Explained: How did the 150-year-old Assam-Mizoram dispute get so violent now?
Assam-Mizoram border dispute: Behind the violent clashes on Monday lie two boundary demarcations from the colonial era. Why does Mizoram accept one and not the other, and how did the 150-year-old dispute get so violent now?
The boundary dispute between Assam and Mizoram dates back nearly a century and a half. While there have been several showdowns arising out of inter-state disputes between various states of the Northeast, the dispute between Assam and Mizoram has rarely culminated in violence. Yet, it escalated to unprecedented levels on Monday, as firing on the inter-state boundary left at least six Assam policemen dead and over 50 individuals injured.
A look at the history of the dispute, and the recent events leading to the violence:
Assam-Mizoram: What is the demarcated boundary?
Mizoram borders Assam’s Barak Valley, and both border Bangladesh. The boundary between the two states, which runs 165 km today, has a history dating back to the time when Mizoram was a district of Assam and known as Lushai Hills. Boundary demarcations in 1875 and 1933, particularly the second one, are at the heart of the dispute.
The 1875 demarcation, notified on August 20 that year, derived from the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) Act, 1873. It differentiated Lushai Hills from the plains of Cachar in Assam’s Barak Valley. This was done in consultation with Mizo chiefs, and it became the basis for the Inner Line Reserve Forest demarcation in the Gazette two years later.
The 1933 demarcation marks a boundary between Lushai Hills and Manipur, beginning at the tri-junction of Lushai Hills, Cachar district and Manipur. The Mizos do not accept this demarcation on the ground that their chiefs were not consulted this time.
Which is the boundary does Mizoram find acceptable?
According to Mizo leaders, the only acceptable boundary is the Inner Line of 1875 on the southern frontier of Cachar, notified as per the BEFR Act. (This was subsequently revised in 1878 as it sought to demarcate the Lushai Hills frontier from the plains of Assam.)
“The present so-called boundary was arbitrarily made in 1930 and 1933 without the consent and approval of the competent authorities and the people of the Lushai Hills, now Mizoram, thereby unreasonably excluding some of the Lushai inhabited areas such as Cachar Zion, Tlangnuam, Lala Bazar and Banga Bazar,” political parties of Mizoram, NGOs and a joint action committee on the border issue wrote in a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018.
“It is to the Mizos no more than an imaginary line pushed farther and farther south of the Inner Line of 1875, depriving the Mizos of the gentle slopes and flat lands for the convenience of outside settlers (mainly Bangladeshees) brought by the British,” the memorandum reads. In fact, they were referring to a time when the country of Bangladesh had not even been created.
When did the dispute become so bitter?
The dispute has been simmering since Mizoram became a Union Territory in 1972 and then a state in the 1980s. The two states signed an agreement that status quo should be maintained at no-man’s land set up in the boundaries. While alleged transgressions have often happened over the decades, skirmishes have happened very frequently in recent months.
While Assam sees its claimed boundary as transgressed, Mizoram cites unilateral moves by Assam inside Mizoram territory. It alleges that in June last year, Assam officials entered Mamit district and visited some farms; that miscreants entered Kolasib district and burnt down two farm huts; and that Assam officials visited the inter-state border between Vairengte (Mizoram) and Lailapur (Assam) and crossed the duty post manned by the CRPF. Mizoram claims that both Assam and Mizoram authorities have undertaken construction work at Buarchep village of Mizoram, and that the Home Ministry is aware of all these issues.
Last October, Assam Police officers allegedly visited Saihapui ‘V’ in Mizoram and threatened to blockade the inter-state highway. Later that month, the inter-state highway as well as the National Highway connecting the two states was blockaded by individuals at Lailapur in Assam. In November, bombs exploded at Upper Phainuam Lower Primary School in Mizoram. A peace meeting was held between the two states.
In recent months, several huts and small shops have been torched, and violent clashes have taken place on issues as petty as claims over betel nut cultivation, with plantations belonging to two residents of Mizoram allegedly set ablaze. There have been clashes between villagers of Lailapur and Vairengte, and between residents of Karimganj (Assam) and Mamiut (Mizoram).
Assam-Mizoram disupte: what led to such violence on Monday?
A team of around 200 Assam Police led by the IGP, Assam Police, and the DC, SP and DFO of Cachar travelled to the Vairengte autorickshaw stand on Monday. While Assam has reasoned that they went to “resolve matters”, Mizoram has said they “forced their way in”, overrunning security posts.
“The team forcibly crossed a duty-post manned by CRPF personnel stationed there and overran a duty post manned by one section of Mizoram police personnel. The Assam Police also damaged several vehicles that were travelling along the National Highway between Vairengte and Lailapur,” the Mizoram government said in a statement.
The Assam Home Minister, for his part, issued a statement: “In another breach of existing agreements and the existing status quo, Mizoram began constructing a road towards Rengti Basti in Assam, destroying the Inner Line Reserve Forest in Lailapur area. Simultaneously, the Mizoram side also set up a new armed camp on a hillock next to the camp of the neutral force, CRPF, in the same vicinity… a team of Assam officials including an IGP, DIG, DC Cachar, SP Cachar and DFO Cachar went to the area this morning to request the Mizoram side not to disturb the status quo.”
Where is this headed?
Following the intervention of Union Home Minister Amit Shah — who on Saturday had held closed-door meetings with the Northeast CMs in Shillong and discussed inter-state disputes and other issues — both sides have now retracted their forces.
In its statement, Mizoram has said it wants “that the inter-state border issue with Assam be resolved in an atmosphere of peace and understanding”. It has also called upon Assam to create “congenial environment” for peaceful resolution of the dispute.
Assam has asked Mizoram to “restrain its people and police personnel from indulging in wanton violence, and work towards restoring peace”. It alleged that the fact that there was no casualty on Mizoram side was proof that Assam authorities had showed restraint.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga tagged each other in their tweets while calling for peace. The previous day, they had sparred publicly on Twitter.
What are the other border disputes in the region?
Assam, which shares its boundary with all other Northeast states — and from which states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram were carved out — has been involved in disputes with several of its neighbours.
Assam and Nagaland share has a 500-km boundary. Violent conflicts, some leading to deaths, have taken place in several phases since 1965. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses published a paper on these clashes in 2008.
With Arunachal Pradesh, Assam shares an around 800-km boundary. Here, the first clashes were reported in 1992. Each state has accused the other of boundary transgressions and illegal encroachment. These issues are now being heard in the Supreme Court.
With Meghalaya, Assam shares a boundary of 884 km. There has been a series of recent flare-ups here, too. The Meghalaya government claims it has 12 areas of disputes with Assam. The Chief Ministers of these states held talks in February this year and agreed on the need to maintain status quo and peace.