The recent clashes between the police personnel of Assam and Mizoram have spotlighted long-standing border disputes among states in India’s Northeast. This roughly triangular piece of land squeezed between Bangladesh, Myanmar, Tibet, and Bhutan comprises seven states that emerged, political scientist Sanjib Baruah says, “rapidly from the desks of planners, politicians and business coalitions”.
Embodied in the term ‘Northeast’ is the “history of a series of ad hoc decisions made by national security-minded managers of the postcolonial Indian state”, Baruah has written. The sometimes hastily-drawn borders — and the structures of government created for them — are at some places incompatible with what ethnic groups in the region consider to be their traditional homelands.
Apart from Mizoram, Assam has ongoing border disputes with Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh. The origin of these disputes lies in the fact that besides the princely states of Manipur and Tripura, much of present-day Northeast was originally part of the (undivided) state of Assam.
In 1963, following an agitation, Nagaland became the 16th state of India and, in 1972, Mizoram was carved out as a Union Territory. Mizoram subsequently became India’s 23rd state in 1987.
Also in 1972, Meghalaya was born after two of Assam’s districts were separated. Arunachal Pradesh, the former North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), became a state in 1987 following a unilateral decision by the Government of India.
“Each state has a different yardstick by which to mark out their borders. Some go back to the last century, some to this century, and some trace their borders back 150 years,” said author, commentator, and director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Sanjoy Hazarika. “Unless there is some common ground for negotiation, how will they come to a resolution?”
To understand the intertwined history and geography of India’s Northeast, it may be helpful to consider how the British repeatedly drew haphazard lines of demarcation where none existed, and the ways in which their legacy was carried forward in independent India.
The history of British rule in the Northeast begins at a crucial juncture when the Ahom kingdom, that had been in existence in the Brahmaputra valley since the 13th century, began showing signs of weakening. Exhausted by repeated Burmese attacks, the Ahom king requested the assistance of the East India Company which was then based in Calcutta. The first Anglo-Burmese war between 1824 and 1826 ended in a decisive victory for the British and, following the Treaty of Yandabo, they acquired complete control over Assam, Manipur, Cachar, and Jaintia, as well as Arakan province and Tenasserim in modern day Myanmar.
The administration of Assam underwent several changes over the next few decades. Initially it was ruled as part of the Bengal province — but in 1874, it was made into a separate Assam province governed by a chief commissioner who was subordinate to the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal province.
Between 1905 and 1921, the area was once again merged with Bengal and then again divided into two following protests against the merger. Finally, the province of Assam was brought under the administration of a separate governor even though its ‘independence’ remained unsatisfactory.
Alongside the many political changes in Assam, there emerged a policy of rapid expansion and annexation of the hill kingdoms. The Khasis who inhabited the area that is modern-day Meghalaya, were brought under Assam following the Anglo-Khasi war of 1823-33.
The Cachar kingdom was annexed in 1832, and the Jaintia kingdom, comprising modern Bangladesh’s Sylhet region and parts of Meghalaya, was brought under the British government in Assam in 1835.
The Nagas were subjugated by the last quarter of the 19th century, and so were the Lushais who inhabited what is today Mizoram.
The other major development that happened during this period was the establishment of tea plantations.
“Tea transformed the whole place. The process of making land available to European tea planters in the 19th century can only be described as an unprecedented land grab. Once tea plantations were established, protecting them was a major concern for colonial officials and plantation owners,” Baruah told The Indian Express in an interview.
For the purpose of convenient administration and tax collection, it was necessary, the colonisers thought, to create clear divisions between the people of the Assam plains and the hill tribes. The Inner Line Regulation was passed in the late 19th century, with the ostensible aim of protecting the rights and customs of the hill tribes. The Inner Line was intended to provide a territorial frame to the region. But the problem was in deciding the limits of these territories that overlapped in a complex tapestry of cultures and languages.
“The Inner Line at one level was an attempt to fence off tea plantations. In many places the tea plantations and the new boundaries that were drawn disrupted traditional livelihoods, for instance by infringing upon the hunting grounds of certain groups of people,” Baruah said.
In his essay, ‘When was the postcolonial? A history of policing impossible lines’, the historian Bodhisattva Kar wrote: “Well until the second decade of the 20th century, the line was repeatedly redrawn in order to variously accommodate the expansive compulsions of plantation capital, the recognition of imperfection in survey maps, the security anxiety of the state and the adaptive practices of internally differentiated local communities.”
Kar noted that if, for instance, new tea, coal tracts, or valuable forest areas were found beyond these lines, the British were swift to make a casual insertion in the government gazette to extend the Inner Line in order to include these areas.
