Volatile boundary

The recent clashes on the Assam-Nagaland border have reinforced the fact that the boundary dispute between two States has remained one of the most intractable conflicts of the north-eastern region.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

A vehicle set on fire during a protest in Golaghat district of Assam on August 20. Thousands of protesters defied a curfew and attacked the police during an unrest over a territorial dispute with Nagaland.

A vehicle set on fire during a protest in Golaghat district of Assam on August 20. Thousands of protesters defied a curfew and attacked the police during an unrest over a territorial dispute with Nagaland.

CLASHES in areas under B-Sector of the disputed stretch of the boundary between Assam and Nagaland on August 12 and 13 came not only as a grim reminder of similar violence in the past (the clashes at Merapani in 1985 being recorded as the worst among them), but also reinforced the hard reality that the boundary issue has been one of the most intractable conflicts of the north-eastern region in the past five decades.

The recent clashes left nine persons dead and eight injured, all of them belonging to the Adivasi community, and affected more than 10,000 people in 14 villages in Assam’s Golaghat district and 1,000 people in eight villages in Nagaland’s Wokha district. Hundreds of houses were set on fire in the affected villages. Four persons were killed in the subsequent police action on protesters in Golaghat district.

The Assam government alleged that armed miscreants from Nagaland attacked the 14 villages in Golaghat, while Nagaland alleged that a “surprise attack” by a huge number of Adivasis and militants belonging to the Adivasi National Liberation Army on Ronsu yan village and some adjoining villages in the Ralan area of Wokha district compelled the residents of Ralan to retaliate. Wokha district is home to Lothas, one of the several Naga tribes. Lotha organisations alleged that Maoist elements were involved in the attack.

In the recent past, sporadic clashes sparked by disputes over land created a volatile situation in the region. A meeting of the Additional Deputy Commissioners of the two States was held on July 27 at the sector headquarters of the Rengmapani camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) located in B-Sector. The meeting called to discuss a land dispute between one Ekonthung Lotha and Simon Sama, an Adivasi farmer, took four decisions to maintain peace in the disputed areas. They are: 1) Ekonthung Lotha will allow Sama to cultivate on the plot of land on a sharing basis temporarily for a period of one year. The tenancy term may be extended subject to Lotha’s satisfaction over the deal. 2) Ekonthung Lotha will erect temporarily a thatched shed for cultivation during the cultivation period. 3) They will maintain peace and harmony and will not resort to any unlawful activities. 4) If any person violates the terms, the Sector Commander, CRPF; the Sub-Divisional Police Officer (SDPO), Bhandari; and the SDPO, Sarupathar, will take action as per law. A copy of the minutes of this meeting, signed by the officials concerned of both the States as well as by the Sector Commander, CRPF, was tabled in the Assam Assembly on August 30.

Tension started building up in the area in the first week of August with residents of Ralan accusing Simon Sama of violating the decisions taken at the July 27 meeting and attacking them along with a group of Adivasi youth in order to prevent the construction of a thatched house. A first information report was filed on July 31 in the Uriamghat police station in Dhansiri subdivision of Golaghat district about the alleged abduction of two Adivasi youth from Chainpur village under B-Sector on July 26. The Assam government maintains that armed miscreants from Nagaland began attacking villagers when the All Adivasi Students’ Association led a protest march to the CRPF sector headquarters at Chatiagaon on August 12 to press for the rescue of the abducted youth.

The boundary dispute started in 1963 following the creation of Nagaland as the 16th State of India.

Assam insisted on retaining the constitutional boundaries that are defined by the 1962 State of Nagaland Act. The boundaries of Nagaland comprise two units—the Naga Hills district of Assam created in 1866, whose boundaries were defined in precise terms through a notification of 1925, and the Tuensang areas as per the Naga Hills-Tuensang Areas Act, 1957. Nagaland insists on the restoration of the “historical boundaries” and demands re-transfer of 12,882 square kilometres of Assam’s land to Nagaland on the grounds that the colonial government excluded these “Naga areas” from the erstwhile Naga Hills district “without the knowledge and much less the consent of the Nagas”.

