The issue has been simmering for a long long time and it is not “a decade old” dispute as given by Republic TV on July 27, 2021. It is nearly a century and a half old issue, beginning with a notification by the then British colonial power in 1875 which delineated the territory occupied by Mizos then known as “Lushais” and the Indian Assam territory. (This was made necessary because of the forays made by the Lushais to the tea plantations in the plains area which resulted in the killing of an English plantation manager and kidnapping of his daughter by the “raiders”. The Lushai Hills was not occupied by the British until 1890). Another notification by Assam Government in 1933 (at which time Mizoram had become “Lushai Hills” administered by Assam Govt.) to delineate the boundaries of the then princely state of Manipur. This was done without taking approval or making known what was being done, to the Mizo people. As a result of this, Mizos have not accepted the delineation of boundaries made under the North East Region (Re-Organization) Act, 1971 which carried over to Mizoram’s Union Territory status in 1972 and eventually to Mizoram State in 1987.
The 1933 delineation of Manipur cannot but touch Mizoram because they are neighbors. However, the 1933 delineation has never been properly demarcated on the ground as a result of which there is confusion on the actual demarcation lines till date. In the meantime, the portion that have been designated as Innerline Reserve Forests (which comprise of more than 500 square kms) on the border between Assam’s Karimganj, Halkandi and Cachar districts and Mizoram was given to the then Mizo District Council, an autonomous district of Assam, which came into being in 1954. However, because of staff shortage, the task of collection of taxes from the Innerline Reserve Forests was given to the Assam Forests Department which received a part of the taxes for its collection work. This continued till Mizoram became an Union Territory in 1972 when the Assam Forest Department suddenly stopped its payments to Mizoram. As a result of this, Assam now claim the Reserve Forests as part of its territory and this is the crux of the boundary dispute between Assam and Mizoram. To be fair, Mizoram Government never complained about the non-receipt of the taxes to the Assam Govt. after 1972. This may have emboldened the Assam Government to claim the Reserve Forest as their territory.
As for what happened on July 26, 2021, a force of about 200 Assam police personnel, along with the Cachar District Deputy Commissioner and other district authorities entered the disputed area near Vairengte village under Kolasib district in Mizoram. They forcibly occupied the duty post constructed by the Mizoram Govt and occupied by the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF) who had been charged by the Central Govt to keep the peace between the two states. After occupying the CRPF post, Assam Police went further inside what Mizos considered their territory at which point civilians from Vairengte village began protesting. They, in fact, pelted stones and used catapults to attack those they considered intruders. The altercations took place near or around noon on July 26, 2021 and continued through to the afternoon. By this time, Kolasib district authorities and ranking Police officers had already tried to reason with their Assam counterparts but to no effect. The villagers had become an angry mob because Assam police had lobbed teargas shells at them to disperse them in the hours before Kolasib district officials had arrived. Kolasib district SP/Addl. SP even admitted to the Assam officials that they could not control the crowd and that the only way the situation could be defused was for Assam officials and police personnel to retreat.
It was at this point in time, while officials of both districts were having discussions, that gunshots began to ring out at around 4:40 in the afternoon. Though both sides accused each other of firing first, it appeared that becoming uneasy with the mob getting out of control, Assam police opened fire to frighten the villagers. It is not known whether they aimed at the villagers or fired into the air. However, the result was that hearing the shots, the villagers ran for their lives deeper into Mizoram territory. The small Mizoram police contingent that been posted near the CRPF post had also been dislodged by the Assam police. However, the Mizoram police had quietly taken up positions at a hillock that looked down at the CRPF post that is now occupied by Assam police. On hearing the gunshots and the civilians shouting and running for cover, the Mizoram police, apparently thinking civilians had been shot at, retaliated by opening fire at the Assam police.
It is unfortunate that such an incident had to take place and lives lost and many injured (6 cops and a civilian from Assam side died; about 50 Assam police personnel and a Mizo civilian were injured as a result of the firefight which lasted about 50 minutes according to media reports) as it could have been avoided. Just a few days back, Union Minister of Home Amit Shah and the two state CMs, Himanta Biswas Sarma and Zoramthanga had talks in Shillong about the boundary issue and it was decided that talks would be held to thrash out the issue. Assam could have waited for the talks and not send officials and police personnel to a disputed area. It was, in fact, two days after these talks that Assam decided to aggravate the dispute by sending its team to the disputed area.
Tripartite talks between Assam, Mizoram and the Centre need to be initiated as quickly as possible to defuse the situation which could eventually lead to a final agreement between the two states.
However, questions remain that may or may not point to a deep and hidden agenda by the BJP Government in Assam. As mentioned before, the disputed areas, under Barak Valley, are largely occupied by Bangladeshi immigrants, legal or otherwise. A huge majority of these immigrants are Muslims. Assam had never wanted them, and they have been a constant headache for the Assamese people. Why is Assam’s BJP Government all of a sudden so keen on claiming a territory that had been under dispute for more than a century? While it is a fact that clashes had occurred from time to time over border issues for more than 30 years, the sudden interest shown by former CM Sonowal’s and present Sarma’s administration in the past few years on the territorial dispute, escalating the problem makes for forming interesting and intriguing conjectures.
Take for example the recent Assam Cattle Preservation Bill that said it was to protect the sentiments of non-beef eating communities? Had there ever been instances when the non-beef eating communities’ sentiments had been hurt in Assam? What about the two-child policy Assam has taken up which its Chief Minister, Himanta Biswas Sarma, made no attempt to hide that it was targetted at the state’s Muslim community? These could lead to polarisation and segregation of communities on both religious and communal grounds that could tear asunder the hitherto wholesome social fabric of Assam.
In context to the sudden interest in claiming territory, is it vote bank politics (Barak’s Valley Muslim votes) by which lands could be given to landless Bangladeshi immigrants? Or is it a demographic move to contain the Muslim population to Barak Valley so that other parts of Assam would not be inundated by Muslims? Maybe it’s a stone that would kill two birds with one throw?
What is of more concern is that the moves being made by Assam recently could hurt the whole of the North East Region of India as Assam is the hub and face of the Region. The NER is a myriad of cultures, customs, religions, languages and dialects. Despite this, there exists a cohesiveness in the peoples of this Region and each state show respect and neighborliness towards each other. But Assam, under its new Chief Minister, seems bent on destroying this fragile fabric. Each state in the Region has its share of multiple religious communities and except for Assam, no other state has made any moves to isolate a certain religious community through legislations. So, a worrying trend is taking place in Assam.
Assam has boundary disputes with Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, apart from Mizoram. These four states were carved out of Assam, and it is very odd that there should be these boundary issues since being carved out of a “mother” state, the boundaries of these “children” states should have been clearly demarcated before they came into being. It was under Mrs Indira Gandhi that these demarcations were made and therefore, the blame can be put on the Central Government, which was under the Congress party in those times. So, it is the onerous duty of the Central Government to clear up the boundary problems of these four states as the harmony and accord found in the Seven Sisters could be severely disrupted, giving rise to serious communal and societal problems.
The words used in delineating these boundaries may be clear, but they are clearly not clear in the actual physical ground markings.
Th writer is a veteran journalist and documentary film maker based in Aizawl