The British in fact did acknowledge the problems arising out of these artificial boundaries. In 1881, C S Elliot, the chief commissioner of Assam, wrote to Viceroy Lord Ripon, stating, “The more I thought about it…the less practicable it seems to try to restrain the Nagas with their wanderings and trading habits, within an imaginary line which they have always been accustomed to cross.”
How the boundaries being drawn would disrupt the pre-colonial economic life of the region were of little concern to colonial officials. Baruah explained that the relatively egalitarian habits and customs of many Northeastern societies — the absence of caste in particular — did not conform to the British colonial notion of India as a hierarchical civilisation.
“When they began to observe that groups living a short distance away from people with apparently egalitarian ways might engage in practices that appeared Hindu, hills and the plains became the master binary for colonial officials to make sense of Northeastern societies,” he said.
It was this difference in the perception of the hills and the plains that was the reason behind categorising the hill tribes as ‘Excluded Areas’ and ‘Partially Excluded Areas’ in the 1935 Government of India Act. The Excluded Areas, including the Naga and Lushai Hills districts, were placed under the executive control of the Assam governor. The British subjects were restricted from accessing this area through the introduction of the Inner Line Regulation.
“The government was not interested in allowing trade activities into these areas, across the line, by the plains people, as it found it extremely difficult to collect taxes from there,” writes sociologist Nikhlesh Kumar in his article, ‘Identity politics in the Hill tribal communities in the North Eastern India’.
He explained that no such restriction existed in the Partially Excluded Areas comprising the Garo, Khasi-Jaintia and the Mikir Hills Districts. They had more intimate economic and political contact with the Assam plains. Some restrictions were put in place though — like the people of the plains being prohibited from buying land in these regions.
Baruah said that in this simplistic categorisation of hills and plains, the British often overlooked the economic ties and political relations between peoples. “There were, for instance, political ties between the Ahom kingdom and Nagas living close to Ahom territories. Groups such as the Mizos — or Lushais as they were called then — were not just a remote and isolated group living in splendid isolation in the mountains. They were engaged in trade.”
The implications of the differential treatment of the hills and plains was evident when in 1944, Robert Reid, the former governor of Assam, proposed the continued British control of a “civil administrative unit comprising the Hill areas along the north and east frontiers of Assam and taking in as well the similar areas in Burma itself”, after the independence of India and Burma.
The Crown Colony scheme, as Reid’s proposal came to be known, rested on the premise as observed by him: “Neither racially, historically, culturally, nor linguistically (do) they have any affinity with the people of the plains, or with the people of India proper.”
He said, as cited by Baruah in his book, that if these areas were made part of the Indian province it would be a matter of “historical accident” and a “natural administrative convenience”.
Therefore, Reid maintained that “we are responsible for the future welfare of a set of very loyal, primitive peoples, who are habituated to look to us for protection and who will get it from no other source.”
In the atmosphere of an economically crippled post-war Britain and the mood for national integration in India, Reid’s proposal hardly found any takers. Soon afterward, the people of the Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas began participating in the democratic institutions of post-independent India.
In a few decades, the areas that Reid talked about, turned into the individual states of Northeast India. However, as Baruah noted, “though technically full-fledged units of the Union of India, they are states in a somewhat cosmetic sense”.
When the political structure of independent India was being discussed in the Constituent Assembly, several Indian leaders were keen on assimilating the hill states with the plains of Assam. Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri, representing Assam in the Assembly, was the most vociferous in this regard, and spoke about the many ways in which the British had kept the tribes segregated, and the impact this had in their relations with the people in the plains:
“The British wanted to keep the people of these areas as primitive as possible. I tell you, and the House will be surprised to learn that in the Naga Hills, Naga means naked, people used to go about naked in the past. There was a Deputy Commissioner who used to flog any Naga who was dressed in Dhoti. The British wanted the Nagas to remain as they were; they should not clothe themselves properly; they should not live like civilised men.
“What is more, Sir, you will be surprised to learn that before the advent of the British, these Nagas were friendly with the Assamese. They had adopted the Assamese language. This was so till about ten years ago when the Roman script was introduced forcibly by the British officers. Even up to that date Assamese used to be the court language of the Nagas.
“We want to assimilate the tribal people. We were not given that opportunity so far. The tribal people, however much they liked, had not the opportunity of assimilation,” Chaudhuri said, arguing for constitutional provisions to bring all tribal areas under Assam. Criticising the drafting committee, he said, “The British mind is still there. There is the old separatist tendency and you want to keep them away from us.”
