Assam-Mizoram conflict | Reopening old wounds along the border

Two British-era notifications are at the root of the Assam-Mizoram border conflict which escalated on July 26 claiming the lives of six Assam policemen. Rahul Karmakar reports on the long history of a dispute that awaits a permanent solution

The Inner Line Reserve Forest runs along the 146.6-km Assam-Mizoram border. Not clearly demarcated, it separates the Aizawl, Kolasib and Mamit districts of Mizoram from the Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts of Assam. About 300 Mizo families — all residents of Mizoram’s border town Vairengte — have broomstick or areca nut plantations in the hilly Aitlang, which Mizoram claims is in Kolasib district. Assam claims it is in Hailakandi district and has periodically been evicting Mizo “encroachers”.

 

The last time Lalchhandama and a few others lost their broomstick plantations to such an eviction drive was about 10 years ago. “We would wait for things to cool down in a few days and reclaim our land,” he said. But he had a bad feeling when fellow cultivator Darthanzaua narrated how the officials from Assam were more organised than ever before during the eviction drive on June 29. Apart from destroying the plantations of 18 families, the Assam police set up camps in the vicinity in no time. “I switched to areca nut on my 1.5-hectare land two years ago. I am not sure if I will get back my land this time, let alone start cultivation again,” he said.

Disrupting life

Aitlang is aerially about 5-km west of Auto Stand on National Highway 306, Mizoram’s lifeline, where the conflict took place in July. The Auto Stand, almost midway between Vairengte and Assam’s Lailapur town where three-wheelers from both the States terminate, is now a Mizoram police checkpoint. In the 4-km stretch of the highway between the Mizoram police checkpoint and the Assam police barricade at Lailapur are two barriers, about 100 metres apart, each manned by a unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The CRPF units have been stationed as a neutral force at violence-prone spots along the inter-State border after the July 26 incident. The CRPF replaced the Border Security Force and the Sashastra Seema Bal which were deployed after arson and violence on October 17, 2020, under the operational control of the Mizoram police and the Assam police, respectively.

About 10-km east of Lailapur, Riyazuddin Laskar is more worried than relieved by an instruction from local authorities in Assam to stop paying ‘tax’ to his Mizo landowner. Laskar, a Bengali Muslim, has been residing for more than a decade on the farmland Laltimliana claims he owns in the disputed stretch of the volatile inter-State border.

Laltimliana’s thatched house is the last civilian structure in the Assam-controlled territory at Dholakhal Kulicherra Forest Village, referred to as Saihapui V in Mizoram, near the ‘line of control’ – the Kalakhal stream – flanked by temporary camps of the CRPF.

Laltimliana’s house is about 500-metres north of his tenant Laskar’s, in the Mizoram-controlled part of Saihapui V, beyond three layers of security – two of CRPF on either side of the culvert and a unit of the Indian Reserve Battalion inside the Mizoram-controlled territory. The ‘V’ stands for Vairengte.

Laskar, like most Assam-based contract farmers on ‘Mizo-owned land’ along the inter-State border, had struck an annual deal with Laltimliana. This entailed handing over 80 maunds of rice as ‘tax’ to Laltimliana in lieu of staying and farming on his land. A maund in the border areas equals 30 kg, almost eight kg less than the measure elsewhere in Assam. The contract farmers subsist by growing three crops a year, usually keeping the yield of two crops for their own consumption or for selling in the local markets. “I have not paid tax to my landowner this year. But I am worried this could be the end of my farming in this area and of years of association with the Mizo landowners,” Laskar said. Laltimliana is the second Mizo landowner Laskar has worked with.

Radheshyam Chauhan and Ramlal Chauhan of Frenchnagar, west of Dholakhal Kulicherra, face a similar dilemma. They have not been to work on the paddy fields, fish ponds, areca nut and broomstick plantations in the adjoining Mizo-controlled Paglachhara. The ‘border’ here starts where a road ends about 100 ft from the elevated Frenchnagar Khasiapunji LP School, now a camp of the Assam police commandos.

The camp set up after the July 26 incident has forced Bijon Malakar and his family to spend their nights at home. Their house adjoins the school. “We used to send our women, children and the elderly away to spend the nights at the house of relatives since the border violence started in October 2020. The fear of attacks increased after Intaz Ali, a firewood collector from Lailapur, was killed in Mizoram 10 months ago. Intaz invariably took the road beside this school,” he said.

Blood notice

A series of wooded low hills with patches of plantations and small valleys characterise the inter-State boundary. The Kulicherra area has four forest villages – Phainum, Upper Phainum, Buarchep and Saihapui V – marked as Cachar’s ‘Mizo section’. The four villages have about 600 people listed as voters in both Assam and Mizoram. Locals said the road and the Bengali-medium Upper Phainuam LP School bombed in October 2020 were built by the Assam government while Mizoram provided electricity and water supply.

