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Border Dispute In Northeast India: There Is No Winner In Fight For Land


Nov 4, 2011
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Border Dispute In Northeast India: There Is No Winner In Fight For Land​

Almost all the states of Northeast India are having a certain degree of conflict with their neighbouring state or states as far as borders are concerned. Assam is the state having border disputes with the maximum number of states because four states were carved out of it post Independence.

Syeda Ambia Zahan
UPDATED: 13 DEC 2022 8:54 AM


5 Assam Cops Killed, More Than 60 Injured In Violent Clash With Mizoram

In November this year, a few days before a dialogue slated to be held between the government of Assam and Meghalaya regarding the border dispute between the two states, six people were killed in police action, five of whom were allegedly trying to smuggle timber from Assam crossing the territorial limits of Meghalaya. The Murkoh village where the violence took place was situated near one of the 12 contested sites in West Jaintia Hills districts of Meghalaya, which both the states claim as their own.

Almost all the states of NE India are having a certain degree of conflict with their neighbouring state or states as far as borders are concerned. Assam is the state having border disputes with the maximum number of states because four of the eight states of NE India were carved out of it post Independence. Barring the princely states of Manipur and Tripura, Assam is having border issues with Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. According to Assam Assembly records, the total area of border disputes with all four states is around 690 sq km.

While talks are on for solving these disputes with all of these states at some level, repeated incidents of violence in the middle of it halts the process before it can be concluded with an amicable solution.

The recent clash

The most recent incident of border violence leading to the killing of six people near a disputed stretch in the Assam-Meghalaya border in November disrupted the ongoing border talks between the two states.

Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1970 as an autonomous state later and it gained statehood in 1972. The demarcation of the boundaries of Meghalaya is based on the recommendation of a 1951 committee instituted to define the Assam-Meghalaya border by Gopinath Borddoi, the then Chief Minister of undivided Assam. Later these recommendations were incorporated in the Assam Reorganisation Act 1969, a basis for the border demarcation of states with Assam.

As per the recommendations, areas of the present-day East Jaintia Hills, Ri-Bhoi, West Khasi Hills districts and Garo Hills of Meghalaya were transferred to the Karbi Anglong, Kamrup (metro) Goalpara and Kamrup districts of Assam.

However, Meghalaya rejected these transfers after attaining statehood claiming that they belonged to its tribal chieftains. 12 stretches --- Upper Tarabari, Gazang reserve forest, Hahim, Langpih, Borduar, Boklapara, Nongwah, Matamur, Khanapara-Pilangkata, Deshdemoreah Block I and Block II, Khanduli and Retacherra became the bone of contention between the two states where the communities living alongside often found themselves in conflict.

According to Patricia Mukhim, a senior journalist from Shillong, the Autonomous State of Meghalaya was formed without any deliberation on its boundaries.

"The boundaries are defined in Section 3 of the Act unilaterally and arbitrarily by the then Union Government and certainly on the guidance of the then Assamese government without consulting the people or the traditional heads of local tribal areas known as the Khasi Himas or states (Syiemships, Lyngdohships, and Sirdarships), the Dolloiships (in Jaintia Hills) and Nokmas (in Garos Hills) and not the three Autonomous District Councils," she told Outlook.

Mukhim claimed that the three tribal states i.e Himas and Dolloiships in Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Nokmaships in Garo Hills extended beyond the boundaries unilaterally demarcated by the imperial British Raj excluding most of the flat lands all along the foothills in all directions for its own commercial interests and to serve its purpose of revenue administration and collection.

The village of Murkoh, where the recent violence took place, falls near one of the unsolved border points. While Meghalaya claims to be a part of West Jaintia Hills, Assam claims that it falls in the West Karbi Anglong district. The Jaintias, one of the hill tribes living on the Meghalaya side have been claiming this territory as their traditional homeland.

Uncertainty over border talks

Border talks between the two states got a renewed pace with Assam having a BJP-led government and Meghalaya having an alliance government with BJP as a partner. Negotiations started after a gap of 36 years since the last talks held in 1985 to solve the five decades-old border disputes in July 2021. It resulted in a joint recommendation by both states to resolve the issue peacefully. On March 29, a pact was signed between the Assam Government and Meghalaya in presence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah on what was termed a “Historic Day.”

With the pact, six out of 12 disputed areas --- Hahim, Gizang, Tarabari, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pilingkata, Ratacherra-have been settled between the states through the ‘five-phase approach’ that involved exchanging records, joint field visits, detailed deliberation, and negotiation before making a final recommendation.

