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BORDER DISPUTES IN THE NORTHEAST: THE RAGING WAR WITHIN

The violent armed clashes between the Assam Police and the Mizoram Police on 26 July 2021 led to the death of seven persons including six policemen from Assam and injuries to 60 others.[1] The death of at least 157 persons, injuries to at least another 361 persons, and displacement of more than 65,729 persons from 1979 to 2021 (26 July) in the clashes over border disputes between Assam on one hand and the states carved out of Assam i.e. Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland on the other, warrant permanent peacebuilding measures.

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i. The border disputes and failed attempts for solutions

The border disputes primarily relate to Assam and the States which were born out of Assam i.e. Arunachal Pradesh[2], Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya over claims on territories as per boundaries drawn by the colonial British.

The dispute between Assam and Mizoram relates to the claim of Mizoram that its border in the northern side is based on the boundary set for application of the Inner Line of 1875 under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 and not as per the boundary redrawn as per 1933 notification.[3] Similarly, the boundary dispute between Assam and Meghalaya relates to the boundaries of the erstwhile United Khasi and Jaintia Hills district notified in 1835.[4] The boundary dispute between Assam and Nagaland relates to the rejection of the Nagaland State Act of 1962, which had defined the state’s borders as per the 1925 notification under which Naga Hills and Tuensang Area, by Nagaland that demands the inclusion of all the Naga- dominated areas in Assam into its territory.[5] The boundary dispute between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh relates to the transfer of about 30,000 sq km of land from then North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), the current Arunachal Pradesh, to Assam based on the recommendations of the Bordoloi Committee report of 1951.[6]

The States usually approach the Supreme Court to resolve disputes. The demarcation of boundaries is an executive task and the Supreme Court usually recommended the formation of the boundary commissions. However, if any of the States does not accept the recommendations of the boundary commissions including those appointed by the Supreme Court, little progress can be made.

In the past, the recommendations of the boundary commissions have been consistently rejected. On the Assam-Meghalaya border dispute, Meghalaya had rejected the recommendations of Justice YV Chadrachud Committee which had awarded Langpih to Assam while Assam had accepted the recommendations.[7] But, Assam itself had rejected the recommendations of the three-member boundary commission appointed by the Supreme Court on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border dispute which in its 2014 report recommended the transfer of around 70-80 percent of the disputed land to Arunachal Pradesh.[8] The Centre had also constituted two boundary commissions i.e. the Sundaram Commission (1971) and the Shastri Commission (1985) to settle the Assam-Nagaland border disputes but both the States rejected the recommendations of these committees.[9]

ii. The human toll of Indian citizens

The failure to maintain the ‘status quo’ led to the loss of lives, mass displacement, and other human rights violations.

Apart from regular destruction of the standing crops by the police, from 1979 to 2021 (26 July), at least 157 persons were reportedly killed, at least 361 persons were injured and more than 65,729 persons were displaced in the border clashes between Assam in one hand and Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland on the other based on the major incidents reported.

Out of the 157 reported deaths, the maximum number of deaths took place in Assam-Nagaland border dispute with 136 deaths, followed by Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border dispute with 10 deaths, Assam-Mizoram border dispute with 7 deaths and Assam-Meghalaya border dispute with 4 deaths. 

Out of the 361 persons injured, the maximum number was reported from Assam-Nagaland border dispute with injuries to 184 persons, followed by Assam-Mizoram border dispute with injuries to 143 persons, Assam-Meghalaya border dispute with injuries to 18 persons and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border dispute with injuries to 16 persons. The border dispute between Assam and Mizoram mainly intensified in 2018 and the injuries to 143 persons indicate the intensity of the clashes.

iii. Renewed peace initiatives or one upmanship?

Following the violent clashes between Assam and Mizoram Police on 26 July 2021, the Assam and Nagaland governments on 31 July 2021 agreed to withdraw their armed police forces from the disputed areas in the Dessoi Valley reserve forest area within 24 hours.[10] This was followed by the Nagaland House adopting a resolution on 5 August 2021 for resolving the border dispute with Assam out of court and amicably with the involvement of the local people of both the States. [11]

On 6 August 2021, Assam and Meghalaya governments also decided to start settling the “less complicated” areas of dispute first along the 884.9 km border and formed three regional committees consisting of five member each headed by Cabinet Minister to first get the views of the people living in the disputed areas and prepare a recommendation within 30 days for a decision at the level of the Chief Ministers. [12]

With the aim to bring down the temper following the clashes on 26 July 2021, Assam and Mizoram signed an agreement on 5August 2021 to withdraw forces from all disputed border areas and work towards lasting peace.[13]

On 15 July 2021, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu stated Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have agreed to find an out-of-court solution to their inter-state boundary dispute.[14]

It remains to be seen whether Assam’s initiatives are part of the attempts to find a genuine solution with its neighbours or one-upmanship to counter allegations of expansionism by leaders from Mizoram.[15]

iv. Recommendations

The reference to the will of the ‘local people’ and public announcement of the political leaders to not give “an inch” from the territory of the State have been the common refrain. The Union of India too preferred to remain as a mute witness.