A report titled, “A Brief Account on Historical Sequences of Nagaland Assam Border Affairs”, brought out by the Committee of Border Affairs of Nagaland, traces the history of the Nagas’ claim to the draft Nine-Point Agreement that was drawn up after prolonged negotiations between the representatives of the Naga National Council, or NNC, and the Assam Governor, Sir Akbar Hydari, in June 1947. The NNC was formed as the Naga Hills District Council in April 1945, but the nomenclature was changed in 1946 to raise the common cause of all Nagas. The draft agreement was rejected a year later following a controversy over the interpretation of its ninth point regarding the Nagas’ right to secession from India.

The report states: “It [the draft agreement] stipulated a modification of the then administrative division so as to restore all its forests to the Naga Hills district and bring all the Naga areas under one unified administrative unit. The very fact that the restoration of transferred areas and merger of contiguous areas were included in the nine points clearly showed that Nagas had never compromised with the autocratic actions of the Britishers on the transfer and forced occupation of their lands.”

Subsequently, the Naga People’s Convention (NPC), formed in 1957, urged the Centre to create a separate administrative division by merging the Tuensang area of the erstwhile North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) with the Naga Hills district. Agreeing to the demand, the Government of India created a new administrative unit called the Naga Hills-Tuensang Area on December 1, 1957. In July 1960, an NPC delegation submitted a 16-point memorandum to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reiterating the Nagas’ claim over the areas which they said were excluded from the erstwhile Naga Hills district by the British government in 1898, 1901 and 1918. The negotiations between the NPC and the Centre led to the formation of the Nagaland State in 1963.

“During the discussion in New Delhi, it was not possible to make any decision at that stage on this proposal but the meeting consisting of the Naga declaration and the representatives of the Government of India placed the following on record: ‘The Nagas discussed the question of the inclusion of forests and of contiguous areas inhabited by the Nagas. They were referred to the provisions of Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution prescribing the procedure of transfer of areas from one state to another’,” states the official account of the Nagaland government. It adds: “Though the government of India could not make any commitment at that stage on the questions of restoration of transferred areas and merger of contiguous areas inhabited by Nagas, it was kept open for future settlement under the provisions of the Constitution.”

Assam's contention An official account of the boundary dispute brought out by the Assam government in 1985, titled “Facts About The Assam-Nagaland Border”, however, states: “Absolutely no commitment whatsoever was made to the Naga leaders in the 16-point agreement in respect of the Reserved Forests falling within Assam according to [the] 1925 notification. Nor did the late Prime Minister indicate any commitment on the part of the Govt. of India while making a statement in the Lok Sabha on 1st August, 1960, regarding the Naga Hills-Tuensang Areas in the background of the 16-Point Agreement.”

The account also states: “during the long process of creating Naga Hills district over a period of six decades, large settled, occupied and fully administered areas of Assam had to go through a painful process of being shuttled back and forth merely for the political convenience of the imperial rulers…. What was finally restored to Assam through the 1925 notification was thus far less than what was there from time immemorial.”

In 1965, the Nagaland Chief Minister sent two telegrams to the Prime Minister to raise the boundary dispute and requested the setting up of a boundary commission which could visit the areas and make its award. The dispute started manifesting itself in the form of built-up tension, with the States accusing one another of encroaching upon their respective territories. There were sporadic incidents of violence and clashes in the disputed areas.

On August 7, 1971, the Government of India appointed K.V.K. Sundaram as Adviser in the Ministry of Home Affairs to ascertain the facts regarding the Assam-Nagaland boundary and the need for any adjustment taking into account the full facts of the situation, including the provisions of Section 3 of the State of Nagaland Act. He was asked to consult the Chief Ministers of the two States and try to bring about an agreed solution and “put forward suggestions to maintain peace and tranquillity in the disputed areas pending his final advice”.

Assam claims in its official accounts that the Nagaland government “laid claims not only to large areas in Sibsagar district (inclusive of tea gardens and a number of reserved forests) but also to the whole of North Cachar hills district and parts of Karbi Anglong and Nowgong district”. However, the Sundaram Committee (it submitted its report in 1974 but the two States received copies of the report only in 1979) “rejected each and every claim of Nagaland as unsustainable on the basis of fact and historical evidence except in regard to the Dessoi Valley reserve forest”. The Shastri Commission appointed to inquire into the 1985 Merapani clashes in Golaghat district indicted several Assam and Nagaland officials but emphasised that irrespective of the merits of Nagaland’s territorial claims, Assam had unquestioned authority and right to be in full administrative control over areas within its existing constitutional boundaries. Nagaland rejected both the reports.

