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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Five Assam policemen killed in violent turn to border dispute with Mizoram

Fifty policemen were injured, including Nimbalkar Vaibhav Chandrakant, SP of Assam’s Cachar district, who sustained a bullet injury in the leg.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Deeptiman Tiwary | Guwahati, New Delhi |
Updated: July 27, 2021 7:21:26 am
In Cachar, at the Assam-Mizoram border on Monday. (PTI)

In a sharp escalation of the age-old boundary dispute between Assam and Mizoram, at least five Assam Police personnel were killed in violent clashes Monday at a contested border point where tensions had been simmering.

Fifty policemen were injured, including Nimbalkar Vaibhav Chandrakant, SP of Assam’s Cachar district, who sustained a bullet injury in the leg.

Confirming the death of state police personnel, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, in a Twitter post, said: “I am deeply pained to inform that six brave jawans of @assampolice have sacrificed their lives while defending constitutional boundary of our state at the Assam-Mizoram border. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families.”

A statement from the Assam government later clarified that five personnel had died — SI Swapan Roy and constables Liton Suklabaidya, MH Barbhuyia, N Hussain and S Barbhuiya.

Sarma said there is “clear evidence” emerging which “unfortunately shows that Mizoram Police has used Light Machine Guns (LMG)” against Assam Police personnel. “This is sad, unfortunate and speaks volumes about the intention and gravity of the situation,” he said on Twitter.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Zoramthanga said there was no tension in the area for more than a year after the Centre had intervened. “Yesterday, after the North-East Chief Ministers’ meeting in Shillong, I had passed the area and everything was normal. This morning, the IGP of Assam and about 200 Assam policemen came to the Mizoram side. Because it was only a stone’s throw away from our sub-divisional headquarters, it created a tense situation. Firing started on both sides and there were casualties,” he said.

He said there was mutual discussion between Sarma, Amit Shah and him. “The Home Minister said the Assam Police should vacate the post and like before, CRPF should take over. So now the CRPF has taken over,” he said, adding that he had invited Sarma to come over to Aizawl to discuss the issue. “He said he would… we want to settle it amicably,” he said.

The firing incident took place two days after Shah met the Chief Ministers of the North-East states for a closed-door discussion on inter-state boundary issues plaguing the region.

Earlier in the day, Sarma and his Mizoram counterpart Zoramthanga had sparred publicly on Twitter, accusing each other’s state of inciting trouble.

The war of words made Amit Shah step in. Sources said he spoke to the two Chief Ministers, urging them to immediately bring an end to the violence and rein in “miscreants” on either side of the border.

The CMs, sources said, assured Shah that calm would be restored and the border dispute resolved through discussions.

For the last month, a tense eyeball-to-eyeball situation has prevailed at the Assam-Mizoram border along the Cachar-Kolasib districts, with security personnel of both states deployed at the border.

It was not clear which side fired first on Monday – each side blamed the other. According to Assam Police officers, “miscreants” from the Mizo side started pelting stones at government officials at Lailapur town on the Cachar border.

But a statement from the Mizoram Home Minister said “around 200 Assam armed police led by IGP, Assam Police accompanied by DC, Cachar, SP, Cachar and DFO, Cachar came to Vairengte Auto-rickshaw stand at around 11.30 am” and “forcibly crossed the duty post manned by CRPF personnel stationed there and overran a duty post manned by one section of Mizoram police personnel.”

The Mizoram statement said “Assam Police also damaged several vehicles that were travelling along the National Highway between Vairengte and Lailapur.”

Vairengte, also home to the Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, is the first Mizoram town across the border.

In October 2020, when tensions had risen with the two sides accusing each other of encroaching territory, the Centre had intervened and paramilitary forces were stationed either side of the border at Lailapur-Vairengte on the National Highway.

