The video clip is just 25 seconds long, shaky and barely shows a few people holding automatic firearms, crouching behind an overturned vehicle. But what stands out is the background sound: continuous staccato bursts of gunfire, the kind of sound more likely in the battlefields of Syria or Afghanistan. Then there are other video clips, all shot with mobile phone cameras. One shows a group of armed-to-the-teeth Mizoram Police personnel in battle fatigues on a hilltop. One of them could be barking an order: “Paanch minute time deta hai, chala jao (giving you five minutes to leave). There is an environment of tension. There was another, and as telling. A group of armed Mizoram Police personnel coming down a hill slope to loud cheers from civilians wielding sticks; there is back-patting, high-fiving and handshaking all around. The environment is one of joy over what seemed to have been a task well-accomplished.
From a hilltop perch, these policemen had allegedly fired their lethal weapons—including light machine guns—at Assam Police personnel, leaving six of them dead and about 40 more wounded along a disputed stretch of the interstate border between Assam and Mizoram. The Northeast had just witnessed another bloody fight in its long border feud among its states. It was July 26, the day India celebrates its victory over Pakistan in the Kargil War. Assam claims the disputed land to be in Lailapur in Cachar district. Mizoram says it is its land, in Kolasib district. The dispute, like so many other interstate flashpoints, dates back decades to the time when Mizoram, earlier known as Lushai Hills, was carved out of Assam in 1972.
“They fired as if it was happening at some international border between two countries,” Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told newspersons the day after at Silchar in Cachar district. Along with Karimganj and Hailakandi, the three districts in southern Assam share a 164.6-kilometre boundary with Mizoram. He was in Silchar to take stock of the situation and also pay tribute to five slain policemen—the sixth succumbed to his wounds later. Even before that, he tweeted a video with the caption, “After killing 5 Assam Police personnel and injuring many, this is how Mizoram Police and goons are celebrating—sad and horrific.” Through that eventful day, he was almost giving a running commentary along with photographs of the goings-on since just before noon, while also engaging in a blame game with his Mizoram counterpart Zoramthanga.
Tension along the interstate border had been brewing since October 2020 with intermittent skirmishes amidst charges and counter-charges of encroachment of land. Matters worsened in February with people abandoning their homes and fleeing in fear after two huts were burnt down near the Gallacherra outpost along the border. On July 10, unidentified attackers threw a grenade at a visiting Assam government team, followed by two back-to-back bomb explosions across the border on July 11.
Sarma said Assam policemen and officers had gone to the area on July 26 to verify reports that a road was being constructed in a border forest. There they found that besides the road, a police post had also been built. “They were discussing the matter with the Kolasib SP at the post when suddenly there was firing," the Assam CM said.
Mizoram home minister Pu Lalchamliana defended his state police, saying they responded “spontaneously by firing back” at Assam Police after 200 of its personnel forcibly crossed a duty post on CRPF watch, indulged in arson and firing, and assaulted unarmed people. The violence happened within 48 hours of Union home minister Amit Shah chairing a meeting of all northeastern chief ministers in Shillong, the Meghalaya capital. The key agenda was resolution of border disputes among the states of the region before independent India turns 75.
In September 2019, at a meeting of the of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in Guwahati, Shah had said, “When we could resolve the boundary issue with Bangladesh, why can’t northeastern states their interstate boundary disputes? We are not different countries. We are states of the same country.” Incidentally, all the ruling parties in the seven states of the Northeast are part of the NEDA, with Sarma as its convenor. Shah had probably assumed that given the common political identity that bound the states, it ought not be too difficult a proposition. “But what has NEDA got to do with it? I cannot give away state’s land because of that. My state comes first and we are going to protect our land come what may,” Sarma said.
According to Zoramthanga, the border disputes among the northeastern states are a legacy of the colonial era that the governments of today inherited. “The border disputes have been left unresolved at the time of the formation of states like Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram,” Zoramthanga is reported to have said. As for the dispute with Assam, he said that the area claimed by his neighbour has been inhabited by people from Mizoram for more than a century. “Assam started claiming these areas only fairly recently due to population pressure apparently caused by the large-scale influx of migrants from outside Barak Valley,” the Mizoram chief minister said.
Assam happens to be the pivot in the region's border disputes because three states—Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram—were carved out of it at different points in time. The Centre ruled Arunachal Pradesh, previously known as the North-East Frontier Agency, until it was granted statehood in 1987. Manipur and Tripura were independent princely states that merged with India in 1949 to become Part C States, equivalent to Union territories.
The Northeast remained untouched when states were reorganised along linguistic lines under the States Reorganisation Act, 1956. But separatist movements started spilling over from the Naga hills to other parts of the region and new states started sprouting, answering to ethnic aspirations. However, drawing of the borders did not conform to the ethnic specificity and also bypassed the pre-Independence era “historic boundaries” along ethnic lines. Assam considers boundaries marked after Independence as gospel, but Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram cling on to history.
A large section in Nagaland, for instance, was not willing to accept the state’s boundary laid down in the State of Nagaland Act, 1962, which led to the state's formation in December 1963, and insisted on including areas which were part of Naga territory in accordance with a 1866 notification. It took only two years into Nagaland as a state for the first border fight to flare up in 1965. In two fights in 1979 and 1985, nearly 150 people died, including 28 Assam Police personnel. What happened on July 26 at the Assam-Mizoram border was just a gory reminder of that.
It is anybody’s guess whether the interstate borders in the Northeast will fall silent by next year when independent India is 75 years old, or as Sarma said, the states will continue to fight like they are different countries.
Assam-Mizoram: 164.6-km border. In July 2021, six Assam policemen were killed in Mizoram Police firing over a border dispute (pic above)
Assam-Arunachal Pradesh: 804-km border. In 2005, 100-odd houses in Arunachal Pradesh were allegedly set ablaze by Assam Police and forest officials; in 2007, shooting at a peace meeting in Assam wounded eight people. Supreme Court is hearing a case on the border dispute
Assam-Meghalaya: 733-km border. In May 2010, four Khasi people were killed in Assam Police firing at Langpih, one of the 12 contentious points along border
Assam-Nagaland: 434-km boundary. In January 1979, at least 54 Assam villagers in Golaghat district were killed by armed men from Nagaland, several thousand displaced. In June 1985, 41 were killed in Golaghat district, 28 of them Assam Police personnel
Mizoram-Tripura: 66-km border. Stand-off in a village over a Shiva temple.
Manipur-Nagaland: Disputes over Dzukou Valley and Tungjoy village, eight Manipuris were arrested
(This appeared in the print edition as "Bullets Across The Border")
By Dipankar Roy in Guwahati