Guwahati: Over the past year, there have been deepening tensions between the government of Mizoram and the Assam Rifles, which is posted in the state to guard its 512-km border with Myanmar.
The reasons are many, from an alleged instance of molestation by an Assam Rifles trooper, to the state’s accusation that personnel of the paramilitary force violated Covid-19 protocol (the Assam Rifles has denied the charge). The latest standoff involves a disagreement over the seating arrangement at the Independence Day function that allegedly led senior members of the Assam Rifles to skip the government function.
The allegations have been flowing thick and fast, with almost the entire exchange taking place through letters — between the Assam Rifles and the Mizoram government, and also to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
On Wednesday, a meeting between Assam Rifles Director General (DG) Lt General Sukhdeep Sangwan and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga ended without any breakthrough.
Approached by phone, both the Assam Rifles spokesperson and the Mizoram chief secretary refused to offer comments on the recent spate of tensions.
Meanwhile, the Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA), the powerful civil organisation in Mizoram with deep influence among residents, has sought an apology from the Assam Rifles for allegedly violating Covid-19 safety protocols and the alleged molestation case, reported from a border village in Champhai district on 15 August.
They had earlier asked the Assam Rifles to apologise by 31 August, but the deadline has now been extended until Saturday, 5 September.
“We had extended the deadline when they wrote to us stating that DGAR (DG Assam Rifles) is planning to visit Aizawl, and requested us to wait,” said Central YMA General Secretary Professor Lalnuntluanga.
“We have cordial relations with the Assam Rifles, but there is also growing resentment among people in border villages for the activities taken up by the force inside their area – like setting up check-gates in the villages. The main duty of AR personnel in Mizoram is to safeguard the boundary between Myanmar and India. They call themselves ‘Friends of the Hill People’ and that is what we expect of them,” he added.
With no movement on this front until Friday, the clock was ticking. “If they fail to tender an apology by Saturday, we will decide on the future course of action,” said Professor Lalnuntluanga.
Three battalions of Assam Rifles are currently deployed in Mizoram — 1 Assam Rifles at Lunglei, 46 Assam Rifles at Aizawl, and 8 Assam Rifles at Serchip.
As the tensions continue to fester, ThePrint looks back at the different issues at the heart of this dispute.
Issue 1: Disagreement over seating at I-Day function
On 24 August, Mizoram Chief Secretary Lalnunmawia Chuaungo wrote a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) where he alleged a boycott of Independence Day celebrations by the Assam Rifles.
According to the letter, which was leaked to the media, the head of the 23 Sector Assam Rifles had boycotted the function over the Warrant of Precedence (WoP) issued by the state government that dictates the order of seating at the function.
Earlier, on 13 August, the Assam Rifles had written to the Deputy Commissioner in Aizawl, saying the WoP is “arbitrary”. Signed by a Major, the letter said the order is “a dishonour to the appointment and rank held by the senior most army officer in the state”.
“No officer of Assam Rifles would be attending the function organised by the state of Mizoram,” it said.
The under-secretary to the Government of Mizoram subsequently addressed a letter to Brigadier Vinod S, the commander of 23 Sector Assam Rifles in the state, on 21 August, stating that the decision of Assam Rifles to not participate in I-Day celebrations over the issue of WoP is “unbecoming of the senior most paramilitary force in the state”.
“Your action, fuelled by personal whims and fancy of boycotting the ceremonial function has tarnished the image of the Assam Rifles in Mizoram,” the letter read.
It was also mentioned that, according to the WoP issued by the state government in 1990, a Brigadier stationed in the state was placed at Article 24 — at the level of Additional Secretary — but the WoP issued in 2020 places him at Article 12, which is the same level as secretary to the Government of Mizoram.
Speaking to ThePrint, an Assam Rifles official denied the boycott allegation, saying their contingent participated in the I-Day function at AR ground and they also provided administrative support to the state government for organising the event.
Issue 2: Covid-19 ‘spreader Assam Rifles’
In the same letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the chief secretary also alleged violation of Covid-19 protocol by Assam Rifles personnel at Vairengte along the Assam-Mizoram border on 18 August.
The alleged violation was also the subject of a 19 August letter to Brig. Vinod from the Home Department under-secretary, who claimed around 15 Assam Rifles personnel refused to comply with screening protocol at the Vairengte border entry point and forced their way through the check gate into Mizoram.
“Statistics show that Assam Rifles is the second-highest contributor to the Covid-19 tally among military and paramilitary forces stationed in the state,” the letter added.
The Assam Rifles refuted all charges in a 20 August letter addressed to the under-secretary, claiming that moving troopers and rations was an “operational requirement” for their border operations, in conformity with MHA guidelines.
The force also stated that, despite several requests to the home department to allow movement of troopers and vehicles carrying emergency supplies, no permission was granted. The day the incident happened, it said, 25 personnel, including a doctor, were sent to Vairengte to receive a group of about 15-20 troopers who had come from far-away places and had spent days at the Silchar railway station in Assam, waiting for approval to enter Mizoram.
The Assam Rifles also pointed out that until 19 August, the 860 Covid-19 cases in the state comprised 101 personnel, and only 48 were active. Of these, 45 patients were treated in the Covid care facility of Assam Rifles at Zokhawsang, 15 km from Aizawl.
“We have not been a burden on the state as alleged. In the name of COVID-19 restrictions, vehicles carrying vegetables for our troops were held for two days at Vairengte check gate and all of it got rotten,” an Assam Rifles official told ThePrint, requesting to not be named.
“Other vehicles carrying meat for the troops were also not allowed to enter. Sometimes, they would allow entry after 2-3 days, but by that time, all items would perish,” the official added.
Issue 3: The ‘molestation’ case
On 20 August, police in Champai registered an FIR against an unidentified Assam Rifles trooper for allegedly molesting a woman at Sesih village, bordering Myanmar, on 15 August.
On 24 August, Brig Vinod held a meeting with Mizoram Home Minister Pu Lalchamliana, and assured him that the accused would be punished based on evidence.
While tensions have soared over the past year, unease in the relationship also emerged in January 2019, when the Assam Rifles intervened to stop the construction of a crowdfunded suspension bridge over the Tiau River – a 159-km long river that forms a boundary between India and Myanmar. The residents of Thekte village in Champhai district were constructing the bridge for personal use.
The state government requested the Assam Rifles to allow the construction of the bridge to resume, but it remains suspended.
This report has been updated with additional information