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EXPLAINED: What British Have To Do With Assam-Mizoram Border Dispute & Why Problem Persists

amaged security force vehicle at the site of the Monday's clashes at Lailapur on the Assam-Mizoram border, in Cachar district. (PTI)

amaged security force vehicle at the site of the Monday's clashes at Lailapur on the Assam-Mizoram border, in Cachar district. (PTI)

The border dispute between Assam and Mizoram goes back to the colonial times and hinges on constitutional and historical perceptions of territorial lines

At least five Assam police personnel were killed as the dispute over the state’s border with Mizoram flared up again over allegations of encroachment. The issue has deep roots and owes to the demarcation of borders going back to colonial times and the creation of the states in India’s northeast following Independence. Here’s how the matter has festered through the decades, what is at stake for the various parties and where a search for solution points at.

What Is The Source Of The Internal Border Dispute?

As India’s British rulers expanded their footprint in the northeast at the turn of the 19th century, they used Assam as a springboard to attach portions of territory claimed by the tribes in the region. That meant that by the time of Independence, Assam comprised a wide swathe of the northeast. Eventually, four present-day states — Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh — were carved out of Assam. However, the demarcation of boundaries was not entirely to the satisfaction of the new states thus created.

The dispute is one of perceptions and politics. While the boundaries of these states were defined constitutionally as each was carved out of Assam, the discourse in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya is that they have been deprived of lands that historically belonged to them. At stake is access to resources and right to territories that no state wants to give up.

While the troubles on the Assam-Mizoram border have been accompanied by renewed violence, clashes have also been witnessed on Assam’s borders with Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Reports say that border commissions set up to address these various disputes have met with little success as these states have been reluctant to accept their recommendations, which are not binding.

How Old Are The Troubles On The Assam-Mizoram Border?

Prior to its becoming a Union Territory in 1972, Mizoram — which would subsequently be accorded the status of a separate state in 1987 — was known as Lushai Hills. It was these hills in Mizoram state, known now as Mizo Hills, that is linked with the present dispute.

As the British colonialists advanced down southern Assam’s Cachar district in their quest for lands to grow tea, they came into conflict with the Mizo tribes who regarded the Lushai Hills as their home. Violent exchanges led subsequently to the British rulers entering into agreements with the tribals to recognise their territorial claims and keeping the tribal areas out of the operation of laws for British territories in India. The colonialists also introduced what is known as the ‘Inner Line’ system by which these tribal areas were protected against infiltration by outsiders.

Discussions in the Mizoram Assembly over a resolution seeking a boundary commission to resolve the dispute with Assam, noted that while a demarcation of Cachar from the Lushai Hills agreed between the Mizo tribes and the Britishers was officially recognised in 1875. But as the colonialists added to the territory under their control in the northeast, the “map of Mizoram was redrawn (and)… the Cachar-Mizoram boundary was then dissolved” and a new demarcation was put in place in 1933. But Mizoram argues that this was done unilaterally.

Why Does Mizoram Insist On The 1875 Border?

Mizo legislators insist that the 1875 demarcation was the “only boundary drawn in consultation with our leaders (and)… is the actual boundary as it was done as per the agreement between the Mizo Chiefs and British government”. They further argue that “when boundary was drawn in 1975 we were not consulted” and, hence, it was a “forced boundary”.

What Is At Stake?

It is, therefore, the 1875 border marking out the Cachar Hills from the Lushai Hills and the 1933 notification demarcating Lushai Hills and Manipur that are at the heart of the conflict between Mizoram and Assam.

The Mizo Assembly was told that “the difference of the previous boundary of 1875 and of 1933 is 749 sq.km”. Assam and Mizoram now share a border that extends for a little over 164km and there are three Assam districts — Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi — that touch the three districts of Aizawl, Kolasib and Mamit in Mizoram.

What Can Be The Steps Towards Resolution?

Violent clashes have occurred in the past in connection with the Assam-Mizoram border dispute with reports tracing these back to as far as the 1970s. However, a major flare-up occurred in 2020 followed by clashes this year at a time when Assam has a BJP government while the party is an ally in the Mizo National Front-led government in the neighbouring state.

In a column for Financial Express, Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan says that the Centre can push for a resolution to the internal border disputes “by either persuading the concerned states to come to the negotiating table and seek a solution or by constituting a boundary commission whose recommendations would be binding on the parties involved”.

In 2014, following clashes on the state’s border with Nagaland, the then Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had told The Times Of India that “several border commissions have been set up to settle the issue with Nagaland, Arunachal and Meghalaya, but the other states have not accepted the recommendations of these panels”.

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first published:July 27, 2021, 11:49 IST