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

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
18 August, 2021

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.

“This boundary was absolutely an artificial construction of the British and they did it for their own interest,” Sajal Nag, a historian who specialises in the history of the north-eastern states and teaches at Assam Central University, Silchar, told me. “They did not look at the interest of Assam or Mizoram or Cachar. All these problems are happening because in the 1933 drawing of map, no people were consulted. The British did it on their own to pursue their own interests in tea plantation.” 

Hriata Chhangte, a politician from Mizoram, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, argued that the fault lines between the two states began with the Northeastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971, which established the states of Manipur and Tripura and made Mizoram a union territory. “All the states are having a problem because of the poor implementation of the NERA,” he told me. “There was no proper survey, concerned governments were not consulted, no ground verification. So, we cannot possibly have an understanding of acceptable boundaries between these states.” He added, “The same problem is there with Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya because of this poor implementation of NERA.”

On 26 July, around two hundred Assam Police personnel, led by senior officials, entered Vairengte. The Assam government claimed the incursion was to address concerns on alleged land encroachment. This led locals to be apprehensive amid the already tense situation at the state border. The Mizoram and Assam governments have given contrasting accounts of the events that followed.

The Mizoram government stated that the Assam Police crossed a post of the Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary managed by the union government, and a post manned by Mizoram Police personnel, attacking Mizoram locals with lathis and tear gas. It also asserted that the Assam Police opened fire around 4.50 pm. The Mizoram government said that this led to an intense gun battle between police personnel from both states that left six Assam Police personnel dead and several seriously injured on both sides. The Assam government has denied these charges and argued that Mizoram first breached the status quo by setting up a new armed camp in the vicinity of the CRPF post. They also allege that the Mizoram Police opened fire first while Assam police officials were in talks with the superintendent of police for Kolasib district.

The confrontation took place just two days after a meeting of the union home minister Amit Shah with the chief ministers of several states of the northeast of India. In the meeting, border issues were discussed, among other topics such as war on drugs and insurgency.

Following the firing at the border, Sarma made charged allegations against Mizos instead of trying to calm down the situation. On 26 July, Sarma tweeted, “Clear evidences are now beginning to emerge that unfortunately show that Mizoram Police has used Light Machine Guns (LMG) against personnel of @assampolice. This is sad, unfortunate and speaks volumes about the intention and gravity of the situation.” This is despite video evidence at the time showing police from both states using light machine guns. An hour later, Sarma tweeted a screen grab of an Instagram live video of Mizo people sharing high fives, and wrote, “After killing 5 Assam police personnel and injuring many, this is how Mizoram police and goons are celebrating.- sad and horrific.”

The following day, Sarma continued tweeting about the clash without any calls for restraint. He tweeted a video grab of Mizo police sharing cigarettes and smiling while on guard, and wrote, “Look at this video to know how personnel of Mizoram Police acted and escalated the issue. Sad and horrific!” Later that day on Twitter, Sarma shared a link to a press conference where he claimed the violence was not sparked by a border issue, but because the Assam Police were cracking down on cattle and drug smuggling and protecting reserved forests.

“I have told in the meeting that Assam is ready to give anything for peace in the Northeast, we do not want land,” Sarma said, referring to a conversation with Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram, and a leader of the Mizo National Front. “Only thing is that it is a reserved forest. Wherever we have dispute, in between there is a reserved forest. So can reserved forest be utilised for settlement, the question that the rest of India should know that wherever we have dispute, the dispute is not regarding land, the dispute is regarding forest. Assam wants to protect the forest.” Sarma provided no proof that people in Mizoram had illegally settled in reserved forests or explained why this would require Assam Police to enter Mizoram.

Patricia Mukhim, a senior journalist from Meghalaya, pointed out that the Assam Police’s actions did not seem to reflect a concern over forest land. “If the idea is to protect reserved forests then where was the need to send a battalion of 200 policemen including senior officers and with several vehicles including an ambulance as if the contingent expected trouble,” she told me. “If the intent was unambiguous there was no need to put the Mizo police at the border and the residents of Vairengte on the defensive with that huge force. The sheer number of armed policemen on the ground is enough to send a signal of aggression to the neighbouring state.” She added, “The police cannot resolve boundary disputes between states.”

