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The Assam-Nagaland Border Face Off

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 17, 2007

    Come August, Assam and Nagaland breathed a sigh of relief with the heavens opening up to an extent, bringing with it much respite to the local people from recurring floods and landslide plagued roadways. But with the retreat of the heavy rains, a different if not less difficult situation has emerged. The political atmosphere in both states was charged up with tension in early August following a "war like situation" in the Assam-Nagaland border near Jorhat district in Assam and Mokokchung district in Nagaland, respectively.

    On August 5, 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. Assam and Nagaland have in the recent past contested over territory, which is further manifested by the demand of the Naga militant outfit-the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) for a greater Nagaland, encompassing areas in Assam. In July, 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. This time around, the border crisis reached a tipping point when the Ao Senden (Hoho/council) issued a statement calling upon all Ao villages in the border areas to be prepared for any eventuality and asserted its resolve to forcefully defend every inch of Ao Naga land bordering Assam. The Senden's executive council decided to field volunteers from the border district of Mokokchung and nearby villages to thwart the threatened AASU invasion. Worse still, on August 8, 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 also witnessed simmering tension with several hundred armed people gathering around the Ao Senden office. 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. But the Sendem refused to resort to such an extreme step, before giving the Mokokchung and Jorhat district administrations a chance to prevent the crisis.

    Thankfully, the situation did not spiral out of control as the five hundred AASU activists were intercepted by the Assam Police near New Sonowal border outpost before they could march to the Tsutapela outpost. The effective co-ordination between the Mokokchung and Jorhat administrations also held the situation in check. What was heartening to see was the strong resistance to the AASU's planned invasion by Assamese border villages, which univocally stated that they did not support any violent moves to resolve border differences. Villagers in Bosagaon, Panchul, Nagaon and New Sonowal came out in large numbers to prevent the AASU from marching to the outpost. They demanded that the AASU honour its March 22, 2004 Merapani joint declaration with the Naga Students' Federation (NSF), which supported a resolution of border disputes through a people to people approach. This position had been reinstated by the two student units on July 14, 2007 in a meeting at Guwahati. The restraint shown by the Assamese villages was duly appreciated by the NSF in a statement issued by its President, Imchatoba Imchen, on August 9 in Dimapur.

    The question however arises as to why the AASU issued a threat of invasion in early August despite having stated its commitment to the joint declaration a month earlier. Lurking behind this unwarranted step by the AASU is a devious strategy of provocation of a violent clash between the Naga and Assamese border villages, which have witnessed harmonious relations for centuries, in order to gain political leverage. Such provocations are worrisome and beset with serious security implications. Similar border disputes between the two hill districts of Assam, namely Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, in the 1980s and 1990s, which had resulted in non-violent youth mobilization, have at present spiralled into full fledged insurgencies like the United People's Democratic Solidarity and the Dima Halam Daogah, with both groups soliciting support from reluctant villagers on either side of the ethnic aisle by show of force.

    Reactions in Naga villages to the AASU's threat are telling in this regard. Their violent responses could be easily manipulated by militant groups like the NSCN (IM), the NSCN (K) and the United Liberation Front of Asom to foment a violent border dispute in future. It cannot also be ruled out that these outfits could be behind the present crisis as well.

    Ironically, it is under this sort of violent pressure that the three member Local Commission on Border held a meeting with representatives from Assam and Nagaland in Dimapur on August 6 to resolve the border dispute. The Commission has requested both states to carve out maps based on the "1.50 thousand scale" of the disputed areas. The Surveyor General of India has also agreed to chip in to help expedite the process. Indeed, it is unacceptable that both state governments continue to let a contentious issue fester for decades without holding any serious border talks to resolve the crisis. Their apathy only lands the local populace in a spot. Though the current tension has subsided, this issue could again raise its ugly head and provide a breeding ground of discontent for student organizations on both sides of the border, who, given a chance, will not hesitate to overrule local sentiments and discredit the sanctity of the Border Peace Coordination Committee (BPCC) formed by Assamese and Naga civil society. The BPCC has been trying to create an atmosphere conducive to peaceful talks between the peoples on either side of the border to resolve the issue. There is every possibility that with the growing number of such potentially violent incidences under the nose of state forces, some, if not all, villages will definitely turn to militant groups for security.

    The district administrations of Mokokchung in Nagaland and Jorhat in Assam need to be applauded for performing well the task they are normally assigned to do-maintaining law and order-for a change. The Deputy Commissioners, Abhishek Singh and L. S. Sangson of Mokokchung and Jorhat respectively were proactive in keeping the local people informed and guaranteeing them security. However, one cannot help but take note of the ability of AASU activists to reach the New Sonowal border outpost (so chillingly near the threatened place of attack-the Tsutapela border outpost) on August 8 without being intercepted by the state forces. A slight misinformation could have provoked the armed Naga villagers to rush towards the Tsutapela outpost and, in the process, kill innocents villagers caught in the line of fire. Notoriously, the NSCN (K) is supposedly functioning in this area and the NSCN (IM) is also sustaining a strong covert presence. With these two militant outfits joining the fray, the entire issue could have turned into a factional turf battle--a worse case scenario but not entirely improbable. It is therefore high time that the state governments take serious note of these issues, shake off their lethargy and work out an acceptable framework for border talks without always depending on the Centre to do what is necessary.