IDSA COMMENT

Interstate Border Disputes in the Northeast

June 12, 2008

At a time when the India-China border dispute is hogging the limelight and causing unease in the Indian establishment, many festering inter-state border disputes in the Northeast that are sowing seeds of discord seem to elude the attention of policymakers at the Centre. The issue of inter-state border disputes came to the fore recently, when tensions erupted along the Assam-Meghalaya border following the Assam government’s attempt to lay a foundation stone for a primary health sub-centre at Langpih, a border village claimed by both Assam and Meghalaya. To resolve the issue, the Chief Minister of Meghalaya invited his Assamese counterpart for negotiations on May 26, 2008. In the absence of an immediate response from Guwahati, the Meghalaya government had declared on June 3, 2008 that if talks with Assam fail to take off, it would seek intervention from either the Central government or the Supreme Court to resolve the matter. But Assam subsequently agreed to hold talks and the Chief Ministers of the two states met on June 11, 2008 and decided to set up a high level co-ordination committee to examine the disputed areas along the border and work towards resolving it in a phased manner. They also decided to hold negotiations at regular intervals to arrive at an early solution.

The border problem between Assam and Meghalaya has persisted for decades now. It first started when Meghalaya challenged the Assam Reorganisation Act of 1971, which bestowed Blocks I and II of the Mikir Hills to Assam (presently, the Karbi Anglong district). Meghalaya contends that both these blocks formed part of the erstwhile United Khasi and Jaintia Hills when it was created in 1835. At present there are 12 points of dispute along the 733 kilometre Assam-Meghalaya border.

Other states in the region are also embroiled in similar inter-state border disputes. The longest and bloodiest of these is the border dispute between Assam and Nagaland, which began right at the inception of Nagaland state in 1963. The Nagaland State Act of 1962 had defined its borders according to the 1925 notification when Naga Hills and Tuensang Area (NHTA) were integrated into a new administrative unit and made an autonomous area. Nagas, however, did not accept the boundary delineation and demanded that Nagaland should comprise the erstwhile Naga Hills and all Naga- dominated area in North Cachar and Nagaon districts, which were part of Naga territory according to the 1866 notification. Since Nagaland did not accept its notified borders, tensions between Assam and Nagaland soon flared up resulting in the first border clashes in 1965 at Kakodonga Reserve Forest. Since then, violent clashes along the Assam-Nagaland border have become a regular feature, with major armed conflicts reported in 1968, 1979 and 1985. The latest in this series occurred in June 2007 in Sibsagar district when three villages – Sonapur, Dhekiajuri and Borholla – were attacked by Nagas resulting in the death of two people.

Two other states of the region that were carved out of Assam, namely, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, are also entangled in border disputes with Assam. Initially, both Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram accepted their notified borders with Assam, but later on started raising the issue of Assamese encroachment leading to border clashes. In the case of the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, clashes were first reported in 1992 when the Arunachal state government alleged that people from Assam are building houses, markets and even police stations on its territory. Since then intermittent clashes have been taking place making the border tense. In 2005, for example, during an eviction drive by the Assam government, some 100 houses in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh were allegedly set ablaze by Assam Police and forest officials. Again in 2007, tensions flared up along the Assam-Arunachal border when villagers from across the border fired at a peace meeting in Assam injuring eight people.

The Assam-Mizoram border, on the other hand, has remained relatively calm despite the disputed nature of the border. However, there were a few instances in 1994 and in 2007 when tensions along this border flared up. But because of timely intervention by the central government, a major crisis was averted and the situation was quickly brought under control. Following the 2007 border incident, Mizoram declared that it does not accept the present boundary with Assam and that the inner line of the Inner Line Reserved Forest as described in the 1875 notification under the East Bengal Frontier Regulation of 1873 should be the basis for delineating the border.

Assam is the common strand that connects all these border disputes. The root cause of all these inter-state border disputes can be traced back to the decision to carve out new political entities out of Assam. It is necessary to point out that this decision was taken under compelling circumstances. The prevailing external and internal situation in the region during the 1960s highlighted the urgent need to effectively integrate this sensitive frontier area with the Indian Union. The 1962 border war with China and numerous ethnic insurgencies that plagued the region threatened the unity and integrity of the country. In this context, the Government of India decided to carve out new political entities, with the dual aim of consolidating its hold over this remote region as well as to fulfil the aspirations of various ethnic communities involved in separatist movements. Thus, the reorganisation of Arunachal Pradesh into a Union Territory in 1972 and its upgradation to full-fledged statehood in 1987 can be seen as a strategy of the Indian government to consolidate its position vis-à-vis China in the border negotiations. Similarly, the granting of statehood to Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya in 1972 and Mizoram in 1987 were steps to accommodate the territorial aspirations of the Nagas, Khasis, Garos, and Mizos.

It is a moot point whether granting statehood has adequately addressed the issue of ethnic identity. But it surely has had a negative fallout in the form of various border disputes between Assam and these newly created states. It is important to note that these states were hurriedly carved out of Assam without paying much attention to the realities on the ground. And therefore, these freshly created state boundaries did not strictly conform to the ethnic boundaries of the region. For example, there are sizeable populations of Mizos and Nagas in the Cachar Hills, making it possible for both Mizoram and Nagaland to claim territories in Assam. Also, the Central government transferred areas that legitimately belonged to Assam, thus creating sources for potential tensions. For example, Dimapur was given to Nagaland to provide it with a railhead. It caused heartburn among the Dimasas of North Cachar Hills, as Dimapur was their capital for a long time. The Central government was well aware that its decisions might lead to tensions between states, but it did not create any mechanism to address these disputes and left these problems for resolution at a later date.

As tensions mounted and relations deteriorated, the concerned states tried to resolve the issue by holding negotiations. Unfortunately, negotiations failed and third party intervention was sought to resolve the matter. For instance, in 2005, the Supreme Court had instructed the Central government to constitute a boundary commission to settle various inter-state boundary problems in the Northeast. The Centre had earlier constituted two commissions, the Sundaram Commission (1971) and the Shastri Commission (1985), to settle the Assam-Nagaland border dispute. These commissions failed to resolve the matter as the concerned states did not accept their recommendations. In a significant move, Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya decided to co-operate with each other to solve their respective border disputes with Assam. They strongly favoured negotiations with Assam and opposed any third party intervention. Though the Assam government has so far been reluctant to hold talks, its recent dialogue with the Meghalaya government to resolve the Langpih and related issues marks a welcome change in this attitude.

However, given the track record of such talks, there is a possibility that negotiations could fail, necessitating third party intervention. It is time the Centre took a bold initiative to facilitate a fair settlement of the festering border problems in the Northeast. It can do so by either persuading the concerned states to come to the negotiating table and seek a solution or by constituting a boundary commission whose recommendations would be binding on the parties involved. Needless to say, a quick and speedy resolution of these border issues has become necessary given the Central government’s renewed emphasis on the overall development of the Northeast. This goal can only be achieved by purging strife and promoting greater co-operation among these states to usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the region.