Border Disputes and Violence in the North East: Thinking Beyond Binaries

Border Disputes and Violence in the North East: Thinking Beyond Binaries

Bridge crossing the Umsiang River, border between the states of Assam and Meghalaya | Alamy

After the firing amidst clashes at the Assam-Mizoram border where 6 police personnel of Assam were killed and several others injured, we see a conscious attempt by vested interests to whip up communal passions, within the region and across the country. Opinions are clearly divided based on locality and community identities. 

If you are a non-tribal person in Assam or in any other part of India, you tend to believe that the violence on the Assam-Mizoram border is because the hill states in the North East are predominantly Christian and are peopled by anti-nationals who do not believe in the Constitution of India. On the other hand, if you belong to an indigenous tribe from any of the hill states of the North East, you assume that Assam is against the tribal states and the people from the plains of Assam, especially the so-called Bangladeshis, are trying to devour your land. Hence the only way to protect your land is to organize on community lines and take up arms against the potential land grabbers.

I view both these perspectives as biased and ill-informed.

Fortunately, I have worked in Assam as well as in Meghalaya. While in Silchar, I did observe provincial Bengali nationalism directed primarily against the Government of Assam, but I did not get the impression that the people in the Barak Valley of Assam were as a whole are against the tribals or other nationalities. Several tribal and non-tribal communities coexist in the Barak valley, and ethnic clashes between them are rare. The Barak Valley people are the victims of Partition. Following the Sylhet Referendum of 1947, several Bengali Hindus from the then East Pakistan migrated to and settled in the Barak Valley in the first three decades after Independence. But in recent decades one hardly finds Bangladeshis coming in large numbers into the Valley. As such, there is no truth in the rhetoric that Assam is trying to grab tribal lands for accommodating illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

Similarly, there is no substance in the vicious campaign going on in the national media and social media, painting all hill tribals of the North East as anti-nationals and insurgents, and that this violence in the hills is because of the growth of Christianity, or because of the special provisions contained in Article 371 of the Constitution. The Mizo Hills saw insurgency during the mid-1960s and the 1970s, but it had nothing to do with Christianity. Barring the Nagas, most hill communities in the North East voluntarily accepted to be a part of the Indian Union. The constitutional guarantees given to some of the hill areas are a recognition of the historic specificity of the hill communities, and not because of any “appeasement policy” of Nehru, or the Congress Party. The hill states like Mizoram and Meghalaya are among the most peaceful states in India today. Over the years, most Nagas realize the need to be part of India. Although one sees occasional inter-ethnic tensions in the hill states, there is no substance in the campaign that the non-tribals in the hill states are insecure and are the passive victims of reverse racism. Over the years, the hill states have witnessed the rise of rational voices who respect ethnic differences and advocate the need for peaceful coexistence of different communities.

Differing notions of land rights

If so, why do we see border clashes every now and then between Assam and the bordering hill states? The answer, I think, lies in differing perceptions of territorial borders and land rights. The people in the plain areas of Assam, which was under the direct rule of the British earlier and then became a part of the Indian Union, subscribe to a legalistic and civic conception of land and territorial borders. They view land rights in terms of the rights of the State, or as individual property rights. In contrast, the hill communities, which were left almost unadministered during the British rule, and continued to enjoy some legal immunities look at the issue of land and territory from the community perspective. For them the land does not belong to the State or even to the individual, but to the clans and communities to which they belong. Even if the land is cultivated by individual families, they cannot part with it to the State or to any outsiders without the consent of the community. The borders governments draw on the map make little sense to the communities of the North East if they contradict their community perceptions.

When we have such diverse conceptions of the idea of territorial borders and land rights, there are bound to be differences. But how do we resolve these differences? One may condemn the Mizo for the firing on the Assam-Mizoram border, but one should also ask if in the first instance there was a need to send a big police contingent to the area? Was it necessary to send the armed police to deal with the Mizo peasants? If the Mizo had transgressed into the territory of Assam, the Assam government could have brought it to the notice of Mizo government and settled the matter through negotiation and mutual cooperation, with the representatives of the border communities on both sides of the Assam-Mizoram border. If the governments and the state leaders had shown maturity, this firing and the death of the police could have been avoided.

Communalisation of passions

What happened was terrible, what followed was worse. Instead of dousing passions, governments and politicians started supporting their respective police / people’s actions, and began to accuse the other party. People started identifying themselves with the police, governments and politicians of their states, and began to take a communal stand against the other. The regional and national media, most of them with their biased understanding of the region, entered the fray and added fuel to the fire. Taking this as an opportunity, some national jingoists and communal forces in the country have started campaigning for the abolition of Article 371, the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (which empowers the states of the North East to constitute autonomous development councils to protect the rights of tribals) and the Inner Line Permit, and began appealing to the prime minister to deal with the hill states in the same way as he and his party had dealt with Kashmir in 2019. Without understanding the wider implications, some tribal activists in the region have also started defending and advocating violence to settle differences with Assam.

It is time the people of the states in the North East rise above communal and regional passions. In the long run, they do not serve the interests of any peoples—tribal, or non-tribal. The idea of teaching a lesson to the other would take us nowhere. The use or the threat of use of force on both sides should be avoided. It is time we realize that the lives of the people of the North East are interconnected, and all of them are in some ways linked to other states within the region and also to the people outside the region. Hence, while it is good to think of protecting immediate local interests, it is also necessary to develop a wider perspective to look at the border problems and issues. We should not blindly trust and support governments, politicians, parties and the media, for they have their own interests and compulsions. Let us hope the irrational passions subside and the people of the North East realize their common interests and destiny; resolve their differences through negotiations, and work unitedly for a better future.

H. Srikanth

The article was originally published in The Shillong Times on 2 August, 2021 and is being re-published here with the permission of the author.

H. Srikanth is Professor in the Political Science Department, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. 

H. Srikanth
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