Assam chief minister adding fuel to the fire over border dispute with Mizoram

From an advisory asking people to avoid travelling to Mizoram to stopping vehicular traffic from entering Assam and posting incendiary tweets and videos, the Assam CM is keeping tension alive

Assam chief minister adding fuel to the fire over border dispute with Mizoram

Shalini Sahay

Why would Assam and Mizoram fight a battle over a few square kilometres of land? Why would the two states treat the other as a foreign territory? What are the stakes in the border dispute are just some of the unanswered questions even as India witnesses the ugly spectacle of two chief ministers exchanging angry tweets and videos.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had fired the first salvo by tweeting a video.

T he video showed a group of 20-odd men armed with what look like machine guns. They are in battle fatigue and they seemed to be resting on a clearing in a forest. Some are sitting on the ground while a few are lying down. Others are lying sideways, staring directly at the camera. One or two of them are smoking.

None of them seem to be smiling, rejoicing or celebrating. They look pretty grim and even tense and exhausted. Barring one of the men, the closest to the camera, who is smoking and looks amused, a halfsmile hovering on lips as he smokes and watches the one shooting them.

Hours later the video was shared by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. “Look at this video to know how personnel of Mizoram Police acted and escalated the issue,” he exclaimed while putting it on social media.

It was unusual conduct by a chief minister. His priority should have been to restore calm. But he seemed intent on playing to the gallery. The consummate politician that he is, he solemnly told the media that Assam would protect its territorial integrity at all costs. He also pledged to protect civilians in both Assam and Mizoram.

The video predictably caused a storm. “This indeed is inflammatory and irresponsible. Instead of dousing the flames, you keep on pouring fuel to the fire. Hats off to you for doublespeak in your press meet a few hours ago,” responded someone from Mizoram. “Which CM in the right mind would post such a sensitive, critical video in social Media? Instead of trying to resolve the issue, you seem to be trying to provoke more hatred, divide & violence,” said another.

The response in Assam was just the opposite. There was outrage and anger and calls for retribution. Enough is enough, said several respondents. Saner voices tried to douse the flame. One of them volunteered that what the Mizo policeman was saying on his satellite phone was, “We are brave when the times comes, the people of Mizoram had our back and we will fight for our land together.” There was no rejoicing or any provocation. But the damage, it seemed, had been done.

On Saturday, July 24, Union Home Minister Amit Shah was in Shillong, where he met all the chief ministers of North-Eastern states. He claimed that the Union Government’s policies had ensured peace in the region for the first time since the mid 1980s. Pointing out that for the first time as many as five members of the Union Council of Ministers were from the N-E, he promised Acche Din for the region.

Ironically, an English language newspaper from Aizawl, Mizoram Post, reported that the state’s Chief Minister Zoramthanga at Shillong “requested the Government of Assam to respect the situation on the ground and desist from disturbing the peace which has been enjoyed by the farmers in the border areas, calling upon them to withdraw their armed police who are camping at various locations in the agriculture fields of Mizo farmers since 29th June, 2021.”

The Mizoram chief minister suggested that “status-quo may be maintained as on 10th May, 2021 as suggested by the Chief Minister of Assam in his telephonic discussion with me in the afternoon of 29th June, 2021,” the newspaper reported.

Assam Government admits that the state did rush 200 policemen led by an IGP and assisted by the SP of the district to the border on Monday, July 26. It accused Mizoram of encroaching upon Assam’s territory. It accused the neighbouring state of violating the status-quo and start work on a road through the reserve forest. The force came under attack when Mizoram policemen opened fire with light machine guns and five Assam policemen died and many more were injured, it said.

The Mizo version is that both CRPF and the SSB (Sashashtra Seema Bal) were deployed in the area, the former in Mizoram and the latter in Assam, to help maintain the status quo. But Assam Police went past the CRPF post, drove away Mizoram policemen from their post and attacked the villagers without any provocation. Reinforcements arrived and at some point the Mizoram policemen opened fire from an advantageous height, catching Assam policemen by surprise.

While Chief Secretaries of both the states were summoned to the Home Ministry in Delhi and were read the riot act, it is not clear if accountability will be fixed and if heads would roll. The unprecedented act of the police force of two states firing at each other is alarming enough. And a large number of questions about the clash still remain to be answered.

The Assam chief minister has not helped matters by blabbering all kinds of theories. Short of blaming China or Pakistan’s ISI, he appears to have blamed everybody else. If Himanta Biswa Sarma is to be believed, the clash was engineered by Assam’s crackdown on cattle smugglers. Then he declared that the drug mafia could have been responsible. At some point he blamed refugees from Myanmar and justified his decision to deny them refuge. In the very next breath, he seemed to suggest that a forest mafia could have instigated the clash.

The ubiquitous Muslim angle was also advanced and a section of the media speculated that Assam’s crackdown on beef trade could have led to the clash. The fact that there are only around 15,000 Muslims among Mizoram’s 1.3 million people (with one million being Christians) and that Christians in the region also eat beef were naturally overlooked.

It is not unusual for the chief minister to be in the dark following sudden clashes. But by speculating in public on the reasons and blaming Mizoram without an inquiry first, he did add fuel to the fire.

Assam has border disputes with other states in the region too. Its border with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland is 800 kilometres long compared to just 164 kilometres with Mizoram. The dispute with Arunachal is in the Supreme Court and now Assam is planning to take its dispute with Mizoram too to the court.

That dispute over territory can escalate into violence within the country is shocking; that we are unable to resolve them in 50 years says a lot of our leadership and the country

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