Mending the British-made Assam-Mizoram dispute: Northeast needs creative solutions like building economic and technology hubs in contested zones
This story first appeared in Times of India Blog
Historically speaking, it is an ironic sight. Assam police stepped inside the known cultural boundaries of Mizoram and Meghalaya this week, but these areas were only demarcated by the British after they entered the region in 1826 following the Treaty of Yandaboo.
Today the borders between Assam-Meghalaya, Assam-Mizoram, Assam-Nagaland and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh are all hotly contested spaces and marked by frequent bloodbaths.
Constitution vs tradition
Recently, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma referred to ‘constitutional boundaries’, mutually agreed to at the time of carving out new states from undivided Assam. However, this concept is alien to the people in these newly created states. Each state carved out of Assam holds fast to its traditional cultural boundaries, conveyed to the people by their pre-Constitution rulers/chieftains.
Present Mizoram, formerly the Lushai Hills, the Naga Hills, now Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh formerly North East Frontier Agency were forested areas which the British wanted to keep away from the plains people, with their propensity to explore business opportunities. Instead the British wanted to exploit these opportunities themselves, from coal and limestone mining to tea-growing in these tribal areas. The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873 was the line drawn to demarcate the boundaries between these tribes in the hills and the Assam plains. This is what is referred to as the Inner Line Permit.
That the border skirmishes between Assam and Mizoram and Assam and Meghalaya should erupt just 48 hours after Union home minister Amit Shah left Shillong, where discussions were held between him and the Northeast chief ministers on resolving all border disputes amicably before India observes its 75th year of Independence, is shocking.
What tribes understand as nation
India is a subcontinent of myriad races and each tribe believes it is indigenous to the space it occupies. For the tribes of the Northeastern states, the word ‘country’ is restricted to their respective homelands. Nation is a place where they are free to live the way their ancestors lived.
If there is an external threat, they will go back into their shells and resort to defence mechanisms they know best – to attack before the enemy overpowers them. This native instinct may have been overcome by those from the Northeast who have moved out of their homes to pursue their professions elsewhere. But those who remain tied to their roots back home act and react with those native instincts.
It’s evident that resolving the border disputes between Assam and the other states would require statesmanship of a high order. The Northeast states could gain more by collaboration, more so when Assam is the link state to six others. In the past, Assam had inflicted economic blockades on Mizoram and Nagaland after every border tussle. No central government has taken these border disputes seriously, much less tried to resolve them.
Institutions like the North Eastern Council and later the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) too never invested time and effort to iron out these differences. Land, being a scarce commodity, is much sought after by states with bigger, growing populations and shrinking spaces.
Disputed areas as economic zones
With political brinkmanship having taken over the border issue and Twitter wars between the contesting states raging like wildfire, there is need for civil society engagement too. The borders will continue to remain contentious until some creative solutions are found. In the past there were proposals to turn the disputed areas into economic zones which would benefit the states concerned.
Disputed borders can also become educational hubs, IT parks, health centres and tourist destinations where investments can come from DoNER and the benefits shared by people on both sides. It would be in the interest of all concerned if these contested areas were administered by a central agency to prevent future claims and counter-claims.
How would it be if these areas were brought under one umbrella administration such as a centrally administered territory so that there is no quarrel over which state is investing more and which one less, even while people from both sides of the divide gain economically and also by way of good education and health infrastructure that could come up in these contested spaces? Other than this shared interest one sees no way for a peaceful resolution of the border disputes.