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Examining the Assam-Nagaland Border Crisis

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 21, 2014

    On August 19 and 20, more than 20 protestors were injured and two killed in police action at Rangajan, Golaghat District, Assam against an economic blockade on Asian Highway 1 (also called NH 39) leading into neighbouring Nagaland. The protestors from several local organisations including Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad, All Assam Tea Tribes students Association, All Assam Tai Ahom Students Union, and All Adivasi Students Association were holding up traffic of Nagaland bound vehicles since last week on NH-39. In a related incident, the visiting Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s convoy was assaulted by angry protestors at relief camps in Uriamghat village, Golaghat District near the Assam-Nagaland border. These protestors were part of the affected people embroiled in the latest incidents of killings and violence in this sensitive inter-state border area. On August 12, at least nine persons from the Tea and Tai Ahom Tribes were killed inside the Assam side of the border allegedly by armed Nagas from Nagaland. The miscreants torched over 200 houses across seven border villages after which over 10,000 people fled to Urmianghat.

    The Assam-Nagaland border is disputed since Nagaland achieved statehood in 1963. The disputed land is claimed by private individuals and communities on both sides of the official border based on historical rights in the absence of bona fide documents. In spite of the Supreme Court’s intervention, the dispute remains unresolved with an interim agreement between Assam and Nagaland to place the disputed border areas under the control of a neutral Central Police force. The border area of these latest incidents, a small part of the larger Disturbed Area Belt (DAB), is roughly the size of 12 football fields in the Dhansiri subdivision, Golaghat District and is officially inside Assam and owned by the government’s Forest Department. So while the Assam Chief Minister has blamed the central government and its forces for failing to contain the violence, the Centre claims it could only assist the state government responsible for policing.

    Genesis of the latest violence

    Not as much reported were earlier incidents of arson and violence in the contiguous areas inside Nagaland, which was the prologue to later escalated events. Bordering the affected areas in Assam is the Ralan circle in Wokha district of Nagaland inhabited by the Lotha Naga ethnic group. According to reports, members of the Tea Tribes from neighbouring Assam migrated to settle in areas several years ago around Chandalashung B Lotha Village after signing official land usage agreements with the Lotha Nagas.11 Tension has been building up in villages of Ralan circle since July 25, with incidents of confrontation, house damage, kidnapping and extortion between the Tea Tribes and the Lotha Nagas.

    However, matters went awry when land usage disputes erupted between the two parties to the effect that on August 2, as per agreement when the Lothas were constructing a thatched house on the leased out land, hundreds of Tea Tribes armed with bows and arrows attacked the Nagas.22 In the fallout several villages in proximity inhabited by the Tea Tribes inside Nagaland were torched like Old Ralan, Chandalashung ‘A’ and ‘B’, Yangpha and Rongsu. The Tea Tribes retaliated by torching the Lotha village of Wochan with several villagers gone missing. The Lotha Hoho alleged that the Assam government was using the Tea Tribes and Muslim immigrants as human shields to encroach inside Nagaland. Interestingly, Thomas Lotha, Parliamentary Secretary for Border Affairs, who visited the affected area, stated that “Nagas will think ten time times before fighting with the indigenous Assamese as they consider Ahoms as their elder brother. But it is the landless migrants backed by Maoists groups and anti-social elements who are creating situation in the area and try to sow enmity among Nagas and Assamese”.33

    The Assam-Nagaland border dispute had grabbed world attention with the infamous Merapani battle and the unique quixotic distinction of the states’ police forces fighting each other in 1985.44 The DAB is the territory lying inside the current boundaries of Assam but claimed by Nagaland. The Nagas base their claims on the Ahom kingdom when these areas were historically inhabited by the Nagas but later annexed into Assam administrative districts by the British rulers. With a historical spate of violent incidents along the current Assam-Nagaland border involving both civilians and state police, the past comes back to haunt, time and again. In 2007, ironically in August, functionaries of the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) issued a threat to forcefully march into Nagaland on August 8 and destroy the Nagaland Police check post at Tsutapela on the Mariani-Mokokchung road near the border town of Mariani in Assam. In July, 2007, some Naga villagers had raided three villages near Geleki in Sivasagar district of Assam, killing two residents and torching several houses. The incident had provoked the AASU to call for an economic blockade on Nagaland.5

    These repeated incidents of border trouble and deaths bring into sharp focus the lack of serious border law enforcement. As in 2007, when AASU threatened to march into Mokukchung, Ao villagers of the bordering Tzurang valley in Nagaland readied themselves for a bloody battle with the AASU armed with machetes, spears, and firearms. Mokokchung town witnessed simmering tension with several hundred armed people gathering around the Ao Senden office (Ao local head). Many resorted to blank firing in order to pressurize the Ao Senden president, Temjenkaba, a lawyer by profession, to give them the go ahead to march to the Tsutapela police outpost to violently resist the AASU across the border. Thankfully, the Sendem refused to resort to such an extreme step, before giving the Mokokchung and Jorhat district administrations a chance to prevent the crisis.

    It is, therefore, critical that we do four important policy interventions fast. First, fast-track and resolve the disputed Assam-Nagaland border. Second, create specific list of land records and strengthen local administrative mechanisms that deal with land disputes. Third, involve local social and tribal councils; the significance of tribal councils acting as facilitators and disabling violent response was starkly visible in the role played by the Ao Senden in 2007. Fourth, disarm armed groups on both sides of the border. So long the state fails to enjoy monopoly over organized violence in these vulnerable areas; violence will continue to raise its ugly head.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India