Guwahati: The violence that broke out along the Assam-Mizoram borders at Lailapur in Cachar district, some 355 km away from the capital city of Guwahati, on Monday in which six Assam Police personnel were killed by unidentified miscreants from Mizoram has once again unveiled the 'fragile' issue of interstate border disputes between the two states.
While Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that miscreants and police from Mizoram fired indiscriminately upon Assam police who were there to protect Assam's forest from encroachment, Mizoram claimed that it was Assam police who provoked them.
On July 26, as violence broke out along the border town of Vairengte in Mizoram's Kolasib district – adjacent to Lailapur in Assam's Cachar district, so did a Twitter war of words between the chief ministers of the two states, Zoramthanga and Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Currently, both the states have been eying Centre's intervention. Already, the home ministry has summoned the police chiefs of both the states to Delhi on Wednesday, said Sarma.
"It's not a fight for land. Assam is just protecting the forest areas belonging to its constitutional boundary. As per rule, no states can establish human settlements in forest lands. However, Mizoram has crossed the 'survey of India' marked boundary post in Lailapur and started construction in Assam's territory. Assam wants peace and doesn't believe in retaliation. But will also protect our boundaries at any cost," chief minister Sarma told the media on Tuesday.
He also informed that there were aggressive encroachments from the Mizoram side during the last six months. Three districts in Assam - Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj - share a 164km-long border with Mizoram.
What Is The 150-Year-Old Assam-Mizoram Border Dispute?
The boundary dispute between the two states is not new. It dates back to British Raj. The border dispute between Assam and Mizoram is around 150 years old.
As per history, the British in 1875 had determined the boundary between Cachar in Assam and Mizoram which was known as Lushai Hills then, a part of Greater Assam.
Then, the northeast region comprised of only three states - Manipur, Tripura and Assam; whereas Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh were part of Assam, which was called Greater Assam.
After independence, Mizoram was carved out of Assam in 1972 as a Union Territory (UT) and later conferred statehood on February 20, 1987. But the determination of the boundary between these states remained a matter of dispute even after that. Mizoram wanted its border with Assam to be determined according to the 1875 agreement.
Mizoram has been claiming that many of their Mizo-speaking districts were annexed with Assam during the post-independence boundary demarcation.
Meanwhile, Assam chief minister's response has been, "Why would we follow the Colonial map? In that case, it was all part of Assam but we never claimed that."
In 2005 the Supreme Court had also asked the central government to form a Boundary Commission to settle the dispute, but nothing much had happened since. Officials said according to an agreement between Mizoram and Assam, the status quo was to be maintained in the no man's land in the border area.
The Aizwal based group of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) on Inner Line Reserve Forest Demand of Mizoram demands that the Assam government should hand over the administration of 509 Sq Miles of Inner Line Reserved Forest currently being administered by the forest department of the Assam government to the forest department of the Mizoram. It also demanded that the Thangram Indigenous Peoples Area which is in Assam should also be handed over to Mizoram since a large Mizo population resides there.
In 2018, the JAC along with various political parties, NGOs in a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the current boundary was arbitrarily made without the consent and approval of the competent authorities of Mizoram and areas such as Cachar Zion, Tlangnuam, Lala Bazar and Banga Bazar where large numbers of Mizo people lives were excluded.
The union home ministry subsequently sent letters to chief secretaries of Assam and Mizoram, and also Surveyor General of India, asking them for their views and comments on the matter. However, the Mizoram government has failed to send its view on the matter despite reminders by the Centre on at least four occasions.The Mizoram government had constituted a boundary commission to deal with the demarcation of the state's border with Assam only on July 24, two days ahead of the violent clash.
It may be mentioned that union home minister Amit Shad met all the chief ministers of northeastern states on Sunday evening in Shillong in Meghalaya where the issue of border dispute was also discussed.
Why Did The Old Dispute Turn So Violent Now?
It's not the first time that violence has been reported from the Assam-Mizoram border.
Last year in October too, tension flared up between the two sides at the same location when Mizo miscreants torched several houses on the Assam side and also bombed two primary schools in Assam. Later villagers from the Assam side staged an economic blockade for almost three weeks leading to a chaotic situation.
Subsequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah had to intervene and a high-level talk between the two-state governments was also held to work out a temporary solution to defuse tension. Later, Mizoram decided to withdraw the state forces from the disputed border areas and deploy Border Security Force (BSF) personnel instead.
Assam chief minister added, "Since it's an Inner Line Reserve Forest, Assam doesn't encourage any settlement. Even if the chief minister builds a house there, it will be evicted as per law. But satellite images with us have proved over and over again that the Mizoram side has encroached into our side affecting the forest and also constructing a road."
He said that the Assam government has decided to move the Supreme Court over the interstate border disputes with a prayer to protect the forest areas located along its borders. "Also, the Assam government will raise three commando battalions along the Assam-Mizoram borders to protect its natural resources. Almost 4000 commandos will be deployed in the future," he added.
On the other hand, Mizoram home minister Lalchamliana countered Assam chief minister's claims and said that while efforts were being made to diffuse the border tension between the two states, Assam Police provocation on Monday had compelled the Mizoram Police to reciprocate to protect the Mizoram duty post. The home minister also stated that Mizoram Police are being placed at Saihapui 'V', Aitlang and Zophai areas where border tension surged up recently due to incursion by the Assam Police.
Since 2016, at least 42 cases of border disputes against Mizoram have been registered with Assam police. However, no one has been arrested so far in any of these cases.
While Mizoram has said it wants "that the inter-state border issue with Assam be resolved in an atmosphere of peace and understanding", it has also called upon Assam to create a "congenial environment" for peaceful resolution of the long historic dispute. Assam has, meanwhile, asked Mizoram to "restrain its people and police personnel from indulging in wanton violence, and work towards restoring peace".
The author is an independent journalist based out of Assam, covering North-East India. He tweets at @Pranjal_khabri.