Conflict Alerts # 185, 5 November 2020
In the news
On 4 November, Assam’s Chief Secretary Jishnu Baruah stated that the central government is likely to send additional paramilitary forces to be deployed at the earliest along the Assam and Mizoram border. This is the latest development to the month-long border dispute flaring between the two states in India’s northeastern region. On 1 November a resident of Assam allegedly died in the custody of the Mizoram police leading the Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to send a strong-worded letter to the Union Home Minister Amit Shah about the “abduction by miscreants” and subsequent death of Intazul Laskar, who lived in a town along the Assam-Mizoram border in Cachar district. The Mizo government responded accusing Laskar to be a drug peddler. The border standoff between the two federal states reached a brink when the main highway to Mizoram remained cut off for over a week since the end of October as truck drivers from Assam refused to carry cooking gas and other necessities across the border fearing life threat, inturn forcing Mizoram to get fuel via Manipur, a longer circuitous route.
Issues at large
First, the historical boundary dispute. Frictions between the two states returned in the first week of October when the Assam government carried out an “eviction drive” along a contested part of the border, running between Assam’s Karimganj district and Mizoram’s Mamit district. During the drive, a farmhouse and crops were reportedly burned down. The Mizoram government responded by deploying forces in what Assam claims to be its territory. The Mizos, for their part, insisted that they were only “defending their land.” Assam and Mizoram share a 164.6-km-long border, but their border issue has been unresolved for 50 years. Mizoram insists that a 509-square-mile stretch of the inner-line reserve forest notified in 1875 is the actual boundary with Assam, while the latter thinks otherwise. The violence between Assam and Mizoram have often sparred mostly among the border villages as one or the other burn houses viewing encroachment on land.
Second, ethnic tensions. The boundary dispute often gets coloured into an ethnic tension when the dominant Mizos feel threatened by the Assamese claim on land and vice versa. But today, the fear is of illegal migrants from Bangladesh trying to settle in the contested lands. Mizo civil society groups alleged that those behind the violence from Assam were, in fact, “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh trying to take over Mizo land. The Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a powerful student organisation in Mizoram, admitted to setting a few shops on fire, but insisted that they had been set up by “illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”
Third, economic blockade. A consequence of the border dispute has been stopping interstate goods thereby choking each other of essential fuel. Trucks ferrying essential supplies to Mizoram were allegedly not allowed to pass by Assam residents blocking highways since 18 October. The Mizo groups responded by organising their own blockade. A senior ministry of home affairs official felicitated talks between the two states leading to the lift of the blockade but only to return in a day after a Bengali-medium school was bombed. Fearing that it was the work of Mizoram residents, the drivers across Northeast India, who are mostly from Assam, have feared the violence. They have lost trust on Assam Police after the personnel escorting tankers from Silchar abandoned them near the border on 31 October.
First, in Northeast India, the question of the boundary has remained complex, political and emotive. The showdowns between Assam and Mizoram residents are only recent developments and the most violent has been between Assam and Nagaland residents. Quoting historical precedents, an immediate resolution to this dispute remains unlikely and the issue is likely to be more emotive over the illegal migrant question. Second, land resource allocation which is at the heart of the dispute is unlikely to solved due to overlapping records. There are fewer institutions at the ground to record the land deeds and show historical data to solve the issue.