The British are long separated from their imperial past but the detritus left behind by the British Empire bedevils its erstwhile subjects even today.
Many territorial disputes between nations have their origin in the national boundaries arbitrarily drawn by the British.
The British Empire’s thoughtless actions of displacing large masses of its subjects to distant corners of the earth are responsible for many human tragedies; descendants of Indians forcibly sent to far-away places, to serve British interests, are often unwelcome in their adopted homelands and some people like Hong Kong natives find themselves at odds with their new Government, while people like the Rohingyas have been rendered stateless.
Our country still suffers from the after-effects of almost two centuries of British rule. For quicker development of the country, after Independence, the Government of India decided to break up large British-era provinces and re-draw state boundaries.
This process, initiated by the creation of Andhra Pradesh (1953) was completed by the States Reorganisation Act, 1956.
However, district boundaries, as drawn by the British, were generally left untouched by the reorganisation. A number of disputes arose on the re-drawing of state boundaries, and some of these disputes, like the dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra about Belagavi (or Belgaum) still fester, despite the labours of a Centrally appointed Commission and the loss of many lives.
The problem of contentious state boundaries is even more pronounced in the North-East where the states of Nagaland (1963), Meghalaya (1972), Arunachal Pradesh (1975) and Mizoram (1987) were carved out of Assam. As in other states, district boundaries, which were not very exactly defined, because of the difficult terrain of the North East, formed the basis of division.
To add to the confusion, different tribes inhabiting the North-East had a completely different perception of their homelands, which mattered little till the entire NorthEast was part of one state, Assam.
But, once the newer states of the North East took shape, territorial disputes between Assam and other States started surfacing; presently, Assam has territorial disputes with Mizoram, with Nagaland, with Meghalaya and with Arunachal Pradesh. Additionally, there is a border dispute between Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.
Though fatal firing between police personnel of Assam and Mizoram was a dubious first, border disputes between NorthEastern states have often degenerated in bloody clashes, with more than 100 people being killed in clashes between residents of Assam and Nagaland. Interestingly, 99 per cent of the North Eastern state’s boundaries are international borders, which are quiet; only the one per cent inter-state boundaries are disturbed! In addition to the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, constituted in 2001, there are a number of high-powered bodies like the North Eastern Council for coordination and development of North Eastern states, called the ‘eight sisters’ by the Government. Intriguingly, the Assam-Mizoram border row precipitated only two days after the Home Minister’s meeting with Chief Ministers of the eight North Eastern states, in which inter-state border disputes were prominently discussed.
The existence of so many border disputes in the North East for such a long time, shows the lack of effectiveness of the various bodies constituted for the development of the North East as also lack of efforts for dispute resolution on part of both the concerned states as well as the Centre.
The recent clash between the police forces of Assam and Mizoram, that left seven Assam policemen dead and 70 people injured, represents the nadir of inter-state relations. Senior police and administrative officers of both states were present at the spot, yet firearms were freely used in the skirmish, leading to fatalities. A number of viral video recordings of the incident confirm the brutality of the clash. Interestingly, the North-East Democratic Alliance or NEDA is in power in both states, with the Assam CM being the convenor of NEDA. In a Press Statement issued on 26 July 2021, the Assam Government attributed the clash between police forces of the two states to the attempted construction of a road inside Inner Line Forest in Lailapur area.
An IG, an SP of Assam Police and a Deputy Commissioner were injured in the clash. Later on, the Assam CM tweeted that the Assam Government would deploy 4,000 commandos in the disputed border areas.
The CM also promised to raise three commando battalions of 3,000 personnel for deployment in Karimganj, Cachar and Hailakandi districts. Interestingly, the very next day, the Assam CM changed his narrative completely, claiming that his government’s crackdown on narcotics smuggling and the new law restricting cattle transportation through Assam might have been responsible for the border clash. He blamed “non-state actors” in Mizoram for the violence, stating: “How could civilians of Mizoram, wearing battle fatigues and bulletproof vests, turn up at the border to attack our policemen with sniper rifles? I have video evidence. I think it should be investigated whether certain vested nonstate actors entered the fray.”
The Prime Minister and Home Minister have taken cognisance of the clash. PM Modi had a meeting with the HM and the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs on this subject. Earlier, the HM spoke to both Chief Ministers asking them to resolve their differences cordially, after removing police forces of both states from the disputed site.
Last heard, Mizoram Police had stayed put and a ‘neutral force,’ the CRPF, was yet to reach in strength. Also, inhabitants of the Barak Valley of Assam had blocked all rail and road traffic, including essential supplies, headed for Mizoram. Other developments in the dispute, are also not very encouraging.
If carried out, the threat of the Assam Chief Minister to deploy 4,000 commandos at the Mizoram border is sure to exacerbate tensions between the two states. Assam government’s plan of raising a force of 3,000 commandos does not augur well for the future. In such circumstances, the Central Government could have done more than merely advise the warring governments of Assam and Mizoram to maintain peace. India is a Union of States, and armed conflict between any two states threatens the very idea of India as a nation. Historically, most invaders had taken advantage of differences between native rulers to conquer India.
That said, modern Indian states are not sovereign bodies; under Article 3 of the Constitution, Parliament has the power to increase the area of any state, diminish the area of any state, alter the boundaries of any state and change the name of any state.
Taking recourse to this Article, in 2019, the Government of India had bifurcated the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, Article 19 of the Constitution confers on all citizens the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of of India.
Thus, territories of states are not sacrosanct and state boundaries are meaningless for citizens of India. The warring states should remember that the Constitution prescribes adjudication by the Supreme Court for inter-state disputes and not armed conflict, which the Centre should discourage with a heavy hand.
To ensure that states desist from fighting over territory, after issuing a stern warning to warring states, the Government of India can constitute Boundary Commissions to adjudicate on all boundary disputes in the NorthEast and elsewhere. Rather than deciding state boundaries on historical or legal principles, the Boundary Commissions may be enjoined to give their awards based solely on the wishes of the inhabitants of the disputed areas. Lastly, we are a nation born of a struggle informed by truth and non-violence.
We have to ponder on the state of our Republic when elected Chief Ministers start justifying violence against fellow citizens, forgetting what our founding father, Mahatma Gandhi had said: “There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.”