Mapping the states of India

Contested frontiers

The Assam-Mizoram land conflict is an outgrowth of two conflicting notions on boundary — demarcations shaped by natural factors and compartmentalised divisions of modern state

Contested frontiers

Both the states (Assam and Mizoram) shall not send their respective forest and police forces for patrolling, domination, enforcement or for fresh deployment to any of the areas where confrontation and conflict has taken place between police forces of the two states in recent times. This would include all such areas along the Assam-Mizoram border in the districts of Karimganj, Hailakandi and Cachar in Assam; Mamit and Kolasib districts in Mizoram'

This was the joint statement released at the behest of the MHA one week after the unprecedented clash between the uniformed forces of Assam and Mizoram, which left six Assam policemen dead on July 26, 2021. The MHA also deployed Central Para Military Forces (CPMFs) — SSB, BSF and CRPF — in the 'contested areas' to ensure that the two states were kept at an arms' length. This is at best an interim solution, because a longstanding agreement on border issues in the Northeast calls for a political settlement, along with the use of modern technology to ensure a transparent demarcation of boundaries in the present-day context.

However, when we try to go to the root of the problem, it may be best to reflect on a lecture on 'Frontiers' — delivered by Lord Curzon in 1907, the former Viceroy and Governor General of India — at Sheldonian College, Oxford, as part of the Romanes Public Lectures. Curzon spoke of the differences between the European and Indian outlook on the subject. In India (as elsewhere in Asia), where land was aplenty, geographical features — rivers, ridges, deep forests, lakes, mountain peaks and passes — were considered to be the natural lines of demarcation. It was also accepted that rivers would change their course and forests may give way to cultivable tracts. Kings and chiefs were bonded with each other through ties of kinship, and the relative 'influence' was also a function of informal alliances and spheres of influence. However, given the acute pressure on land in Europe, the idea of a clearly-demarcated and delineated border was a prevalent norm. The British were so used to the understanding of the modern state in terms of what Peter J Taylor described in his essay, 'The State as Container: Territoriality in the Modern World-System'. The European mind, said Curzon, could not conceptualise territory without hard, well-guarded boundaries. They did not know how to deal with large swathes of territories that did not yield revenues, and were sparsely populated. Hence came the concepts of Inner Line, Excluded and Partially Included areas etc. Curzon averred that the idea of 'protectorate states', 'suzerainty', 'buffers' etc., either evolved or were fine-tuned in the process of calibration of British interests in territories. These were lands they did not want to directly possess, but wanted to exclude others from there. Curzon went on to elaborate Tibet as the most sophisticated example of the British's frontier policy at the St. Petersburg Convention, 1907. In the east too, Curzon sketched a picture of how the British were looking to replicate a frontier policy similar to the Durand Line in the west. However, Tibet had a fairly evolved system of revenue extraction from traders on the silk route but there was no such 'marketable surplus' in the tracts beyond Cachar, which was the last outpost of the British tea planters in Assam.

In fact, the first treaty/boundary agreement with Lushai (Mizo) Chief, Suakpuilala, was made in 1871 by the Cachar (Assam) Deputy Commissioner John Ware Edgar. In 1873, the Inner Line regulations under the BEFR demarcated the Lushai Hills from the rest of Assam. In one of the adjustments to the Inner Line, two years after it came into existence, the current disputed strip of about 500 sq. km of forest land was made part of the Lushai Hills, but revenue collection was left in the hands of the Assam administration, as it was relatively convenient. In 1933, another adjustment left this land outside the Lushai Hills district. All this is understandable as they were within the undivided Assam Province. Now that Mizoram and Assam are two different states, the former wants the 1875 alignment as their boundary and the latter considers the 1933 adjustment as more legitimate and rational.

The dispute between Assam and Mizoram stems from Mizoram's refusal to accept the present boundary with Assam, as notified in 1933, arguing that it was a decision imposed upon them by the British. Mizoram suggests that the Inner Line Reserved Forest, as described in the 1875 notification under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act of 1873, should be the basis for delineating the border. In all, Mizoram claims 819.15 sq. km of forested territory from Assam. Assam government's contention is that the 1875 notification mentioned the Inner Line, which was only a line limiting the administrative extent of the Assam government, and was never meant to be a boundary line between Cachar and Lushai Hills.

Meanwhile, in 1972, Mizoram — formerly known as Lushai Hills — was carved out of Assam as a union territory, and became a state in 1987. The state shares borders with three north-eastern states of Tripura, Assam and Manipur, and a 722-km border with the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Its boundary with Assam is defined under the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971 — based on a 1933 notification. However, in actual practice, the boundary between Mizoram and Assam follows naturally occurring barriers of hills, valleys, rivers and forests, and both sides have attributed the border skirmishes to differences in perception over an imaginary line. Initially, Mizoram accepted the border with Assam, but following the encroachment, and cross-border immigration, Mizoram started disputing the border.

Pradip Phanjoubam says that this is the context in which the interstate boundary problems in the Northeast will have to be understood. In his words: 'It is a continuous struggle of indigenous communities to come to terms with the need to reconcile the older notional, amorphous and permeable boundaries of homelands they were familiar with and the modern state's land revenue system with its hard and precise boundaries'.

(to be continued)

Views expressed are personal

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