But the tribes wanted to maintain at least some of the protections meted out to them under the British. To allay their fears, the Sixth Schedule was framed, which provided for Autonomous District Councils for the administration of the tribal areas. Another set of rules were made for NEFA, which is today Arunachal Pradesh, and parts of what is now Nagaland. The administration of these areas was to be carried out directly from New Delhi, with the governor of Assam acting as the agent of the President of India.
Among the Nagas, however, a movement for a separate state had been in existence since 1918. In 1929, the Naga Club had told the Simon Commission “to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times”. On August 14, 1947, the Naga National Council (NNC) under Angami Zapu Phizo declared Nagaland as an independent state. By the 1950s the Naga movement escalated further and turned into armed conflict with India’s armed forces.
From 1957, the Indian government made significant efforts to constitute Nagaland as a distinct administrative unit. “The state of Nagaland itself came into being in 1963, with India hoping to end the Naga war by creating stakeholders in the pan-Indian dispensation,” wrote Baruah in his essay, ‘Nationalising space: Cosmetic federalism and the politics of development in Northeast India’.
In the 1950s, as the movement to make Assamese the official language of the state gained currency, it settled the issue of the separation of the hill leaders.
“The issue of language found a common cause with the people of all the hill districts and served as a plank to launch a vigorous movement for separation for Assam,” wrote Kumar. The Mizo inhabited areas, for instance, joined the Mizo Union to demand the unification of the Mizo areas of Manipur with the Lushai Hills in Assam. Thereafter Mizoram was carved out as a Union Territory in 1972 and turned into a state in 1987. The United Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills, and the Garo Hills came together to form an autonomous state of Meghalaya in 1971.
The war with China in 1962 set in motion a new phase in the history of state-building in the Northeast. The NEFA was at the centre of this conflict. After India’s humiliating defeat in the war, Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of indulging the British legacy of isolating the region was discarded.
“It was against this backdrop that a new Indian policy emerged, to extend the institutions of the state all the way into the international border zones, thus nationalising this frontier space,” wrote Baruah. He explained, “The developmentalist path on which Arunachal has embarked can only be understood in the context of a Northeast policy that has been shaped by this concern for national security.”
Thereafter, NEFA was renamed as Arunachal Pradesh, which was constituted as a Union Territory in 1972 before it became a state in 1987.
Manipur and Tripura, which were ruled indirectly as princely states during colonial times, were made into Union Territories in the 1950s and 60s. They became full fledged states with formal institutions in 1971.
It is important to remember that some of the state boundaries of today were district boundaries of Assam in colonial times. While no one regards district boundaries as being set in stone, this has indeed been one of the unintended consequences of creating new states out of the province of Assam. Some of the interstate boundaries of today coincide with the Inner Line, which historians tell us was redrawn repeatedly to accommodate interests of tea plantations or to correct mistakes in survey maps.
Baruah explained that when new states were created, there was little thought given to the implications of turning inter-district boundaries into inter-state boundaries. Yet the fact that different sets of rules may govern land rights on two sides of the border — customary law on one side and civil law on the other — raises the stakes in these conflicts in ways that inter-state boundaries in other parts of India do not.
“In order to settle these conflicts everyone is trying to figure out the ‘real’ borders, hoping to get an answer in some colonial document. Colonial officials must be turning in their graves to discover how seriously we take the provisional lines they drew more than a century ago with an entirely different set of purpose in mind,” he said.
Moving ahead, Hazarika said the political process has to be consensual. “People of goodwill, who are well regarded, and from both states, who have a clear understanding of the situation and its context, including scholars, writers and those in the field need to be associated with confidence building measures. Political leaders know that there has to be give and take. There needs to be an acceptance that each side is not going to win everything that it wants.”
Sanjib Baruah, “In the name of the nation: India and its Northeast”, Stanford University Press, 2020
Sanjib Baruah, “Nationalising space: Cosmetic federalism and the politics of development in Northeast India”, Development and change, Vol. 34, Issue 5, 2003
Sanjoy Hazarika, “Strangers no more: New narratives from India’s Northeast”, Aleph Book Company, 2018
Bodhisattva Kar, “When was the postcolonial? A history of policing impossible lines”, in ‘Beyond counter-insurgency: Breaking the impasse in Northeast India’, Sanjib Baruah (ed), Oxford University Press, 2012
David R. Syiemlieh (ed), “On the edge of the empire: Four British plans for North East India, 1941-1947”, SAGE Publications, 2014
Nikhilesh Kumar, “Identity politics in the hill tribal communities in the Northeastern India”, Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2005