How politicians from Assam and Mizoram escalated then downplayed the border dispute

18 August 2021
Central Reserve Police Force personnel standing guard at the national highway in Lailapur area near Assam-Mizoram border, on 1 August. Mizoram and Assam have had a border dispute for several decades now which has often ended in brief clashes.
AFP / Getty Images
Central Reserve Police Force personnel standing guard at the national highway in Lailapur area near Assam-Mizoram border, on 1 August. Mizoram and Assam have had a border dispute for several decades now which has often ended in brief clashes.
AFP / Getty Images

At 2 am on 17 August 2021, a civilian from Mizoram was injured after the Assam Police opened fire in Aitlang, an area in Mizoram bordering Assam. According to H Lathlangliana, the deputy commissioner of Kolasib district, under whose jurisdiction Aitlang falls, the Assam Police indiscriminately opened fire on three Mizo civilians who had gone to collect meat from a friend in Bilaipur village, on the Assam side of the border. According to Assam Police, the firing was in response to miscreants from Mizoram who shot at construction workers building a road near Bilaipur. This incident came three weeks after a major clash in Vairengte, a border village in Mizoram, between Assam Police and Mizoram Police that left six Assamese police officers dead.

Mizoram and Assam have had a border dispute for several decades now which has often ended in brief clashes. These clashes were always mild, and politicians from both states were quick to ease tensions. In contrast, after the violence on 26 July, politicians from both Mizoram and Assam did little to ease the tension and instead raised further allegations against the other. Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s chief minister, claimed that the incident was not sparked by a border dispute, but because Mizos were involved in trafficking drugs, and because the Mizoram government had aided refugees from Myanmar.

By 5 August, officials from both states had met multiple times and agreed to a détente. In a widely reported press conference that day in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, officials from both governments told reporters that the incident was “in the past,” and did not respond to questions about who was to be held accountable for the violence. Officials continued to downplay the severity of the crisis over the next week.

Despite officials claiming that the dispute had been resolved, citizens in Mizoram continued to be affected by a rail and road blockade, which starved the state of essential medical supplies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, till 7 August. Assam’s government claims the blockade was set up by overzealous citizens that it had no control over. The clash on 17 August emphasises that the dispute is far from resolved, and politicians from both states have continued to evade accountability for their actions since the start of the crisis in late July.

Competing border claims between states in the region are a result of a long and complex administrative history. Following the formation of independent India, Manipur and Tripura were princely states while the rest of the northeastern region fell under the state of Assam. In 1972, Mizoram was carved out as a union territory and 15 years later, it was made a state. The border between the two states was drawn differently on two different occasions. The Mizoram government accepts  the border as drawn by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873—a law restricting entry to certain border regions to certain groups—by the British in consultation with Mizo chiefs. However, the Assam and union government follow a later border line drawn in 1933, which the Mizoram government says it was not consulted about.

Kimi Colney is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Assam Mizoram border Himanta Biswa Sarma Northeast India
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