On Sunday, when Union home minister Amit Shah was laying the foundation stones of projects and making speeches in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, approximately 1,700 km east of Lucknow, police forces of two states—Assam and Mizoram—were looking battle-ready and confronting each other eyeball-to-eyeball at a couple of points along the border. This comes a week after six Assam police personnel were killed by the Mizoram police force on 26 July. Soon after this incident, Assam’s unannounced economic blockade through the closure of National Highway 306 began choking the supply of essential items such as medicines and vegetables in Covid-hit Mizoram.
The Centre had asked for the creation of a 4-km-long buffer zone between the two forces at the clash point, but both Assam and Mizoram police wouldn’t retreat from their post. A day earlier, a Bharatiya Janta Party minister in neighbouring Meghalaya, Sanbor Shullai, spoke about how “the people of Assam are harassing our people in the border area” and how “the time has come to react… and act on the spot.”
On Sunday, Mizoram announced the withdrawal of an FIR against Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who reciprocated by withdrawing an FIR against a Mizoram MP. But hostility between the two sides is far from over. Sarma said that had a talk with his Mizoram counterpart three-four days back and called him 18-20 times after that, but did not receive a reply.
On Sunday, Sarma tweeted that his Mizoram counterpart “had promised to call me post his quarantine,” suggesting that Zoramthanga remained upset even though Amit Shah was talking to the two CMs on phone. One just wonders why Shah can’t persuade the two for even a virtual meeting.
The Assam CM’s tweets at 1:33 and 1:34 am on Monday were rather terse in tone: “I have noted statements in media by Honble CM @ZoramthangaCM wherein he has expressed his desire to settle the border dispute amicably….We are also committed to ensuring peace along our border….”
Complete silence from Modi and Shah
Amid all this, what’s surprising is that there is no word — not even of condolence, for the death of the six police personnel — from Prime Minister Narendra Modi or home minister Amit Shah so far. Although the latter is in touch with the two CMs, he has refrained from making any public statement about the happenings in the northeast. There is no plan to visit the trouble-torn areas either. A look at the PM’s and the home minister’s Twitter timelines over the past week shows they prayed for the safety of people in the wake of cloudbursts in Kishtwar and Kargil and condoled the grieving families of those who died in a road accident in Barabanki. But the only direct reference to the northeast in their tweets was on 28 July when the PM shared the “wonderful news” about the Bhoot Jolokia chilli from Nagaland reaching London.
On Sunday, the Union minister of state for home, Ajay Mishra Teni, said that the dispute between Assam and Mizoram was “old” and registering of an FIR by Mizoram police against Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma was “a normal thing.”
Teni’s remarks, Modi-Shah’s radio silence, and the fact that the Union home minister was busy inaugurating projects in an election-bound state on Sunday seem to suggest normality. But they must worry about the alarming situation in the northeast. Police forces of two states firing at each other and a minister of the neighbouring state talking about “the spirit to protect our people….to utilise our force” is far from normal.
Centre’s political compulsions in northeast
So, what is restraining Modi and Shah, who are otherwise outspoken about their national security priorities — external or internal — from speaking on the northeast situation? There can be three reasons — all intertwined.
First, having made the entire northeast ‘Congress-mukt’ or free from the Congress through political alliances, the Centre may not want to be seen taking sides in what are complex emotive border disputes. Any misstep may shear the much-vaunted supremacy of the BJP in the northeast.
The saffron party counts the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) as part of the NDA because the Zoramthanga-led party is part of a loose anti-Congress front, the North-Eastern Democratic Alliance (NEDA). The Mizoram CM has, however, maintained a distance from the BJP and ignored the saffron party’s requests to allow its lone MLA in the state to sit on Treasury Benches. The BJP can’t afford to upset Zoramthanga. The MNF can simply walk out of the NEDA.
In neighbouring Meghalaya, the BJP, with two MLAs in the 60-member assembly, is part of the National People’s Party (NPP)-led government, thanks to Himanta Sarma. He brought together five parties to secure a majority in the assembly after Congress emerged as the single-largest party in the 2018 election. The BJP can’t afford to upset Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma either; the party is hanging by his coattails in Meghalaya.
