If it were not disquieting enough that an inter-state boundary dispute has led to the death of six police personnel, that two chief ministers were seen sparring on Twitter having failed to prevent the clash, the Assam government has gone on to issue an astonishing advisory asking residents not to travel to Mizoram and risk “their personal safety”. It also asked people of Assam already living in Mizoram to “exercise utmost caution”. It begs the question: What is the Himanta Biswa Sarma government thinking? How can a state government mark another state in the Indian Union as hostile territory for its people? While the presence of central forces has enforced an uneasy peace on the Lailapur-Vairengte border, all movement of people and vehicles from Assam to Mizoram has ground to a halt, bringing back fears of punishing highway blockades that have crippled Northeastern states in the past. This is just the moment when the political class in both states should go to work, quietly and away from the headlines, on defusing animosity — rather than play the risky game of ratcheting up emotions. Instead, the Assam Chief Minister is on record, promising to deploy 4,000 commandos to “defend” the state’s border with Mizoram; and a Mizoram MP from Chief Minister Zoramthanga’s party has threatened another violent reprisal if the Assam Police intrudes into his state.
This extraordinary breakdown of political maturity is all the more curious because the BJP and its ally are in power in both states. Zoramthanga is a part of the North-East Democratic Alliance, which was founded by Sarma, who is known to have used old relationships with several Northeast leaders for the benefit of his party. Both leaders have the acumen to dial down hostilities; their states stand to gain by stepping back from the brink. The boundary dispute is tangled enough. Nineteenth century colonial history runs through it, complicating claims and counter-claims.
Assam and Mizoram’s experience with insurgency is a reminder not just of their uneasy relationship with the “mainland” but of the cost of allowing violent groups to set the terms of politics. Several fault lines criss-cross within the Northeast as well, resulting in bitter conflicts over land and identity. Like some other states in the Northeast, Mizoram too was carved out as a distinct political entity from Assam. In such a backdrop, provocative statements from the CM of Assam can only harden historical differences. When lives have been lost, the Assam government must not play with fire. It must withdraw its advisory.