In September, the Meghalaya government constituted three regional committees to examine and submit reports on the present status of the remaining six areas of dispute within 45 days.

However, uncertainty looms over the future of the Assam- Meghalaya border talks, the second round of which was supposed to happen in the last week of November a few days after the clash. Notably, border talks are a contentious issue for the state of Meghalaya given the coming Assembly polls.

“The situation (for border talks) is slightly complicated and we may not be able to go forward immediately. It could get delayed,” Sangma said.

However his Assam counterpart Himanta Biswa Sarma has expressed willingness to resolve the disputes at the earliest.

“We will ensure that the border issue, which is the crux of all tensions building up, is resolved at the earliest. We will take all steps to ensure that such an incident (Murkoh firing) does not reoccur,” Sarma said.

Notably, villagers of Meghalaya living along the disputed sites of the boundary with Assam and pressure groups, fearing their inclusion in Assam from Meghalaya led a series of protests since March when the states signed a boundary pact to resolve the disputes. Tribal groups of Assam also protested against the pact for the same reason.

A similar situation arises in 1985 too when a committee headed by retired Chief justice of India YV Chandrachud awarded Langpih, a village located near the border of the West Khasi Hills district and Assam to the latter.

Notably, one of the major complaints the affected communities have been making is that they are not involved in the negotiation process. Further tribes on both sides are reluctant to change their state for fear of becoming a minority in the new address. In the current pact, many areas will be exchanged between Assam and Meghalaya which is a cause of concern among the communities living on either side of the border.

“The former Hon’ble Governor of Meghalaya, Shri Satya Pal Malik was right when he commented that the boundaries could have been resolved at the time of the creation of the new State. It was not possible because the then Assamese government had taken an elder-brother attitude and ignored the rights of the people of Meghalaya; Assam would rather impose on these indigenous institutions as already remarked above,” Mukhim told Outlook.

The politics of violence

The Murkoh violence has taken a political turn with opposition and pressure groups finding an opportunity to topple the Conrad Sagma-led National People’s Party government in Meghalaya that goes to polls early next year.

The Trinamool Congress, a new entrant in Meghalaya politics which is going to fight the assembly polls, blames Sangma for “failing its own people”. Notably, the Mamata Banerjee-led party has been successful in roping in many veteran Congress leaders including former CM Mukul Sangma, a major competition to Conrad Sangma. Right after the violence, TMC leader and MP Abhisekh Banerjee blamed Sangma for “allowing Himanta Biswa Sarma to take the people of Meghalaya for granted.” Its newly inducted leader Mukul Sangma while terming the incident an act perpetrated by the government authorities, condemns Sangma for shutting down the internet after the incident.

“The government gave a knee-jerk reaction by shutting down the internet. During my tenure, not even on a single occasion did we shut down the internet in the name of restoring order, peace, and law. This is a reflection of a bankruptcy of ideas.” he said.

Notably, 86 per cent of Meghalaya’s population consists of a tribal population- the vote bank that BJP and TMC both have their eyes on.

The Congress, which ruled the state for most of the time since its first Assembly polls in 1972, demanded the cabinet of Sangma resign.

Congress working president PN Syiem said that the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance Government led by Sangma should resign to pave way for a new government which is committed to protecting the citizens of the state, especially those residing along the inter-state border with Assam.

“We have unanimously resolved to demand the chief minister and his council of ministers to take responsibility by resigning and let others who can lead the MDA government take the decision to protect the people along the inter-state border with Assam," he said.

The Meghalaya government was also blamed for not taking police action against the violence upon the non-tribal population in the state after the firing incident.

The Assam Congress has also alleged the Murkoh violence as a "deliberate incident" and claimed to the media that chief ministers of both the states were aware of it. It also went on to claim that Sarma wanted to give Assam land to Meghalaya.

Though the pact between Assam and Meghalaya sets the stage for border negotiations with other disputed states, the complex nature of the conflict demands more than just a give-and-take approach.

Dhiren A. Sadokpam, an independent researcher and senior journalist from Manipur feels that In the so-called post-colonial era, the tradition of colonial politics lingered on. Even if those who took over ushered and steered the country in a democratic order, their approach was hindered by either total ignorance of the political territories or a state of dormancy caused by years of indifference to the issues. He vows a boundary commission to solve all the border disputes among the states of the Northeast once and for all.

“Why has it been very difficult to constitute boundary commissions to arbitrate over border issues? We know there were differences in the official stands of territorial limits of each state and the issues will continue to haunt all till they are resolved. If the Government of India wishes to settle the border issues once and for all, there should be a serious approach to taking all stakeholders on board," he said.


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