Border Disputes and Violence: Thinking beyond the Binaries

Prof. H. Srikanth

Following the unfortunate firing incident at the Assam-Mizoram border, where some police officers of Assam were killed and several others injured, we see conscious attempts by vested interests to whip up communal passions, within the region and across the country. The people’s opinions are clearly divided based on locality and community identities. If you are a non-tribal person in Assam, or in any other part of India, you tend to believe the view that the crisis is because the hill states in the northeast are predominantly Christian and are infested with anti-nationals who don’t believe in the Constitution of India. On the other hand, if you belong to an indigenous tribe from any of the hill states of the northeast, you assume that Assam is against the tribal states and the people from the plains, especially the so-called Bangladeshis, are trying to devour your lands. Hence the only way to protect the tribal lands is to organize on community lines and take up arms against the potential land grabbers. I view both these perspectives as biased and ill informed.
Fortunately, I worked in Assam as well as in Meghalaya. While in Silchar, I no doubt observed provincial Bengali nationalism directed primarily against the Government of Assam, but I did not get the impression that the people in the Barak valley as a whole are against the tribals or other nationalities. Several tribal and non-tribal communities coexist in the Barak valley, and the ethnic clashes between them are rare. The Barak Valley people are the victims of the Partition which was thrusted upon them, without they ever asking for it. Following the Sylhet Referendum of 1947, several Bengali Hindus from the erstwhile East Pakistan migrated to and settled in the Barak Valley in the first three decades after independence. But in recent decades one hardly finds the Bangladeshis coming in large numbers and settling down in the Barak valley. As such, there is no truth in the rhetoric that Assam is trying to grab the tribal lands for accommodating the illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
Similarly, there is no substance in the vicious campaign going on in national and social media, painting all hill tribals of the northeast as anti-nationals and insurgents, and that this violence in the hills is because of the growth of Christianity, or because of the Article 371. The Mizo Hills has no doubt experienced insurgency during the mid-sixties and the seventies, but it had nothing to do with Christianity. Barring the Nagas, most hill communities in the northeast voluntarily accepted to be a part of the Indian Union. The constitutional guaranties given to some of the hill areas are the outcome of the recognition of the historic specificity of the hill communities, and not because of any appeasement policy of Nehru, or the Congress Party. The hill states like Mizoram and Meghalaya are among the most peaceful states in India today. Over the years, most Nagas realize the need to be part of India. Although one sees occasional inter-ethnic tensions in the hill states, there is no substance in the campaign that all non-tribals in the hill states are insecure and are the passive victims of reverse racism. Over the years, the hill states have witnessed the rise of rational voices who respect ethnic differences and advocate the need for peaceful coexistence of different communities.
As such no community or state – tribal or non-tribal – is inherently bad or aggressive. If so, why do we see border clashes every now and then, between Assam and the bordering hill states? The answer, I think, lies in differing perceptions of territorial borders and land rights. The people in the plain areas of Assam, which was under the direct rule of the British earlier and then became a part of the Indian Union, subscribe to a legalistic civic conception of land and territorial borders. They view land rights in terms of the rights of the State, or as individual property rights. In contrast, the hill communities, which were left almost unadministered during the British rule, and continued to have legal immunities even after independence, look at the issue of land and territory from community perspective. Here the land does not belong to the State, or even to the individuals, but to the clans and communities to which they belong. Even if the land is cultivated by individual families, they cannot part with it to the State or to any outsiders without the consent of the community. The borderlines that the governments draw on the map make little sense to them, if they contradict their community perceptions.
When we have competing conceptions of the idea of territorial borders and land rights, there is bound to be contradictions. But how do we resolve the differences? One may condemn the Mizos for the firing incident, but one should also ask what was the need for sending a big police contingent in the first instance? Was it necessary at all to send the armed police to deal with the Mizo peasants? If the Mizos had transgressed into the territory of Assam, the Assam government could have brought it to the notice of Mizo government and settled the matter through negotiation and mutual cooperation, involving the representatives of the border communities on both sides of Assam-Bangladesh border. If the governments and the state leaders have shown maturity, this firing and the death of the police could have been avoided.
What happened was bad, but followed the incident is worse. Instead of dousing the passions, the governments and politicians started supporting their respective police / people’s actions, and started accusing the other party. The people started identifying themselves with the police, governments and politicians of their states, and started taking communal stand against the other. The regional and national media, most of them with their biased understanding of the region, entered and added fuel to the fire. Taking this as an opportunity, some national jingoists and communal forces in the country have started campaigning for abolition of the Article 371, the Sixth Schedule and the Inner Line Permit, and began appealing to the Prime Minister to deal with the hill states the same way, he and his party had dealt with Kashmir. Without understanding the wider implications, some tribal activists in the region have also started defending and advocating violent means to settle differences with Assam.
It is high time the people of the north-eastern states raise above the communal and regional passions. In the long run, they do not serve the interests of any peoples – tribal, or non-tribal. The idea of teaching a lesson to the other would take us nowhere. The use, or the threat of use of force on both sides should be avoided. It is time we realize that the lives of the people of the north-eastern states are interconnected, and all of them are in some ways connected to other states within the region and also to the people outside the region. Hence, while it is good to think of protecting immediate local interests, it is also necessary to develop a wider perspective to look at the border problems and issues. We should not blindly trust and support the governments, politicians, parties and media, for they have their own interests and compulsions. Let us hope the irrational passions subside and the people of the north-eastern realize their common interests and destiny; resolve their differences through negotiations, and work unitedly for a better future.
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*The article is originally published in The Shillong Times on August 2, 2021
*Prof. H. Srikanth teaches in Political Science Department, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.
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