The issue has never been the absence of technology and expertise to draw the boundaries of the States but the absence of political will. Satellite mapping to demarcate boundaries and settle such disputes as being suggested by the Ministry of Home Affairs[16] cannot manufacture the political will over claims on territories based on borders drawn by the colonial British as early as 1835 i.e. about 186 years ago.

As the attempts to finding solutions to the border disputes continue, considering the toll on the citizens of the country living in these disputed areas and peace hanging by a thread, there is an urgent need to take a number of measures to prevent conflicts and further loss of lives.

The Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) recommends the following for maintaining the status quo till the final resolution of the boundary disputes:

  1. Identify the line of de facto control of the areas and deploy police from both the States who will operate under the coordination of the Central Reserved Police Force with respect to any dispute including maintenance of law and order;
  2. Jointly ensure maintenance and enforcement of law and order along the line of de facto control;
  3. Conduct biometric documentation of the residents living within the disputed areas on both sides of the States and issue IDs and declare their names through gazette notifications to prohibit settlement in new areas unless agreed by both parties;
  4. Prohibit new settlement or establishment of structures by any individual and entity including the State entities in the disputed areas; and
  5. Ensure mutual consent from both the States for any activity including entry of the police along the line of de facto control.


ENDNOTES

[1]. Assam-Mizo clashes because of Himanta Biswa Sarma’s ‘expansionist’ tendencies, says MP, The Hindu, 04 August 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/assam-mizo-clashes-because-of-himanta-biswa-sarmas-expansionist-tendencies-says-mp/article35715946.ece

[2]. Arunachal Pradesh, former North East Frontier Agency was not a part of Assam. It was a centrally administered territory usually looked after the Governor of Assam and it was initially under the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India

[3]. Border Dispute: Mizoram Stands By 1875 Document On Boundary With Assam, Outlook, 31 July 2021, https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-border-dispute-mizoram-stands-by-1875-document-on-boundary-with-assam/390072 

[4]. All you need to know about Assam’s border disputes with NE states, The Tribune, 29 July 2021, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/all-you-need-to-know-about-assams-border-disputes-with-ne-states-290060 

[5]. Ibid 

[6]. Disputed land should be returned to Arunachal, says panel report, The Indian Express, 1 February 2014, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/disputed-land-should-be-returned-to-arunachal-says-panel-report/ 

[7]. All you need to know about Assam’s border disputes with NE states, The Tribune, 29 July 2021, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/all-you-need-to-know-about-assams-border-disputes-with-ne-states-290060 

[8]. Disputed land should be returned to Arunachal, says panel report, The Indian Express, 1 February 2014, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/disputed-land-should-be-returned-to-arunachal-says-panel-report/ 

[9]. All you need to know about Assam’s border disputes with NE states, The Tribune, 29 July 2021, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/all-you-need-to-know-about-assams-border-disputes-with-ne-states-290060 

[10]. Assam, Nagaland agree to withdraw forces from two disputed locations in Dessoi Valley, Scroll.in, 31 July 2021, https://scroll.in/latest/1001655/assam-nagaland-agree-to-withdraw-forces-from-two-disputed-locations-in-dessoi-valley 

[11]. Assam, Meghalaya form regional panels for border settlement, The Hindu, 6 August 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/assam-meghalaya-form-regional-panels-for-border-settlement/article35761405.ece 

[12]. Assam, Meghalaya form regional panels for border settlement, The Hindu, 6 August 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/assam-meghalaya-form-regional-panels-for-border-settlement/article35761405.ece 

[13].  Assam, Mizoram to withdraw forces; travel advisory dropped, The Hindustan Times, 6 August 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/others/assam-mizoram-ministers-meet-in-aizawl-today-to-resolve-border-dispute-101628152072265.html

[14]. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh Working To Fix Border Dispute Out Of Court, NDTV, 15 July 2021, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/assam-arunachal-pradesh-working-to-fix-border-dispute-out-of-court-2487623 

[15]. Assam-Mizo clashes because of Himanta Biswa Sarma’s ‘expansionist’ tendencies, says MP, The Hindu, 04 August 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/assam-mizo-clashes-because-of-himanta-biswa-sarmas-expansionist-tendencies-says-mp/article35715946.ece

[16]. Centre to use satellite mapping to resolve NE border disputes, The Hindu, 01 August 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/centre-to-use-satellite-mapping-to-resolve-ne-border-disputes/article35663862.ece 

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