The death of six persons at the Assam-Meghalaya border on Tuesday has led to fears that talks to settle the border dispute between the two states could be affected.
The deaths come eight months after Assam and Meghalaya agreed to resolve disputes at 12 locations along the 884-km-long border. Following Tuesday’s killings, concerns have been raised that the talks over the tribal people’s land and forest rights could be impacted. The boundary dispute between the two states dates back to 1972 when Meghalaya was carved out of Assam.
Assam and Meghalaya have offered contradictory statements over the firing statements. The Assam government said four people, including three civilians one forest guard, died in the incident. Contrary to this, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said six people were killed, which include five Meghalaya residents and one Assam forest guard.
What we know of Assam-Meghalaya border firing
The Assam Police opened fire in what it says was an act of self-defence and took place when the forest party attempted to stop a truck smuggling timber. The incident occurred in the Mukroh village on the Assam-Meghalaya border.
“When the truck was stopped by the forest party personnel, they were gheraoed by unknown miscreants who resorted to violence. In order to save their lives, the forest party resorted to firing. In the incident, three civilians and one forest guard died,” said a statement from Assam Police.
Assam is ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Himanta Biswa Sarma and Meghalaya is ruled by National People's Party’s (NPP) Conrad Sangma, an ally of the BJP.
An aggrieved Sangma on Tuesday afternoon sat for a meeting with traditional heads Rangbah Shnongs and religious leaders, members of Civil Society, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to discuss the firing incident. A government statement said “Assam Police and Assam Forest Guards entered Meghalaya and resorted to unprovoked firing”.
Meghalaya demands federal probe
Following the meeting, the Meghalaya government said in a statement that a Cabinet delegation will meet Union Home Minister Amit Shah on November 24 to discuss the incident and demand a federal investigation by either the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Until the federal investigation into the incident is launched, a special investigation team (SIT) headed by Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Eastern Range will investigate the incident, said the statement by the Meghalaya’s Chief Minister’s Office, adding that the SIT will hand over the investigation to the federal agency whenever the demand for an NIA/CBI investigation is approved by the Union government.
The statement also said, “A Judicial Commission under the Commissions of Enquiry Act 1952 will be constituted to look into all the aspects of the incident.”
Assam suspends officials, calls for federal probe
The Assam government has suspended and transferred a number of officials following Tuesday's incidents.
Kheroni Forest Range Forest Protection Officer (FPO) Shikari Enghi and Jirikinding Police Station OC Kajal Nath have been suspended and Superintendent of Police (SP) West Karbi Anglong Imdad Ali has been transferred.
"All personnel of the police force and forest force involved in the incident will be closed to their respective reserves," said the statement released by the government.
Moreover, the Assam government also announced compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the next of the kin of six deceased persons.
The Assam government also said it has decided to hand over the investigation of the border firing incident to a federal or neutral investigation agency.
Sarma-led Assam government also constituted a one-person enquiry commission to investigate the killings. The inquiry commission will be headed by a retired judge of the High Court “to inquire into the circumstances leading to the firing incident”. The commission will submit its report within three months, said an official statement.
Concerns over the border talks
Notably in March, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma signed a pact in New Delhi in the presence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah to resolve the Assam-Meghalaya border dispute.
Twelve disputed locations were identified by the two state governments to be resolved in a phased manner. The current location of Mukroh falls in the second phase. Shah had termed the day as a “historic day for a dispute-free Northeast”.
Since the signing of the pact, tribals in many disputed areas have been protesting against it over fears that any change in the current border might affect them adversely.
However, Meghalaya Home Minister Lakhmen Rymbui earlier said that the Meghalaya government “will try to settle the dispute by giving priority to the consent and will of the people residing along the border”.
The second round of Assam-Meghalaya border talks was supposed to be held in the last week of this month. It is feared that the current incident might disrupt the process.
Meanwhile, movement between the two states at certain entry points has been temporarily barred by the administration over security concerns. Internet services have also been suspended in seven districts of Meghalaya for 48 hours starting from Tuesday. All official festivals, including the ongoing Cherry Blossom Festival, have also been suspended by the Meghalaya government.
KAM Meghalaya, a political platform of citizens, and civil society group Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR) have strongly condemned the firing incident and the actions of Assam Police on the Khasi-Pnar and other residents of Mukroh village. The two organisations have claimed that the people were fired upon while exercising their customary claims on the forest produce.
“The residents of these areas were exercising their traditional customary rights over the forest produce that predate the modern notion of the borders. The land and forest belong to the people, not to the state. Assam Police for a long time has been harassing the border residents on a border whose legality hasn’t been settled. Even if these borders are legal entities, the lives and traditions of the tribal communities cannot be erased,” said the statement.
Both the organisations demanded the Assam-Meghalaya border dispute to be immediately resolved keeping in mind the customary land rights, history, and multi-ethnic reality of the border areas. All solutions must be sustainable and lasting, said the organisations.