Sarma also claimed the incident had been sparked because of Mizoram’s decision to give refuge to refugees from Myanmar fleeing the military crackdown following the coup in the country. On 20 March, a month after the coup, Zoramthanga wrote a letter to the prime minister Narendra Modi, and criticised the union government’s orders to prevent migration from Myanmar. His letter stated that this was unacceptable, and that all refugees should be provided asylum on humanitarian grounds. Despite this, on 22 March, the ministry of home affairs deployed the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, on the Myanmar border to prevent refugees from entering the country. The Mizoram government has still given refuge to several thousand refugees who hope to return to Myanmar once the violence ceases.

“We strongly suspect that there is a drug route across the border from Mizoram through Barak Valley through Assam towards the Punjab so we cut that line,” Sarma said at the press conference. “Then again recently, we have recently enacted in Assembly there is an act against transportation of cattle. So, lot of things have happened between which might anger a section of people. I will not say it is an international conspiracy.”

Sarma provided no evidence for his insinuations. Sarma also claimed that he had photographs of Mizo civilians armed with guns during the clash, though he has not shared them publicly. Rupam Goswami, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Assam spokesperson, and Gyanendra Dev Tripathi, the Assam government’s secretary for border protection, did not wish to comment on the allegations. Neither Sarma nor Zoramthanga responded to any questions that were sent to them by email.

David H Thangliana, an officer on special duty from Mizoram’s home department, told me the Mizoram government were ready to investigate any allegations made by the Assam government. When asked about the claim that Mizo civilians had been armed by the police during the confrontation, he told me, “We had written a strong letter to the DC”—the deputy commisioner of Cachar district in Assam—“requesting her cooperation in providing the Mizoram state government of any information to name government authorities who have distributed arms and ammunition to civilians.” When asked about drug smuggling, he said, “The state government says that the drugs issue is a global problem where the issue is confronted not only by the Mizoram government but also by the government of Assam, so we need to work together so that we can combat this menace which is killing our youths and our society.”

Vanlalhmuaka, the president of BJP’s Mizoram unit, told me, “We do not support the unnecessary use of social media by a chief minister or high official, we find it immature.” He continued, “After such an incident has taken place, what should be done is to take steps toward a peace process. Any initiative taken to incite violence rather than encourage peace is condemned by the BJP because the theme of BJP is peace and development.”

A senior official of Mizoram’s home department, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed the sentiment. “Under the new government of Himanta, they are very aggressive,” he told me. “There are many allegations from Mizoram side and Assam side, previously we used to sort it out by having meetings at the DC”—district collector—“level so the local issues were settled then and there at DC level.” He added, “Whenever there is a face-to-face meeting, at the DC level, there is always a human touch where we have lots of understanding among the district authorities. Now we are all very distant from each other.”

Media coverage of the incident too has often uncritically quoted Sarma, further obscuring the fact that the incident arose from an unresolved border issue. For example, Asian News International, a Delhi-based wire agency, published Sarma’s claims about the incident with a far higher frequency than it did those of the Mizoram government. Between 29 July and 2 August, ANI posted 27 tweets about the Mizoram-Assam border row. Out of these, 24 were quoted statements of Assam’s officials, including Sarma and Assamese members of parliament.

These tweets pertained to travel advisories, drug and cattle smuggling, the presence of mafias and trained former militants in Mizoram, and attacks on the Congress party, who were accused of disrupting peace by politicising violence. Many of these headlines were broadcast by other media houses too. On 31 July, NDTV quoted ANI, claiming that the National Investigation Agency was investigating explosives found in Mizoram on 26 July, in relation to the border clash. The Mizoram Police later clarified that the explosives were seized on 21 June in the Champai area bordering Myanmar and the case was entirely unrelated to Assam.

On 29 July, the Assam Police released an order saying in a drive against illicit drugs, all vehicles entering Assam from Mizoram will be thoroughly checked by the personnel of Assam Police at all Mizoram-Assam borders. Another order, also from 29 July, was a travel advisory which claimed that there were several cases of violent skirmishes on the border in three districts, with civilians allegedly armed with automatic weapons. The order, which was later withdrawn, advised residents of Assam to not travel to Mizoram and advised that Assamese people staying in Mizoram should be cautious. Thangliana, from Mizoram’s home department, took exception to the travel advisory. “We had requested the government to reconsider since there is no threat of safety or security to any non-Mizos, especially within Mizoram,” he said.

