Minister Ashok Singhal for a dialogue with the Mizoram government. On August 5, the two States issued a joint statement stating that they “agree to maintain peace along inter-State border areas and welcomed the deployment of neutral force by Government of India” and that they “will not send their respective forest and police forces for patrolling, domination, enforcement, or for fresh deployment to any of the areas where confrontation and conflict has taken place between the police forces of the two States”. The statement was signed by Atul Bora; Mizoram Home Minister Lalchamliana; Assam Commissioner and Secretary, Border Protection and Development, G.D. Tripathi; and Mizoram Home Secretary Vanlalngaihsaka, at Aizawl.
The build-up and the spark
Tension along the inter-State boundary had been building up since October last year when some residents of Lailapur area along the boundary enforced a 12-day economic blockade against Mizoram following some incidents of violence. The situation was quelled with the intervention of the Centre.
Developments in July, before Amit Shah convened a meeting with Chief Ministers of the north-eastern States, pointed to fresh tension building up between the two States. A meeting of Chief Secretaries of Assam and Mizoram in New Delhi, convened by Bhalla on July 10, failed to agree on a working mechanism for regular coordination.
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Lalchamliana, in a statement on July 12, alleged that the Assam Police had destroyed crops of some Mizo farmers along the boundary a week earlier. He demanded that the Assam government provide adequate compensation to the affected farmers. He stated that Mizoram had deployed additional police forces in the affected areas to quell public fear and ensure a sense of normalcy.
On July 20, Sarma said he would hold talks with Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and Arunachal Chief Minister Pema Khandu on the sidelines of the July 25 conference of north-eastern Chief Ministers but the situation along the Assam-Mizoram boundary was not conducive for talks. He said eyeball-to eyeball confrontation was going on in the areas bordering Cachar, Haliakandi and Karimgan districts. Sarma refused to comment on the Assam-Nagaland boundary dispute, saying the matter was pending before the Supreme Court.
The Assam government alleged that Mizoram started constructing a road towards Rengti Basti in Assam “in another breach of existing agreements and the existing status quo” and “destroying the Inner Line Reserve Forest at Lailapur area”. In an official statement after the July 26 firing incident, it accused Mizoram of setting up a new armed camp on a hillock next to the CRPF camp in the vicinity.
The statement said: “In an attempt to defuse the tension and resolve matters, a team of Assam officials, including an IGP [Inspector General of Police], a DIG [Deputy Inspector General of Police], DC [Deputy Commissioner] Cachar, SP [Superintendent of Police] Cachar, and DFO [Divisional Forest Officer] Cachar, went to the area this morning to request Mizoram side not to disturb the status quo. Sadly, however, they were surrounded and attacked by a mob of miscreants from the Mizoram side, which was visibly supported by Mizoram Police. The aggressive behaviour and posture of this mob along with the fact that they were brandishing weapons and wearing helmets is clearly seen in all available video footage.”
The Mizoram Home Minister, in a statement on July 26, alleged: “Around 200 Assam armed police led by the IGP, Assam Police, accompanied by DC Cachar, SP Cachar, and DFO Cachar, came to Vairengte autorickshaw stand at around 11:30 a.m. today, i.e., 26.07.2021. They forcibly crossed the duty post manned by the CRPF personnel stationed there and overran a duty post manned by 1 (one) section of Mizoram police personnel. The Assam Police also damaged several vehicles that were travelling along the National Highway between Vairengte and Lailapur. Upon learning of the arson committed by Assam Police, residents of Vairengte town, Kolasib district, proceeded to the site to inquire. These unarmed civilians were assaulted by Assam Police by lathi charging them and firing tear gas, thereby causing injuries to several civilians. SP, Kolasib, and an Executive Magistrate went to meet them and try to resolve the issue. However, Assam side were adamant and unwilling to discuss the issue. The confrontation continued and a volley of tear gas canisters and grenades were launched at Mizoram Police followed by firing from Assam side at around 4:50 p.m. Mizoram Police responded spontaneously by firing back at Assam Police in spite of the fact that SP, Kolasib district, was still inside CRPF duty camp negotiating with the Assam Police authorities. The entire development had been quite unfortunate. It all started with the Assam Police aggression into the duty camps of the CRPF and the Mizoram Police near the Vairengte autorickshaw stand.”
Two colonial era notifications are at the root of the boundary dispute between the two States. Assam has been insisting on a notification issued in 1933 for determination of the constitutional boundary, while Mizoram has been insisting on the 1875 notification for restoration of the historical boundary. The 1875 notification refers to demarcation of the boundary between the erstwhile Lushai Hills and Cachar plains, while the 1933 notification refers to the demarcation of the boundary between Manipur and Lushai Hills.
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In 1898, the colonial British government, through two separate proclamations issued on September 6, 1895, placed North Lushai Hills within the province of Assam and South Lushai Hills within the province of Bengal. Subsequently, on April 1, 1898, the colonial government through another proclamation transferred South Lushai Hills to Assam.
In 1952, areas under Aizawl and the Lungleh sub-divisions of Lushai Hills inhabited by Mizos were constituted into the erstwhile Lushai Hills Autonomous District Council of Assam under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule, and a regional council was formed in 1953 with the rest of the area inhabited by Pawis, Lakhers and Chakmas. In 1954, the Lushai Hills district was renamed as Mizo district. Mizo district was carved out of Assam as a Union Territory in 1972 under the North-East State Reorganisation Act, 1971. Mizoram became a full-fledged State on February 20, 1987, following the historic Mizo Accord signed between the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Government of India in 1986 after two decades of insurgency and counter-insurgency, and subsequent peace negotiations, from 1966 to 1986.
