In what appears to be one of the most formidable tests of his political career, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is confronted with a challenge to politically manage the embers left by the July 26 clash on the Assam-Mizoram border between the Assam and Mizoram Police, which has left six Assam Police personnel dead and a trail of injuries on both sides. Unlike successful electoral campaigns and forging winnable political coalitions, tasks that Sarma has effortlessly accomplished in his earlier stint as the convenor of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), managing border disputes is completely new to him and may entail a different gamble altogether.
Sarma sensed the high political stakes involved and acted swiftly to calm the Assamese sub-nationalists by declaring the dead men as “martyrs” who sacrificed their lives in defending what he calls the “constitutional border” of Assam. He also visited the injured police personnel, offered relief of a lakh rupees to each of them and announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 50 lakh. Contending that the present conflict stemmed not from conflict on “land” but on “forest reserve”, Sarma prescribed a combination of security and judicial solutions to resolve the conflict. This includes immediately raising three commando battalions to protect the 165-km border that Assam’s Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts share with Mizoram, and appealing to the Supreme Court to ensure the “protection” of “forest reserves” from “encroachers”.
While all this may provide good “optics” to his electoral constituency in Assam, a close scrutiny of aggressive social media reactions suggest that Sarma may adopt a more hardline position in the days to come. Even as the demand to punish and retaliate becomes more strident, including blocking National Highway 306 which connects Silchar (Assam) with Kolasib (Mizoram) — a repeat of the incidents in October 2020 when the highway was closed for 12 days — Sarma may have to placate Assamese public opinion without burning bridges with his NEDA partner and the CM of Mizoram, Zoramthanga.
This is not going to be easy as Zoramthanga and Lalchamliana, the home minister of Mizoram, consider that mobs of Vairengte and Mizoram Police violently retaliated when “encroachers” from Lailapur in Cachar allegedly entered Mizoram, burnt down huts and hurled stones on commuters a day before the shooting took place.
Given that this view/counterview has popular acceptance across the two states, we may never obtain the truth of who “encroached” first and stoked the violence. Yet, this claim reinforces the complex nature of “borders” as contentious constructs that are far from “fixed” and bare “visible” lines of separation enshrined in the Constitution as borders — as CM Sarma and others may like us to believe. On the contrary, much like regions and nations, borders are, to quote geographers Philo and Parr, “relatively permeable, socially constructed, politically mediated and actively performed ‘institutional accomplishments’”.
This explains why politically mediated attempts to historically “fix” state borders as a part of the territorialising project of state-making and state expansion invariably entails violent conflicts. To be sure, the historical contestation over land ownership of the reserved forest area, which now falls under the Singla Forest in Assam’s Karimganj district and which has for long been used as sites of cultivation by the Mizos, stems directly from the colonial practice to “fix” state borders by enclosing the commons. As the British Raj expanded tea plantation in the mid-19th century, it began to encroach upon “forest” commons. Given that forest is seen as a symbol or fountainhead of their identity and livelihood (resource extraction and hunting), tribal groups like the Lushais (now Mizo) zealously sought to protect it from the colonial “encroachers”. Towards this end, the Lushais conducted incessant waves of raids upon British subjects in Cachar and Manipur since the 1860s. This culminated in the attack and destruction of the famous Alexanderpore tea garden in Cachar in early 1871, wherein Winchester, a British planter, was killed and his daughter, Mary Winchester, was captured. The famous Lushai Expedition (1871-72), which involved two military columns, was made by the British as a part of their effort to rescue Mary.
The colonial and postcolonial practice of “fixing” borders and “enclosure” is also problematic as it involves a top-down process, which is vague at worst and unilateral at its best, mostly driven by administrative expediency. Demarcating colonial boundaries including the Cachar (Assam) and Lushai Hills in 1875 (as a corollary to effectuate the Inner Line Regulation of 1873) and 1933 was not precise. The dominant colonial practice of earmarking boundaries along natural markers like rivers, hills/mountains/ridges tend to cross-cut overlapping territories leaving boundaries fluid and fuzzy. For procedural reasons also, although the 1875 boundary demarcation is seen to have a semblance of involvement of the Lushai chiefs, the 1933 boundary is considered to have completely sidestepped them as it was unilaterally superimposed by the overriding consideration of administrative expediency. Given that the official position of the Assam government on fixing the forest reserved areas in the Assam-Mizoram borders draws from the 1933 and not the 1875 boundary demarcation, this may not enable a mutually acceptable procedure for fixing the border dispute in the short run.
The fact that this violence happened notwithstanding the availability of the paramilitary force to provide security to this contested border implies that Sarma’s prescription to deploy additional security battalions may secure transient peace, but it is not likely to provide a long-term solution to the impasse. Sarma and Zoramthanga will need to sit down and peacefully negotiate the issue through dialogue. The process should be historically mindful of, and be sensitive to, the genealogy of Assam-Mizoram border conflicts, which inverted the status of hitherto “protectors” of forest commons as “encroachers” over time.
Politically mediated practices of “fixing” borders and enclosure of the forest commons need to be centred around people across the two states, their longstanding practices and concerns for forest commons, not merely as resources for sustainable livelihood but as powerful symbols of mutually reinforcing identity. Breaking the “territorial trap”, of envisioning “fixed” and mutually exclusive forest reserve areas, could be a good place to start.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 29, 2021 under the title ‘Conflict and commons’. The writer is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad