The horrific border clash between the police personnel of Assam and Mizoram that left several policemen dead has exposed the chinks in the BJP’s much-touted strategy of forging unity among the northeastern States. The resurgence of tensions comes as a major test for Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also convenor of the BJP-led Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and a crisis manager for the saffron party in the volatile region. The acrimonious public spat between him and his Mizoram counterpart Zoramthanga had further fuelled emotions on both sides at a time when tension was brewing in the disputed area since October last year marked by sporadic incidents of violence and clashes. Incidentally, the ruling parties of all the northeastern States are NEDA constituents and should have forged a better understanding to deescalate the crisis. The border disputes and Assam’s overzealous policy of banning inter-State cattle transportation are threatening to upset the BJP’s expansion plans in the region. The border friction between the two States, a lingering colonial legacy, needs to be addressed with political maturity, fairness, and mutual accommodation. At the time of independence, the present States of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya were districts in Assam while Arunachal Pradesh was part of the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA), administered by the Governor of Assam, and Manipur and Tripura were princely States that merged with India only in 1949. When the Indian States were reorganised in 1956 on a linguistic basis, the Northeast region remained untouched and the new States were formed much later.
The failure to address the specific ethnic concerns and conform to the pre-independent era historic boundaries demarcated along ethnic lines has led to the festering inter-State border disputes in the region. Assam, which shares its boundary with all other northeast States, has been involved in disputes with several of its neighbours. The worst ever clash in the region took place in 1986 between the armed forces of Assam and Nagaland, leaving 41 dead. While Assam insists on adhering to the boundaries marked after independence, the States like Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya root for “historic boundaries” as their territorial jurisdiction. At the crux of the dispute over the 165-km Assam-Mizoram boundary are two border demarcations that go back to the days of British rule and there has been a bitter disagreement over which demarcation to follow. The dispute has been simmering since Mizoram became a Union Territory in 1972. The two States signed an agreement to maintain the status quo at no-man’s land set up at the boundaries. Essentially, it is a territorial dispute. Any attempt to introduce communal narrative into the discourse makes the issue more complicated. The border disputes must be resolved in an atmosphere of peace and mutual understanding.
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