Explaining the historical context of Mizoram’s position, Jangkhongam Doungel, professor in the Department of Political Science of Mizoram University, says:
“The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, was made under the Government of India Act of 1870. The Lieutenant Governor of Bengal had proposed a draft Inner Line Regulation for peace and governance in the districts of Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgong, Sibsagar, Lakhimpur, Garo Hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Naga Hills, Cachar and Chittagong Hill Tracts. Inner Line Regulation was promulgated in the above-mentioned districts with effect from August 27, 1873. The Inner Line Regulation was repealed from Chittagong Hill Tracts by an Amending Act of 1903 and was introduced in Cachar district by notification no. 2299p and issued by C.U. Atchison, Secretary to the Government of India, on 20-8-1875. It was described in Annexure XI. For Cachar and Lushai hills, Inner Line started from Chatter Choora peak through Jhalnacherra. From Jhalnacherra, it moves in the northern direction towards Baroncheera and it moves towards the north-eastern corner to the top of Rengti pahar. The range is then bifurcated into two smaller paths, one leading to the Cleve House and another to Bara Jalinga Grant. Then, it moved towards Doarbund and Monierkhel and ended at Mynadhur on the Barak river. The notification of 1875 was said to be promulgated on the basis of an accord signed between the Mizo Chief, Suakpuilala, and Captain Lister in 1850. As such, the Government of Mizoram and civil societies in Mizoram accept the notification of 1875 as the inner-line boundary for solving the boundary dispute.
“Another notification was issued again vide Notification No. 2106 A.P. dated March 9, 1933, by W.A. Cosgrave, Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam and published in Assam Gazette on March 15, 1933. However, none of the Mizo chiefs were consulted about the notification of 1933. As such, the Government of Mizoram and people of Mizoram cannot accept the notification, which was issued without the consent of the Mizo chiefs and the Mizo people. Therefore, the Government of Mizoram stands for resolving the border issue on the basis of the Inner Line Notification of 1875.”
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Doungel said: “The present border dispute is a colonial legacy. Hill State or tribal territories were neither part of India nor part of Assam in pre-colonial era. The province of Assam was also the creation of British colonial power for its own administrative conveniences and tribal territories were demarcated in the province of Assam one after another. Garo Hills was the first to be annexed by British in 1822 and rest of the hill territories were annexed after the signing of the treaty of Yandaboo. Goalpara was added to Assam in 1826 as a separate district. The Khasi Hills was annexed in 1835, North Cachar Hills in 1854, Naga Hills in 1866, and Jaintia Hills in 1883. The North-East Frontier Tracts was occupied since 1842 and its annexation was completed in 1914. Lushai Hills was occupied since 1890 and it was annexed on September 6, 1895. The colonial administrator demarcated tribal territories in the province of Assam but there was no proper demarcation of boundary on the basis of historical facts and historical records when the hill territories were annexed in the British created province of Assam. Tea cultivation was expanded in the foothills, which were claimed as the domain of tribal chiefs in pre-colonial era, and many of the foothills were also declared as reserved forest by the colonial administration.
“With the creation of new States from the tribal territories after independence, reserved forest area now happened to be the bone of contention in the boundary dispute between Assam and its neighbouring States, namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. As border issue involves historical, social, cultural and ethnic linkages, proposal for satellite imagery as a solution will problematise the issue instead of resolving it. Historical records and historical evidence should be given importance to solve the vague border issue.”
Notion of State boundary
Dilip Gogoi, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Cotton University, and author of Making of India’s Northeast: Geopolitics of Borderland and Transnational Interactions (Routledge 2020), however, argues that “Inner line, which was created under the 1873 regulation, has been misunderstood by the people of the hills in north-eastern India. It was not the intention of colonial administration to protect the tribal identity of hill people nor did it denote the territorial boundary of ethnic people living in the hills. It was created for the purpose of administrative jurisdiction where British subjects were required to take permission to go beyond the inner line. It was also not meant to ascertain the external boundary of the British’s sovereign right, although it did coincide in certain pockets with the external limit of the British Empire.”
“To my mind it is a classic case of clash over borderland, engineered by two distinct ideational positions, that is, the perception of civic notion of state boundary vis-a-vis ethnic notion of State boundary. Assam is concerned about how to protect its constitutionally derived State boundary in the face of Mizoram’s encroachment. Mizoram is unable to reconcile the boundary issue because of the contested legacies of inner line and the Mizos desire for creating an exclusivist ethnic State which is synonymous with ethnic territorial homeland by eliding the existing constitutional and legal position of Assam-Mizoram border,” Gogoi opined.
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He said “internal border within the Union should be more open and relevant with the change of time. It should not be a barrier to cross-border movement of people and goods and services. The present inner line should be abolished to create a more open political space and common economic zone without compromising the rights of indigenous people of the region. If north-eastern States must remain relevant vis-a vis the adjacent regions of neighbouring countries in the age of globalisation and sub-regional cooperation, it must open up its internal and external borders.”
G.D. Tripathi said Assam had explained many times to Mizoram that whatever was written in the Constitution should be the basis for the resolution of the dispute as reopening history would lead to a never-ending process. On July 30, the Mizoram Boundary Committee maintained in its resolution that demarcation of Mizoram’s boundary/border on its northern side was found only in the Inner Line of 1875, and hence, the committee would continue its stance that the Mizoram-Assam Boundary should be resolved on the basis of this document alone.
Sarma said his government would move the Supreme Court to protect the Inner Line Reserve Forest from destruction and encroachment.
The hardened position of both States is bound to keep the boundary issue volatile until the Centre facilitates a sustained dialogue to end the dispute.