Mizos favouring the 1875 border and Assam the 1933 line, the dispute needs a permanent solution
A Joint mechanism to sort out border disputes with supervision of the Supreme Court could lead to more peaceful and settled borders in the region
The 165-KM long Assam-Mizoram boundary cuts across forest hills in three districts on either side (Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi in Assam - Mamit, Kolasib and Aizawl in Mizoram). Frequent clashes keep happening between the people of these two states on the border.
But the July 26 clashes were different. The latest tension flared up when Assam Police reportedly destroyed a stretch of plantations of Mizoram residents in a forest area that Assam claims as part of Hailakandi. These clashes are not limited to just between the people of the two states living in the border districts. This clash is at a much higher level - between the two state governments. The scale of the violent clash that erupted on July 26 was unprecedented and surprised even the residents of these states. The Assam-Mizoram Border Dispute, if not resolved permanently through negotiations, the North East Region’s Peace could become the larger casualty.
J. Doungel, Professor of Political Science at Mizoram University, tells us, “The border issue is a vague and complicated one which cannot be solved overnight. Therefore, an accommodative, persuasive and mature approach should be applied in tackling this problematic issue rather than emphasising on aggressive, populist, propagandist, opportunist and offensive approaches”.
The heart of the problem lies in a disagreement over the border demarcation in the colonial era. 1n 1875, the British government had conducted the demarcation of the present-day Mizoram, then Lushai Hills, from Assam under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) of 1873. However, another demarcation also took place in 1933 based on culture, linguistic and tribal lines.
The BEFR empowered the Lieutenant Governor to define an inner line, beyond which no British Subject of certain classes or foreign residents could pass without a license, giving the government untrammeled control. These regulations, which are still in force, cover Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland.
Post-independence the word “British Subject” was replaced by “Citizens of India”. The introduction of the Inner Line Permit was based upon the notion of preserving the indigenous character of all the tribes living in the restricted areas of the North-Eastern parts of the country. It was designed to prevent the influx of migrants, thus protecting and preserving the rich heritage of the North Eastern Tribes.
The insertion of Section 6B in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) limits its applicability to areas covered under the “Inner Line” notified under the BEFR. The CAA exemption shows that protection granted to indigenous people nearly 150 years ago still holds good.
Mizoram supports the Cachar Inner Line of 1875 under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873, while Assam advocates for the 1933 notification on the Lushai Hills-Cachar border. For the Mizos, the border demarcation of 1875 is sacrosanct because it took place in consultation with the then Mizo tribal chieftains. Several Mizos, till day, look at the issue through the lens of losing an inch of the land as an insult to their forefathers.
Delving into the history of the creation of the Northeastern states is important, to get a historical perspective of the present-day border dispute between Assam and Mizoram. Initially, the Northeast states were “all Assam”, except for Tripura and Manipur that were Union Territories. Nagaland was the first state to break away from Assam following violent incidents involving Naga insurgents and it obtained full statehood in 1963. However, Nagaland’s borders were drawn in “a hurry”, causing a discrepancy between the political boundaries of the newly founded state and the traditional boundaries from the perspective of tribal groups.
The reorganisation of Arunachal Pradesh into a Union Territory took place in 1972 and its subsequent upgradation to a full-fledged state in 1987 was a strategy of the Indian government to consolidate its position vis-à-vis China in the border negotiations. The grant of statehood to Meghalaya in 1972 was a step to accommodate the territorial aspirations of the Khasis, Garos and Jaintia tribes.
The ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) had risen against the Government of India in 1966 largely due to the negligent policies of the then Assam government during the killer famine in the Lushai Hills district. The 20-year-long fight for ‘sovereignty’ ended with the grant of statehood for Mizoram in 1986 and peace has prevailed since then. As Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, he focused on national harmony and immediately prepared The Mizoram Peace Accord of 1986. Mizoram became the 23rd state of the Indian Union on 20 February 1987. With it, MNF surrendered all their arms and gave up its struggle for independence.
Granting statehood definitely addressed the demand for a separate political identity for the North-Eastern states, but had a negative fallout in the form of the 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 Mother Assam without paying much attention to the tribal realities on the ground and these freshly created states' boundaries did not strictly conform to the ethnic boundaries of the region. Unfortunately, the Central government did not create any permanent joint mechanism that allowed these states to jointly address these disputes. These concerned states tried to resolve these boundary disputes amongst each other by holding negotiations between each other, which many times failed.
It is time to find a permanent solution to the border disputes amongst the North East states, as it would lead to peaceful relations between the various states involved in the long run. Any such permanent solution should be found by establishing a joint mechanism and with the involvement of Supreme Court - with a view to find amicable solutions acceptable to all states, based on ethnic and historical sensitivities.
( V Venkateswara Rao is a retired corporate professional and a freelance writer.)