Mizo politicians also made provocative statements. On the same day, speaking to the media outside parliament, K Vanlalvena, a leader of the Mizo National Front and a member of the Rajya Sabha, said, “They gave firing orders first, before we fired. They are lucky that we didn’t kill them all. If they come again, we shall kill them all.” Soon after, GP Singh, Assam’s special director general of police, said that a team including the Assam Police and the Criminal Investigation Department would take action against Vanlalvena. In a tweet following the announcement, Singh announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh for “information leading to arrest of each of the individuals involved in the barbaric killing of the Assam Police personnel.” The case against Vanlalvena has since been withdrawn.

Multiple bilateral meetings between ministers and bureaucrats from the two states have been inconclusive. On 28 July, the union government announced that the Central Armed Police Force will be deployed on the border. A meeting was also organised between the union home ministry and the chief secretaries of both states. The next major meeting between the two governments was at the 5 August press conference. During this press conference, which was heavily publicised, several reporters asked the Assam government about a blockade in Assam along Mizoram’s border.

On 28 July, the national highway 306, the main highway entering Mizoram—through which all the state’s essential commodities, including LPG, medicine and daily essentials, are delivered—was blocked on the Assam side of the border. The Assam government repeatedly claimed that the blockade was not organised by them, and said it was locals venting their anger against Mizoram. Tripathi, Assam’s border secretary, also repeated this claim. “Six people from Barak valley were killed in the firing from Mizoram,” he told me. “So that is why people are very much offended and they took the recourse to the economic blockade. Now we are engaging the people so that this blockade can be opened and Mizoram starts getting the supplies which it needs very urgently.” Between 28 July and 7 August, as the economic blockade tightened around Mizoram, it seriously hampered daily life as well as Mizoram’s already struggling health system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the 5 August press conference in Aizawl, Ashok Singhal, Assam’s urban development minister, had promised that the blockade would be lifted. On 6 August, Sarma tweeted, “I would appeal to our people to allow movement of goods to Mizoram.” The next day, Singhal travelled to Lailapur to make attempts for the smooth movement of goods and services to Mizoram.

On 6 August, I asked Goswami, the BJP’s Assam spokesperson, about various allegations that Sarma had made about Mizoram government—relating to the drug trade, refugees from Myanmar and cattle smuggling. Goswami was equally unresponsive. I asked Goswami about when the states could expect a de-escalation of tensions and if the union government had been complacent as the crisis grew. “Forget the past, think about the future,” he told me.

However, BJP leaders from Assam had vocally shown their support for the blockade. On 31 July, Kaushik Rai, an MLA from Assam, was quoted as saying, “Mizoram probably do not know that if we do not send gas cylinders, oil, rice and other essential commodities from here, then Mizoram police, government, all people will starve to death.”

Despite Singhal and Sarma’s promises, the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate till the night of 7 August at least. On the night of 7 August, a convoy of trucks that left Mizoram House, in Assam’s Silchar city, was attacked at the town of Lailapur. The trucks were taking essential medical supplies to Mizoram and the Assam Police had promised the convoy protection. With broken windows, the convoy had to later return to Silchar. East Mojo, a Guwahati based news portal, quoted S Kaptuluanga, a deputy commissioner from Mizoram, saying, “They escorted my people out of the Mizoram House and then left them to the mercy of the angry mob at Lailapur. So many windshields are broken. They (Assam Police) exposed them (Mizoram people and vehicles) to a great risk.” Protestors in Assam also damaged the Silchar–Bhairabi railway track, Mizoram’s only railway connection, on 29 July. Around 9 pm on 7 August, the blockade was finally lifted

Several people in Mizoram told me that the blockade had seriously hampered their ability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. On 7 August, Lalruatkima, Mizoram’s minister of information and public relations, said, “The Zoram Medical College RT-PCR lab is now facing acute shortage of essential testing reagents, and therefore, sample testing in Mizoram is getting capped based on the available stock. It is unfortunate that supply of testing kits, reagents and other lifesaving drugs are still stranded at the Assam-Mizoram border, due to continued blockade of NH306.”

The owners of a major private hospital in Aizawl, who wished to remain anonymous, told me they had been desperately trying to get medical supplies across the blockade. “They have blocked medical supplies, even oxygen tanks and COVID-19 medicines,” she told me. “They not only blocked the road transport, we tried to request a flight cargo transport of COVID-19 medicine from Guwahati but they kept offloading with different excuses. We heard that there was an unofficial order not to book Mizoram bound cargo. We tried on Tuesday”—3 August—“but it was offloaded. We tried on Wednesday and Thursday but they kept refusing even when we said it was COVID-19 essentials.”

