Away from the attention of national media, the Assam-Mizoram border has been simmering for a year now — sporadic incidents have been reported in Cachar and Hailakandi districts of Assam that share a boundary with Kolasib district in Mizoram, and in Karimganj district that borders Mizoram’s Mamit district. These centred around the encroachment of reserve forest lands and illegal constructions, which were taken down by the Assam Police. Last year, volunteers of a Mizo student body started putting up checkpoints reportedly on the Assam side of the border, alleging that most residents were illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who might allegedly increase the risk of transmission during the Covid19 pandemic. These checkpoints even prevented Assam government forest officials from carrying out their routine movements.
The violent clashes on the Assam-Mizoram border in Lailapur on Monday are a result of the continuing confrontation. They come days after a meeting of Union Home Minister Amit Shah with chief ministers of the Northeastern states in Shillong, where it was reiterated that inter-state border issues would be resolved amicably. While Mizoram has accused the Assam Police of entering its territory, videos of armed young Mizo men in battle fatigues and helmets were reported from the Mizoram side, which reported no injuries.
In mid-October last year, people from both Assam’s Lailapur and Mizoram’s Vairengte were involved in violent clashes. Immediate intervention by the Union Home Ministry and the subsequent dialogue between the two states saw the tension abate for a short period. This truce was broken when a Bengali-medium school on the border was firebombed. A subsequent attack on trucks coming from Cachar district resulted in a complete blockade of the National Highway 306, which is the lifeline for Mizoram and which had severe consequences for a state that depends on the highway for all essential items. Central forces were also positioned in certain areas to de-escalate the situation.
While the Assam government has viewed these clashes as a law-and-order problem, the perspective of some of the residents of Mizoram is that it is a border dispute and the descendants of the Lushai tribes are being denied their rightful home by the increasing encroachment of those they allege are Bangladeshi immigrants.
The border dispute can trace its origins to the demarcation of Lushai Hills from the Cachar plains by the British in 1875. The fact remains that even after, Lushai Hills and adjoining regions were administered by Cachar district administration till the end of colonial rule. In fact, the original state of Assam included the Lushai Hills; Mizoram became a Union territory in 1972 and then a state in 1987. The Mizos claim that they abide by the 1875 demarcation, which had been brought into effect by the British to completely sequester the movements of the Lushai tribes. It might be worth mentioning that the Assam Levy (now the Assam Rifles) was set up in 1835, with the sole objective of containing attacks by the Lushai tribe on tea estates in the plains. However, huge geographical upheavals over the last 150 years have altered the region and the original demarcation no longer remains unchallenged.
Clear dialogue between both sides, aided by the Union government, is needed to resolve the issue. The border demarcation in place must be reinforced to remove any confusion. In mid-July, the Union home secretary had convened a meeting of chief secretaries of both states and the concerned police chiefs and all issues were discussed with the help of maps, photos, videos and satellite images of the region. A roadmap was agreed upon to maintain the status quo and withdraw forces away from the border. The Mizoram government has to do serious work to rein in the various student bodies that stoke local sentiments. The whole stretch of reserve forests has to be freed of encroachments from either side.
Other issues that complicate the situation on the border include the transportation of illegal drugs that travel via Mizoram to Assam and other parts of the country. The recent crackdown by Assam police has to be matched by the Mizoram police. Clearly, earnest efforts have to be made to ensure that peace is fostered.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 28, 2021 under the title ‘State versus state’. The writer is a defence and cybersecurity analyst