Guwahati: The Narendra Modi government has stepped in to resolve the Assam-Mizoram border row, which has been festering for over 50 years now.
The Centre held high-level talks with the two state governments to work out a temporary solution to defuse tension brewing at both sides over the last three weeks due to violent clashes that led to a blockade in Assam.
On 8 November, after a meeting between the home secretaries of Assam and Mizoram with Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, Mizoram decided to withdraw the state forces from the disputed border areas and deploy Border Security Force (BSF) personnel instead.
Mizoram will deploy three BSF companies in the disputed areas of Vairengte, Saihapui ‘V’ village in Kolasib district and at Thinghlun village in Mamit district, where the clashes originated last month.
However, both states will withdraw the state forces in a graded manner.
It was also decided at the talks that Assam will lift its economic blockade on National Highway 306, the lifeline of Mizoram.
Goods laden trucks started moving to Mizoram from Assam’s side of the border at Lailapur Monday. At least, 21 trucks escorted by police resumed their journey to Mizoram after 12 days, Sonai Circle Officer Sudeep Nath said in a statement. Those stranded on the other side of the border in Mizoram are also plying.
Lailapur locals had imposed a blockade in Assam’s Cachar district and adjoining areas since 28 October.
Officials on both sides urged people to maintain peace and cooperate with the security forces.
Meanwhile, the nearly month-long territorial dispute between Mizoram and Tripura over Phuldungsei village of Jampui Hill range continues, with Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb saying on 6 November that Mizoram government should resolve the issue by approaching the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
Troops of the Tripura State Rifles (TSR) personnel remain deployed in the disputed areas of Phuldungsei, which Mizoram terms as Thaidawr Tlang, and a part of their territory.
“In a federal system, the border issues are solved by Union Home Ministry. Both Assam and Tripura share border with Mizoram and any border dispute is resolved by the MHA. Borders are decided on basis of the last geographical map drawn out. If any state has an issue or objection, they must take it up with the Centre. We are all within India and it is not decent to fight amongst ourselves,” Deb said.
The latest move on the border row came weeks after Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal apprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah of the situation, and spoke with his Mizoram counterpart, Zoramthanga, he tweeted earlier.
Political analysts in the states have, however, said only a temporary solution would be worked out in Delhi, as an agreement has eluded the states despite several rounds of talks at various levels since the early nineties.
Here is a detailed look at the latest incident of border tension, and the background to the dispute between the two neighbouring states.
Mizos say it is about illegal immigrants from Bangladesh
On the recent flare-up, Mizoram’s civil society groups have alleged that it began when a group of miscreants from Lailapur, Assam, pelted the Mizoram Reserve battalion personnel on duty with stones.
Assam Police officers, however, refuted these charges, stating that unidentified miscreants from Mizoram’s Vairengte burnt shops and hutments along the NH-306 in Lailapur. The incident is said to be a result of the demolition of a makeshift hut used by local volunteers near Saihapui V, a village about 8 km east of Vairengte and adjacent to Karimganj district.
The volunteers were reportedly checking movement of people in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The NH-306 (earlier NH-54), considered the lifeline of the state, links Mizoram with the rest of the country through Silchar in Assam.
The Mizos, however, chose to describe the incident as a fight against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and not an Assam versus Mizoram issue. “Most of them are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who claim to be locals. They are not Assamese or Indians,” said Samuela Zoramthanpuia, general secretary, Mizoram Students’ Union.
Assam Forest Minister and local MLA Parimal Suklabaidya, meanwhile, said these are not isolated incidents and happen as people from both sides illegally cut trees. A team of the Assam Police led by ADGP (Border) Mukesh Agarwal visited Lailapur on 19 October, along with senior district administration and forest officials.
The unresolved border issue
At the heart of the conflict is an unresolved border issue. There is a 164.6-km inter-state border that separates Assam and Mizoram, with the three Assam districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj sharing a border with Kolasib, Mamit and Aizawl districts of Mizoram.
Formerly known as Lushai Hills, Mizoram is located on the southern fringes of Northeast India. The state shares borders with three northeastern states of Tripura, Assam and Manipur, and a 722-km border with the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The India-Myanmar border in Mizoram is open, and an unhindered movement of people from both sides has escalated cross-border smuggling. The two countries have a Free Movement Regime (FMR) that allows people living along the border to travel 16 km into each other’s territory without visa.
The region has remained relatively calm though there have been a few instances of clashes in 1994, 2006 and 2018. In 1994, tensions escalated in Vairengte when a skirmish broke out between the police personnel of the two states, and a major crisis was averted with the intervention of the home ministry.
The Cachar-Mizoram boundary
The North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971, provided for the establishment of the states of Manipur and Tripura and the formation of Meghalaya. It also provided for the formation of the Union Territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh — by the reorganisation of the existing state of Assam.
Barak Valley, comprising the Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts, is the southernmost tip of Assam. Cachar is surrounded on three sides by the hill ranges of Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya, and also shares an international boundary, spread across the Barak Valley region, with Bangladesh.
Mizoram was earlier a part of undivided Assam. The Mizos are an indigenous minority group in Northeast that continues to seek protection of rights and privileges under the Indian Constitution.
The boundary issue between Assam and Mizoram dates back almost 50 years since the formation of Mizoram — first as a UT in January 1972 when it was separated from Assam, and later as a full-fledged state in 1987.
The signing of the Mizoram Peace Accord in June 1986, between the Government of India and the Mizo National Front (MNF), ended the 20-year-old insurgency by the Mizos, and led Mizoram to acquire statehood. However, boundary issues that remained suppressed earlier became a border dispute after the separation.
The boundary between Mizoram and Assam follows naturally occurring barriers of hills, valleys, rivers and forests, and both sides have attributed border skirmishes to perceptional differences over an imaginary line. Villagers in Mizoram and Assam, not fully aware of the boundary demarcation, would often cross over to either side for various purposes.
Dispute during British rule
Ever since the annexation of Cachar into British domination in 1832, local authorities had to deal with the frequent incursions of Mizo tribes in the south who were against the rapid expansion of tea cultivation by the British at the foothills of Lushai.
From 1850-1871, many steps were taken to settle the boundary issue. In 1875, provisions of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) of 1873, also known as the Inner Line Regulation (ILR), was introduced in Assam for maintaining peace and effective governance. The ILR also served as a demarcation line between the plains of Assam and neighbouring hill areas inhabited by tribal communities.
The boundary line drawn after the annexation of the Lushai Hills in 1904 went through adjustments in 1912 and later in 1930. Frequent questions regarding the boundary had surfaced in the past, especially in connection with the felling of timber along the different rivers that cross it. After subsequent modifications under the Assam government, the boundary between Cachar and Mizoram was created according to a government notification of 1933. But the Mizos assert their traditional claim and do not want to go by the boundary fixed by the British Government.
Mizo lawmakers say, “When boundary was drawn before the establishment of Mizoram as a full-fledged state, we were not consulted. It is a forced boundary.”
The official website of the Land Revenue and Settlement Department, Government of Mizoram mentions the state as “Non-land record State in terms of Land Record Management”.
“Significant developments have taken place since Mizoram attained statehood in 1987 in the implementation of Land Reforms Programme and Land Revenue Administration. The absence of correct and up-to-date land records of villages and towns has injured the interest of numerous land owners, the bulk of whom are led to unavoidable land disputes and thwarted the implementation of Land Reform Programmes,” says the website.
This report has been updated with the latest developments at the central level to resolve the row.