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“Whatever is our status on paper, we are emotionally, ethnically and culturally with Mizoram. We hope the Assam government will give back the land our forefathers have been occupying since 1925. What will Assam gain by robbing us of our land and livelihood as well as depriving their contract farmers caught in no man’s land,” Samuel-a, the son of Laskar’s landlord Laltimliana asked.

It is not a question of taking or ceding land but of a violation of the Supreme Court’s 1996 order banning the felling of trees and non-forestry activities in forests across the country, officials in Assam said. “The law is absolutely clear. Irrespective of status and ownership, there cannot be any non-forestry activities in forest areas. And they (Mizoram) have over the years built permanent structures, thereby breaking up the land,” Jatindra Sarma, Southern Assam Circle’s Chief Conservator of Forests, said.

Records of the Assam Forest Department show that the encroachment on the Inner-Line Reserve Forest started in 1985, two years before Mizoram was upgraded from a Union Territory to a State.

“The incident of encroachment first recorded was during November 1985 when a portion of Kalaland and Shantipur area inside Singla Reserve Forest (part of the Assam-Mizoram border in Karimganj district) was occupied with the help of the armed forces of Mizoram. Gradually, they encroached a total of 75 ha clearing natural vegetation and practising jhum (slash-and-burn cultivation on hill slopes) and cash crop plantation,” a report prepared by the Forest Department on July 5 said.

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Officials said some farmers in Assam showed the Mizos the way to encroach the forest. These farmers came up with the idea of contract farming, replacing the trees with plantation crops that ensured them a steady income.

Unlike the border forests of Karimganj and Hailakandi districts, the Cachar Division was relatively free from encroachment until October 17, 2020, the Forest Department report said. That day, “three temporary bamboo shops on NH-306 were burnt down by miscreants from Vairengte”, leading to a law-and-order problem in the border areas. “Mizoram police accompanied by IR Battalion of more than 30 armed personnel entered Inner Line Reserve Forest and constructed a temporary post at Kulicherra Forest Village,” the report said.

Manoj Kumar Singha, the beat officer at the Lailapur Forest Beat House, the last Assam government structure on the edge of the de facto boundary, said the Mizoram authorities had used the COVID-19 situation to grab Assam’s land inch by inch. “Almost every day, our men on patrol saw them advance the testing centre for incoming passengers towards Assam. Whenever we objected, they would say it was a temporary set-up to be removed,” he said.

Before long, Mizoram set up a police outpost atop Rengtilila, a mound beside the Auto Stand that had been cleared of an illegal plantation a few days ago, Singha said.

A notice that was to have been served to the Mizoram authorities for removal of the outpost led to the July 26 incident. “We had registered a case against several Mizoram officials under various sections of the Assam Forest Regulation such as trespassing and encroachment. Based on that, we went to serve them the notice to come to our office on a specified date and give a written explanation. They refused to accept the notice and then all hell broke loose,” Sunnydeo Choudhury, the Divisional Forest Officer said. He was transferred out of Cachar Division after the incident.

Assam police officials said the attack on them appeared to have been planned. “The Mizoram officials became aggressive and in no time, a large crowd gathered firing air gun pellets and throwing stones. We fired a few teargas shells to disperse the mob before the Mizoram police started firing from behind bunkers on higher ground,” a senior Assam police officer who received an air gun injury said. He said the Assam police retaliated after 20 minutes of firing from the other side only to evacuate their dead and the injured. “We never thought a normal notice to people occupying our own land could cause such bloodshed,” he added.

According to the Mizoram government, the Assam police’s version of the incident is a web of lies. “Why would 200 officials and policemen come trooping here if not to create trouble? They started the firing that led to the unfortunate incident on our territory. We are pained by the loss of lives because of the provocation,” the State’s Home Minister Lalchamliana said.

The killing of six policemen led to a 13-day economic blockade on Mizoram that was lifted after senior Assam ministers negotiated with the Lailapur locals in Assam and promised justice for the slain policemen.

Bangladeshi bogey

Border conflicts became a fairly regular feature from the mid-1990s. Silchar-based historical researcher Sanjib Deb Laskar said the conflicts intensified after the BJP-helmed North-East Democratic Alliance stirred sub-nationalism across the Northeast. The incidents took a serious turn after the Centre’s push for settling Assam’s border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland ahead of the celebration of India’s 75th year of Independence.

Mizoram Police personnel stand near an Assam Police vehicle which was burnt down by Mizo protesters between Lailapur and Vairengte.  | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

 

Two British-era notifications are at the root of the Assam-Mizoram border conflict. One was derived in 1875 from the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873, which prescribes a permit for Indians beyond Mizoram to enter the territory. Mizoram follows this while Assam swears by the ‘constitutional boundary’ decided in 1972 (when the Lushai Hills district of Assam became the Union Territory of Mizoram), based on a 1933 notification. Mizo leaders say the 1933 notification is not acceptable as their ancestors had not been consulted. Assam leaders reject this argument since the scenario, they say, was similar during the 1875 notification.

