Assam and Mizoram Border Tensions exposed India’s Northeast Vulnerabilities
Seven people including six Assam police personnel were killed by the Mizoram police firing on July 26, 2021, during an armed standoff at the Assam-Mizoram borders. The situation remained tense but came under control after the Union Government deployed two companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) along with the disputed areas on the Assam-Mizoram border. The CRPF also made on loudspeakers asking Assam and Mizoram police forces to withdraw from the disputed area. Later, on July 31, the situation came under control after Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s closed-door meetings with the Northeast Chief Ministers in Shillong and discussed inter-state disputes and other issues. After the meeting, both sides retracted their forces, and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga tagged each other in their tweets while calling for peace. However, the conflict is still simmering at the border, if not on social media for the time being and future escalation can not be ruled out.
Despite having an undersetting at the political level for restoring peace and normalcy at the borders, the traffic at the border was resumed after fifteen days due to border blockade by a few local Assamese groups. The blockade was removed after visiting of two Ministers of Assam to the Lailapur border on August 7. The local people could agree to remove the blockade on two conditions: first, action to be taken against Mizoram police officials involved in the July 26 firing, and second, the Indian Reserve Battalion of Mizoram be moved from the disputed areas and leaving it to neutral forces. The locals warned the political leaders that they might re-impose the blockade if their demands were not addressed.
During this period, Mizoram witnessed a shortage of essential goods and lifesaving drugs since it has been dependent on NH-306, which enters the state from Assam. There is now a growing public sentiment in Mizoram that the state government should find an alternative route for an unhindered supply of essential goods and reduce Mizoram’s dependency on Assam. In interaction with media, the district magistrate Kolasib district said, “Barak Valley of Assam always threatens Mizoram with economic blockade which only causes suffering to the common people...In that sense, this is a wake-up call, and Mizoram has started thinking of alternatives in such situations”.
Before issuing a joint statement for peace by both the state governments, the political leaders of the neighbouring provinces backed by their respective state police forces blamed each other for the incident. In a statement, the Mizoram Home Minister Lalchamliana claimed that around 200 Assam Police personnel overran a post operated by the CRPF and another by the Mizoram Police near Vairengte auto-rickshaw stand. Unarmed locals of Vairengte town were also lathi-charged when they inquired about the situation”. In counter to that, Assam Minister, Parimal Suklabaidya, comparing the clash to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, said nearly 80 people were injured. There was no firing from the Assam side of the inter-state border.” Assam side also accused Mizoram of violating the existing border agreement and existing statuesque.
Boundary disputes among the north-eastern states are not new. That has been there for centuries due to diverse ethnic groups, the location of the ethnic groups, and the formation of new states based on ethnic lines in the post-independent period. Most of the newly formed ethnic-based states share borders with Assam because those territories were earlier part of Assam. Assam shares its boundary with Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, and it has some unresolved border disputes with these states.
Assam and Mizoram share 165 km long borders. The border dispute has a history dating back to when Mizoram was a district of Assam and known as Lushai Hills. The intra-district boundary was demarcated in 1875 and again in 1933. The Mizos do not accept the 1933 demarcation because their tribal chiefs were not consulted at that time. They feel that some plain areas of Mizoram were given to the Cachar district of Assam. The Mizos argue that the current boundary should be resolved as per the 1875 border demarcation. In this regard, the political parties of Mizoram, NGOs, and a joint action committee on the border issue wrote in a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018 by mentioning that the current boundary was arbitrarily made by excluding some of the Lushai inhabited areas such as Cachar Zion, Tlangnuam, Lala Bazar and Banga Bazar.
On the contrary, Assam claims that the current boundary with Mizoram is constitutional since Mizoram became a state in 1987. The two states signed an agreement that the status quo should be maintained at no man’s land set up in the boundaries. Despite that, there were frequent allegations of transgression from both sides. The July incident aggravated due to the communication gap at the local officials level and the failure of the CRPF to disengage the state forces before coming closer to each other.
The July incident has refreshed the scar of geo-cultural tension between Assam and Mizoram. Despite peace in the disputed areas, the situation may go out of control at any point in time due to rising public sentiments in Assam. Even the statements of the local political leader of Assam indicate that the peace is restored under pressure from the Union government. The local people on the Assam side has strictly warned their political leaders for concrete action against Mizo security forces.
Although ethnic-based insurgent groups from that region have not made any statements on the development, they may step in later if the political leaders of both the states fail to convince the local people to abandon their aggression. In June this year, the NSCN-IM, a Nagaland based insurgent group, has already opposed the Assam government’s peace initiative in the Karbi Anglong region. Therefore, the role of the Union government is critical here. It should play a proactive role in keeping the region peaceful and not allowing the spreading of the conflict to other parts of the NE region by setting up a special committee for dialogue between the affected states.
The article is part of South Asia Conflict Monitor, August 2021