Sangma’s party, the NPP, is also crucial to the survival of the BJP-led government in Manipur, which will go into elections early next year. In Manipur, too, the Congress had emerged as the single-largest party in 2017 but Sarma had cobbled up a majority for the formation of a BJP-led government.
The second reason for Shah’s silence is his lack of political heft in the northeast. The deadly firing by the Mizoram police happened barely twenty-four hours after the Union home minister had left Shillong after two-day-long deliberations with northeastern region CMs, a meeting that was also attended by the director generals of the police (DGPs) of these states. Border disputes between Assam and neighbouring states have dominated those discussions as well. The fact that Assam and Mizoram police resorted to violent clashes the very next day showed how seriously the northeastern CMs had treated that meeting.
The third reason for the Union home minister’s inability to intervene effectively is the fact that he has always been completely dependent on Himanta Sarma to achieve his goals in the northeast. As convenor of NEDA, Sarma is the fulcrum of the BJP’s grand northeastern project and has delivered the region to it. As Assam chief minister now, he has many compulsions other than the unstated pressure on a former Congressman to prove his commitment to Hindutva. “I cannot leave Assam’s land for the sake of strengthening NEDA. I may be NEDA convenor but first I am the CM of Assam,” Sharma clarified four days after the 26 May clashes between Assam and Mizoram police forces.
Add to that, Sarma’s Assam Cattle Protection Bill to regulate slaughter, consumption and transportation has already angered its beef-eating neighbours, with Conrad Sangma having expressed his intent to take it up with the Centre. Amit Shah can’t depend on Sarma to act as an interlocutor with other northeastern states.
Amit Shah’s personal stakes in the northeast
Amit Shah can’t afford to let the border disputes in the northeast snowball any further. There are already many questions about his performance as the Union home minister. Right after joining the government in May 2019, he took the country by storm. He secured parliamentary approval for the so-called triple talaq legislation on 30 July 2019, even though the BJP was in a minority in the Rajya Sabha. Three days later, he got Rajya Sabha’s approval for the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Bill, which empowered the Centre to declare an individual a terrorist. Three days after that, he announced the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by invalidating Article 370—a move that was hailed as completing Sardar Patel’s unfinished task. Four months later, he got parliamentary approval for the Citizenship legislation (CAA or Citizenship Amendment Act). During a debate on the citizenship bill in the Lok Sabha in December 2019, he thundered: “Maan ke chaliye NRC (National Register of Citizens) aane wala hai (take it for granted that the NRC is coming).”
Amit Shah was on a roll but then came the bombshell. Barely a fortnight after Shah’s NRC announcement, PM Modi declared there was no discussion in the government about the NRC.
That marked the beginning of a downhill journey. Shah has barely spoken of the NRC since then. The home ministry has been seeking one extension after another to frame CAA rules — the latest is up until January next year. The entire world watched videos of hooligans, armed with rods and sticks, on a rampage in the country’s eminent educational institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi but there have been no arrests in the past 20 months. For Modi who claimed that he wanted to build a riot-free administration post-2002 Godhra riots in Gujarat, the PM had to suffer international embarrassment as Delhi witnessed communal riots during then US President Donald Trump’s visit early last year. A year-and-a-half since then, Union home ministry-Delhi police’s cases have been floundering in courts; Shah has been holding meetings with Delhi police officials almost every fortnight.
After the initial burst of energy during the first wave of Covid-19 when Shah went on an overdrive to enforce the National Disaster Act — minus his unpreparedness for migrant labourers’ traumatic journeys home — the Union home ministry virtually went cold during the second wave of the pandemic.
As BJP president, Shah received many laurels, starting with Modi’s high praise of him as the “man of the match” in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The last 20 months have, however, been a bit of a setback for Amit Shah, with his image as the BJP’s Chanakya taking a hit in successive assembly elections.
He might have gotten credit for scrapping J&K’s special status but the fact is PM Modi had planned it ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election and deferred it. Considered PM Modi’s putative successor, he has many expectations to meet as India’s home minister. After the Delhi riots, violent border disputes in the northeast are his biggest challenge as they threaten to dent Modi’s image as a strong and decisive leader with the ‘nation first’ motto of governance.
It’s the hour of reckoning for Union home minister Amit Shah.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)