Assam filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court in 1988 with the prayer to declare a) the boundary between Assam and Nagaland in terms of the Notification of 1925, the Naga Hills-Tuensang Areas Act, 1957, and the State of Nagaland Act, 1962; b) grant permanent injunction restraining Nagaland from encroaching into Assam; c) grant permanent injunction restraining Nagaland from setting up polling stations within Assam and enrolling the residents of Assam in their voters’ list; d) direct the Government of India to give effect to the Sundaram Report and implement the Shastri Commission Report for giving Assam full administrative control over areas within its constitutional boundary.

On September 25, 2006, the Supreme Court appointed a Local Commission to identify the boundaries of the two States. The court, however, made it clear that the Local Commission would not be a Boundary Commission and that appeal could be filed by parties dissatisfied with the Local Commission’s report. The mediators submitted their report on October 15, 2013, following which the Supreme Court sought views of both the States on the report. It is awaiting their submission.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Nagaland Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang met in Guwahati on August 21 on the sidelines of a Conference of the Chief Ministers of the North-Eastern States, convened by the Ministry of Development of the North-Eastern Region, and agreed to put in place a joint mechanism for regular coordination between their officials to prevent recurrence of violence over the boundary dispute. The two States agreed that the historical problems should be resolved. This was not the first time that they had reached such an agreement. In the past too, they had agreed to put in place a joint mechanism whenever clashes broke out over the boundary issue and the two States allegedly violated the status quo .

Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister of State for Home, who was in Guwahati to attend the conference, was present at the meeting between the two Chief Ministers. The Centre’s role in the resolution of the conflict has largely been limited to the appointment of committees, whose reports or suggestions have failed to evolve a consensus on the boundary demarcation. Whatever interim arrangements that the two States put in place at the behest of the Centre were primarily related to deployment and reinforcement of neutral forces in the disputed areas and putting in place joint mechanisms for maintaining the status quo .

Neutral Force Both Gogoi and Zeliang alleged, in the presence of Rijiju, that the CRPF—the neutral force deployed along the disputed boundary—had not been playing a neutral role. Both the States, however, insisted on the deployment of more CRPF companies. In accordance with an interim agreement between the two States in 1979, only the CRPF and battalions of the Assam Rifles were posted in all Naga-inhabited areas, and the overall operational command of the CRPF and the Assam Rifles was entrusted to the Additional Inspector General of Assam. In that agreement, the word neutral force was not used. The Border Security Force (BSF) was deployed for some time. Now, only the CRPF is deployed in the disputed areas as the neutral force, and Additional Director General (Border) of Assam Police is the operational commander.

The neutrality, according to a standard operating procedure (SOP) laid down in 2005 by the then Additional D.G. (Border) M. Mohan Raj, is confined to ensuring that searches and arrests in Naga-inhabited areas are made in the presence of magistrates and civil police officials of both the States, preventing clashes between Nagas and non-Nagas and between any other groups, ensuring maintenance of status quo with regard to settlers and settlements as on January 2, 1979, and enforcing any other decision mutually agreed upon by the two States. Nagaland views the command structure of the neutral force to be defective. Officials of both the States, in a meeting held on August 30, agreed to write to their respective governments to review the SOP, if necessary, to make the neutral force more effective.

It was on August 14, 1947, that the NNC led by the legendary Naga leader Angami Zapfu Phizo declared Naga independence and informed the Government of India and the United Nations about it. On December 30, 1949, the NNC adopted a resolution through which it resolved to establish at the earliest a “separate sovereign State of Nagalim”. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) is an offshoot of the NNC, which split after the 1975 Shillong Accord. The NSCN split in 1988 into the NSCN (Isaac-Muivah) and the NSCN (Khaplang). The NSCN (I-M) signed a ceasefire agreement with New Delhi in 1997, and both the sides have been holding peace talks since then.

The area in Assam to which Nagaland has been laying claim overlaps with the areas of the State claimed by the NSCN(I-M) in its map of “Nagalim”. NSCN(I-M) leaders attribute the deadlock in the ongoing peace process to the two sides not finalising the geographical areas in which the solution to be mutually agreed upon by the Centre and the rebel group will apply. The NSCN (I-M)’s map of Nagalim also includes large areas of Manipur and parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. This appears to have added to the difficulties in finding a solution to the over five-decades-old boundary dispute between Assam and Nagaland outside the contours of the Naga peace talks and vice versa.

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