The 26th of July will go down as a turning point in the history of India’s interstate relations; five policemen lost their lives, and many were injured as a result of police firing between Assam and Mizoram.
Border disputes are not uncommon, but it is the warlike confrontation between police personnel of the same country that is regretful and alarming.
The run-up to the incident and the question of who is responsible is a mystery, the answer to which will vary depending on who is asked.
That Mizoram sticks to the inner line of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873 while Assam clings to the 1933 inner line has been a bone of contention between the two states for quite a while now. A day after the incident, a press release by the Assam Government stated that Mizoram started constructing a road by destroying a forest reserve and set up a police camp in Lailapur, Cachar District, Assam.
The release added that a team of Assam officials had visited the place to request the Mizoram authorities to maintain the status quo but were attacked by miscreants and visibly supported by Mizoram police, who would later open fire at Assam police using automatics and light machine guns thereby killing five Assam police personnel on the spot.
A press statement by the Mizoram Government refuted Assam’s claim by stating, “Around 200 (two hundred) Assam armed Police led by IGP, Assam Police accompanied by DC, Cachar, SP, Cachar, and DFO, Cachar came to Vairengte Auto-rickshaw stand at around 11:30 a.m. today i.e., 26.07.2021.
They forcibly crossed the duty post manned by CRPF personnel stationed there and overran a duty post manned by 1 (one) section of Mizoram police personnel.
The Assam Police also damaged several vehicles that were travelling along the National Highway between Vairengte and Lailapur.” The statement by the Mizoram Home minister further stated that unarmed civilians were assaulted and lathi-charged and tear-gas was used by Assam Police to which Mizoram police responded.
“The Government of Mizoram strongly condemns the unjustified act of the Government of Assam in this intrusion and aggression into the territory of Mizoram,” the statement added.
A day after ordering the checking of all vehicles originating from Mizoram to Assam for possession of illicit drugs, travel advisories were issued by Assam Government on the 30 July.
“The people of Assam are advised not to travel to Mizoram as any threat to the personal safety of people cannot be accepted,” the directive said.
The Mizoram Government on the other hand issued an order stating that during the last 10 years, huge quantities of illicit drugs have been seized in Mizoram which were smuggled from Assam.
It added, “The issue of drugs trafficking can be better solved by better communication between the states and flow of drugs can be better halted by co-ordination between district police on the opposing borders instead of threatening and harassing innocent civilians without any reasons at all.”
“Shri @AmitShah ji…kindly look into the matter. This needs to be stopped right now,” tweeted Mr. Zoramthanga, Chief Minister of Mizoram, as he shared a video of what appeared to be an altercation between a group of civilians and police personnel. He also shared footage of a Mizo couple being allegedly harassed and their vehicle vandalised. Assam Chief Minister quickly retorted by tweeting: Honble @ZoramthangaCM ji , Kolasib (Mizoram) SP is asking us to withdraw from our post until then their civilians won’t listen nor stop violence. How can we run government in such circumstances? Hope you will intervene at earliest @AmitShah @PMOIndia”.
A series of tweets from both the CMs continued, each justifying the acts of their police personnel and each accusing the other of violating norms. Thousands of users reacted to the tweets, which further increased the hype on social media so much so that hashtags such as #AssamShotFirst #ShameOnAssam #ShameOnMizoram were trending on Twitter.
Even as the war of words between Assam and Mizoram refused to die down, the Assam Police has summoned the Mizoram SP and six officials.
The notice issued by DSP Kalyan Das was served to Kolasib Deputy Commissioner H Lalthlangliana, SP Vanlalfaka Ralte, Additional SP David JB, Vairengte SDO (Civil) C Lalrempuia, Vairengte SDPO Thartea Hrangchal, and India Reserve Battalion Additional SP Bruce Kibby. The notices asked them to appear before the Dholai police station Investigating Officer on August 2.
Mizoram responded by revealing that an FIR was lodged on 26 July at Vairengte Police Station. The FIR named Sarma IGP Anurag Aggarwal, DIG Cachar Devajyoti Mukherjee, DC Cachar Keerthi Jalli, DFO Cachar Sunnydeo Choudhury, SP Cachar Chandrakant Nimbalkar and OC Dholai police station Sahab Uddin.
They have been ordered to appear at Vairengte Police station in Mizoram. But later, in what could be termed as a huge development for the improvement of relations, both states decided to drop all FIRs registered with regard to the incident of 26 July.
The Assam- Mizoram border dispute has the grave potential of disintegrating the cohesive regional relationship politically, socially, and economically harboured by states for long. Border disputes have emerged between Assam and Meghalaya and Assam and Nagaland. The Mizoram CM has said that the border dispute will not come in the way of the North-east being “one”.
However many are already skeptical of the fate of the North-east as an entity with common interests. The North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), for which BJP and Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma shoulder key responsibility is poised to lose its credibility and acceptability in the absence of a lasting solution to the border disputes.
The present border fiasco, if not amicably handled, could see Dr. Sarma lose his standing as a regional leader and be seen only as a state leader. And, unless more pacts such as the one between Assam and Nagaland signed at Dimapur, Nagaland on 31 July, are arrived at, the North-east as a family of eight sisters will not be a happy family.
Considering the contesting claims of the parties and the complexity of the issue, the foremost priority in working out a solution should be the institution of an independent Interstate boundary commission.
After a careful consultative study, the commission should formulate a solution that considers concerns of all stakeholders. One option could be the utilisation of disputed lands by the Union government after compensating both the states.
Alternatively, the option of compensating one state and awarding land to the other or awarding the disputed land to both the states equally could be considered. Whatever be the solution, once worked out and accepted by the states, courts could play the role of guardians and take serious note of any arbitrary acts.
If there is one reason Assam and Mizoram have to resolve the matter, it is because there is no alternative. Two states in the Union cannot target each other violently. It is important for both states to accept that any conflict-resolution measures would involve compromise and sacrifice for the larger good.
The present chestthumping stance of not ceding even an inch of land adopted by both states has to be given up.
The intervention of the Ministry of Home affairs by ordering Central forces to man all areas of disputed land until a lasting and amicable solution is reached should be respected in letter and spirit in the interim.
The Union government should use the opportunity to settle once and for all the boundary disputes between different states in the North-east. There is absolutely no sane reason why Indians should kill themselves when enough precious lives have been sacrificed for the freedom of India and in its defense.
The writer is a freelance contributor and author. He is a former development professional and has served as a consultant in the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India.