On Monday, the Assam Police alleged that the Mizoram side was trying to build a temporary road from another point in Vairengte up to Assam’s territory in Lailapur, which falls under the Inner Line Reserve Forest. “We located a Mizoram police post set up on the temporary road, which was being constructed by JCBs etc, so our officials went to close it,” Assam DGP Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta said.

“While discussions were going on between the officials from both sides, there was unprovoked firing from a Mizoram police post located at a higher level,” the DGP said.

According to an Assam government statemen, Mizoram had begun 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,” it said.

A team of Assam officers including an IGP, DIG, DC Cachar, SP Cachar and DFO Cachar, it said, went to defuse the situation and resolve the matter. “Sadly, however, they were surrounded and attacked by a mob of miscreants from the Mizoram side, which was visibly supported by the Mizoram Police. The aggressive behaviour and posture of this mob along with the fact that they were brandishing weapons and wearing helmets is clearly seen in all available video footage. While the mob pelted stones on the Assam officials and destroyed three vehicles including the DC’s car, the Mizoram Police simultaneously fired Tear Gas Shells on the delegation. The IGP was injured in this barrage,” the Assam statement said.

Kolasib SP K Vanlalfaka Ralte told The Indian Express that their battalion outpost at the border, with about 20 personnel, was “overpowered” by Assam Police, which brought more than 200 people.

“When the public came to know about this they got angry. Assam Police started lobbing tear gas…and I came down to speak to the IG Assam to negotiate. When we were talking, many civilians from Assam started pelting stones. The police started firing too. And my personnel returned the firing,” he said, adding that there have been minor injuries on the Mizoram side too.

According to the Mizoram Home Minister’s statement, officials from the district administration as well as residents from the Vairengte proceeded to the site when they learned of the “arson committed by Assam Police”.

“These unarmed civilians were assaulted by Assam Police by lathi charging them and firing tear gas, thereby causing injuries to several civilians. SP Kolasib and an Executive Magistrate went to meet them and try to resolve the issue. However, Assam side were adamant and unwilling to discuss the issue,” it said.

It said the “confrontation continued and a volley of tear gas canisters and grenades were launched at Mizoram Police followed by firing from Assam side at around 4.50 p.m. Mizoram Police responded spontaneously by firing back at Assam Police in spite of the fact that SP, Kolasib District was still inside CRPF duty camp negotiating with the Assam Police authorities.”

Earlier, the two Chief Ministers sparred on Twitter. Sharing a video where a group of people, including policemen, are seen with sticks at the Cachar-Kolasib border, Zoramthanga urged Amit Shah to look into the matter. “This needs to be stopped right now,” he said, tweeting with the hashtag #MizoramAssamBorderTension.

Countering him, Sarma said civilians from Mizoram were trying to incite violence. “Honble Zoramthanga ji could you please investigate why are civilians from Mizoram holding sticks and trying to incite violence? We urge civilians to not take up law and order on their own hands and permit peaceful dialogue to take place between governments” Sarma said.

Later, the two Chief Ministers spoke on the phone, with Sarma tweeting that Assam will maintain status quo and peace between the borders of the states. He said he was willing to visit Aizawl and discuss these issues if necessary.

Monday’s incident comes after continuously increasing tensions at the border of the two states, which started at the end of June. Before that, in October 2020, residents had clashed twice (once at Cachar-Kolasib and the second time at Karimganj (Assam)-Mamit (Mizoram) districts, resulting in injuries, vandalism of property, a three-week-long economic blockade and an alleged custodial death of an Assam resident in Mizoram.

There was a lull following the Centre’s intervention but tension flared again last month, first at the Hailakandi-Kolasib border, and then at the Cachar-Kolasib point. Following the dispute, Chief Secretary-level talks between both the states were held on July 9 in Delhi.

This was followed by Shah’s meeting with the eight states in Shillong Saturday. “The border issues were discussed and all state representatives brought up their own apprehension. It was decided that they would talk among each other and resolve it,” said an official who had attended the meeting.

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