Pharmacies across the state were also hit. “The wholesale retailers had set a limit, since 19 July, on the number of medicines that can be procured by each drug store,” Michael Zosangliana, a 31-year-old owner of a drugstore in Aizawl, said. “Due to the low supply, they have just made an equal distribution of whatever is available. There is scarcity of all kinds of medicine and other essentials such as food supplements for cancer patients, baby food like cerelac and diapers. Diabetic patients are worried due to shortage of insulin.”

Several political commentators from the north-eastern states told me that the escalation of the crisis and the continuation of the blockade were largely because of the central government’s inaction. “Had the Central government been serious enough and made determined efforts, the issue would have long been resolved,” Nani Bath, a professor and author from Arunachal Pradesh, told me. “Also, the economic blockade and destruction of railway properties could not have happened without political consent. This practice has been used as an instrument to put the people of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland under subjugation. The Indian government must come with a mechanism to put the end to such dominating tactics.”

Mukhim, the journalist from Meghalaya, told me that the Assamese government had been equally belligerent on the border with her state and the union government had been just as inactive in that issue. Assam and Meghalaya share a 722-kilometre border in the districts of East Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills and Ri Bhoi. “On 26 July, the Meghalaya Energy Corporation was laying an electric post for lighting up the villages in and around Longkhuli,” she told me. “The Assam Police entered and uprooted the post while also adopting a very aggressive stance and using words like, ‘this is Assam’s land’ repeatedly with the infuriated villagers.” She added, “Clearly the Assam Police don’t understand the language of rapprochement. Was the order from the top to assert their presence with all the belligerence at their command?”

She pointed out that on 25 July, Amit Shah, the union home minister had met the chief ministers of the seven states of the north east and agreed that a policy of “give and take” would be adopted along borders. “Almost as if the Assam Police were given a cue by their chief minister to adopt a militant stance at the borders, the issue in Mizoram and Meghalaya started,” Mukhim said. “The idea floated by the Assam chief minister that states should respect constitutional boundaries is fraught with contentious misinterpretations since tribals recognise their cultural boundaries. For the tribals land is also about their identity and not just a living space.”

Mukhim told me that the union government had the tools to solve inter-state disputes like this but failed to use them. “As per the North Eastern Reorganisation Act, 1971, the boundaries between states and union territories carved out of Assam would remain what they were at the time of the division,” she said. “In case there are any disputes the union government has to step in and resolve the dispute and it would be binding on all parties. However, the union has so far not asserted itself the way it is understood in the NERA. We need to revive the Inter-State Council”—an advisory body with representatives from the central and state governments—“which used to meet very often in the past but has now become defunct.”

Alana Golmei, a human-rights activist and lawyer from Manipur, told me that border issues continued in the region because the union government often ignored the north east as a whole. “It has been going on for decades,” she said. “The central government is not serious. When it comes to extracting the natural resources of northeast India, when it comes to decision making, when it is for political gain, when it comes to elections, when it comes to campaigning, when it comes to expanding their political activities, they take so much interest. If they can interfere with many other issues, if they can impose AFSPA”—the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants the Indian military extraordinary powers—“across the north-eastern states saying that this is a law and order situation then why can’t they also come up with some kind of mechanism or policies where there is a solution, where this can be resolved.”

Non-partisan political organisations from the northeast also demanded that the union government take a more serious role in solving border issues in the region. “We want the union government to play a constructive role to bring about an amicable solution which is acceptable to all the stakeholders,” Samuel B Jyrwa, the chairman of the Northeast Student Organisation, told me. The NESO represents students from Assam, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. “The state government and central government should be serious in solving the issue. I feel they have delayed long enough and the people have suffered long enough and there has been unnecessary loss of life and it is high time this is dealt with.” He added, “People have to understand that this is not an ethnic issue, it is a boundary issue which the union governments are duty bound to resolve.”

Nag, the historian from Assam Central University, told me that politicians constantly tried to distract from the issue or say that it had passed, while people continued to suffer on the ground. “We should say, this is the boundary, we are two neighbouring states, we are interdependent on each other and we are amicably settled. That’s how people will deal with it. But there is an ancient saying, kings fight but common people die.”