“When the Mizo Peace Accord (with the extremist Mizo National Front that became a political party now ruling Mizoram) was signed in 1986, the boundary of 1933 was agreed to be made Mizoram’s boundary,” Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said.

Political experts in Mizoram said the Constitution of India does not explain the constitutional boundary. “The Mizos have lived under a colonial wrong and our leaders have time and again said the only acceptable boundary is the 1875 notification since the voices of our leaders seeking re-organisation of the Mizo-inhabited areas were never heard,” Aizawl-based college teacher and member of Mizoram’s boundary committee, Joseph Lalfakzuala, said.

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Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga said Assam was trying to grab its land for settling ‘Bangladeshi migrants’ in Barak Valley. This seemed to have gained traction in the Northeast, especially with the BJP seen as eyeing the land of neighbouring States to settle Hindu Bengalis under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The Congress was earlier accused of using Bengali Muslims as a buffer in the disputed belt.

Deb Laskar contested this theory. “The Bengali Hindus and Muslims living in areas near Mizoram are agriculturists of Sylhet (in Bangladesh) origin settled since 1650. The contract farmers on land claimed by the Mizos are not locals, but are from other parts of Barak Valley. In contrast, many Mizos came from eastern Asia in the 1800s and tribesmen would often raid areas up to Silchar. One must remember these raiders were the reason why the British raised the Cachar Levy in 1835, which became the paramilitary Assam Rifles later on,” he said.

“The bogey of Bangladeshi comes up when all arguments fail in the Northeast. No one in Lailapur or adjoining areas has been left out of the National Register of Citizens. We have been demanding a similar exercise in Mizoram to find out how many are domicile Mizos and how many are migrants from Myanmar,” Lailapur-based social worker Abul Hussain Barbhuiya said.

The indigeneity of the Mizos can never be in doubt, said Famkima, the chairman of the joint council of four villages that comprise Vairengte town. “Mizos are not encroachers too because the land always belonged to us. In fact, the old maps show our territory is as far as Dhalai (between Vairengte and Silchar). If Assam wants to remove the encroachment, they should start with those occupying our land in the plains of Barak Valley that should have been ours. In football terms, Assam has scored an offside goal because of the adventurism of its Chief Minister and it is the duty of the Centre to don the role of a fair referee,” he said. Dhalai is the constituency of Assam Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya, a BJP veteran and a key player in the Assam Forest Department’s bid to reclaim “encroached” forests along the border.

Solving conflict

But he agreed Mizos and Bengalis and other communities in Assam cannot live in conflict forever. “We have a history of interdependence, and the sooner the boundary issue is resolved, the better for us,” he said.

“The boundary issue should have been resolved in 1947 but we cannot keep on complaining. The give-and-take policy that Assam and Meghalaya are pursuing can be a way forward for the vague Assam-Mizoram border too. How long can two sister States keep on reopening old wounds? Our job is to recommend, and a solution requires political will from both sides,” Lalfakzuala said.

He recalled how Assam rejected a Supreme Court-appointed commission’s report that prescribed transferring 70% of the disputed land to Arunachal Pradesh while accepting another panel’s report that advised Meghalaya to hand over a disputed village to Assam. Similarly, both Assam and Nagaland rejected the recommendations of two panels to settle their border disputes that have killed 136 people since 1979.

Assam’s Urban Development Minister Ashok Singhal, who along with Border Affairs Minister Atul Bora had met their Mizoram counterparts for easing the boundary tension, said the boundary should be properly demarcated and the Mizoram government should propose a mechanism for that.

“The Reserve Forest cannot be encroached by either side, and there should be a proper investigation of the July 26 incident. Those guilty must be punished for the boundary issue to be resolved since policemen have died and people in Assam are emotionally charged,” Singhal, also Cachar’s ‘guardian minister’, said.

The angst is apparent at the 6th Assam Police Battalion at Jayfarpur near Silchar. Forty-nine-year-old Shyamsundar Dushad, one of the policemen killed, was a havildar attached to this battalion. “We received ₹50 lakh from the government as compensation. But this is not the justice we seek. Whatever may be the trigger, they committed a crime and should be tried as criminals,” said his widow, Lakshmi Dushad.

“The dead policemen were not Bangladeshis, were they? In a region of diverse communities, we want peace for normal life and a non-militarised boundary. But I hope the killing is not forgotten like the excesses committed by extremist groups after they come to the mainstream,” Barbhuiya said. His reference was to the Mizo National Front which has been ruling Mizoram since December 2018.

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