It warrants recall that a few decades ago, there was a major contention over an area measuring three bighas between India and Bangladesh in West Bengal. Diplomatic tempers had run high then but there were no military manoeuvres as was recently seen in the Dokhlam area between India and China.

A fortnight ago it was reported that Myanmarese authorities had erected a Border Pillar well inside Indian Territory in the Kwatha Khunou area in Tengnoupal district of Manipur where Moreh, the gateway to India’s Look or Act East Policy, lies. Then news came that Tombi Kanta Singh, the deputy commissioner of Tengnoupal, had gone to inspect the new Border Pillar Post No 81 and how he had ventured into Myanmarese Territory, some 300 metres due east to inspect the old pillar.

Police officials who accompanied him later told this correspondent that they had to leave behind their weapons to accompany him as carrying arms by security personnel while crossing into the foreign soil is prohibited. Having made his trip into the forbidden zone, Singh stuck to his guns. He was unwilling to sign the instrument of accession of the newly demarcated area to Myanmar even though it had been initiated by the Government of India and conveyed to him by his superiors in the Imphal Secretariat.

Then civil society organisations stepped in. The first to go was the United Committee, Manipur. It was born out of the 18 June 2001 uprising to protect Manipur’s territorial integrity after the Government of India and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M) signed an agreement that their ceasefire would be without territorial limits, implying that Manipur would be included in their scheme of things.

The UCM ventured out to Kwatha Village and thereafter went to Kwatha Khunou, at a distance of eight kilometres. Once there, they painted the new Border Pillar No. 81 black and returned thereafter, thus making their point. Soon, the Myanmarese Army returned on the scene and painted it over again. Still there was no response from either the Government of Manipur or the Union Ministry of External Affairs.

On the morning of 3 July, I recei-ved two sets of visitors. The first was Erendro Leichoimbam, the Harvard-educated leader of the People’s Resurgent and Justice Alliance Party and the next set belonged to the Kangleipak (Manipur) Kannaba Lup, a vanguard organisation of Manipuri youngsters, who vow to protect the interest of Manipur at any cost. It was decided that we should visit the disputed BP No 81 armed, not with paint brushes, but sledge hammers and physically destroy it.

And so the next day, a group comprising 18 people from the Praja party and KKL with two mechanics set out for Kwatha Khunou, some 120 kilometres from Imphal. At about 80 kilometres down the line, we were halted by personnel of the 12-Assam Rifles at their check post on the National Highway, detained for over an hour, almost strip searched, made to produce our Aadhar cards and finally, stand in line for a group photograph.

And when we reached Kwatha Khunou, we were again accosted by one Captain S Yadav of the 12-Assam Rifles. He literally threatened us to the effect that there had been a curfew imposed in the area since 1 July.

At Kwatha Khunou, awaiting our arrival was Thomas Thokchom, Manipur Police Service officer and the sub-divisional police officer of Moreh, accompanied by a police commando team and Major Arryiyan of the 11-Assam Rifles, posted at Moreh. They kept vigil the whole night.

The next morning another column of the 12-Assam Rifles under the command of Captain S Yadav joined in as reinforcement besides the police. Then, we told Major Arryiyan that our objective was to destroy the BP Post No 81 to which he said that he was under orders to not allow anyone within one metre of the post. Thus accompanied by two columns of the Assam Rifles and the Manipur Police team, we went out to the disputed spot where they soon gathered around. Not one Myanmarese Army personnel was in sight and it seems that the task of protecting its boundaries was handed over to the Indian Army, albeit the Assam Rifles. We held aloft our sledge hammers, shouted slogans and returned to Imphal.

The next day Karam Shyam, minister of revenue headed a high power committee of top officials including the Assam Rifles and asked the villagers of Kwatha Khunou to produce documentary evidence that the area belonged to them first. The next day chief minister N Biren Singh, a man who had sworn his life to protect Manipur’s territorial integrity, said that it was a sensitive issue and must be tackled carefully.

My question was that, it was not primarily a Manipur versus Myanmar issue but one of India and that country. And for a country that had been waging an undeclared war with Pakistan over a few disputed land sites and almost went into war with China over Dokhlam, why didn’t Narendra Modi or Sushma Swaraj speak on the matter?

A clarification came from the spokesperson of the Union ministry of external affairs that all demarcation of land between India and Burma was done according to an agreement signed between the two surveyor generals in 1967 and that the Manipur government was in the know of all the happenings. Reports obtained by The Statesman pointed to the fact that the last survey was carried out in 2016 in which teams of both countries as well as Manipur police personnel were present.

However, the reason as to why both the governments had decided to act 50 years after the agreement was signed, is not known. The fact remains that the new BP Post No 81 was erected by a joint team that came from the Myanmarese side including officials of the Border Road Task Force — the Indian agency entrusted with constructing roads in Myanmar.

The total area lost is about three square kilometres and it is here that one suspects a hidden agenda of Myanmarese appeasement. It is perhaps to persuade the Myanmarese government that the Government of India had decided to look the other way when it encroached upon its territory in Manipur. Another angle could be the possibility of striking oil in the area with Naypyidaw acting on Chinese diktats.

But the piece of cake lies in the MEA statement that the area had already been demarcated in 1967. That piece of document clearly states that east of Lamjellok is Myanmar’s while westwards is India’s. The new BP Post No 81 is well within the eastern banks of the Lamjellok.

Perhaps the Government of India will do well to listen to N Biren Singh’s statement that a re-survey of the border be carried out. As of now, the villagers of Kwatha Khunou are openly stating that “we want to be integrated with Myanmar”, following the step brotherly treatment from the Governments of India and Manipur.

 

The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman