A History of Skirmishes: Assam-Mizoram Border Conflict
Clashes over Border demarcations in India didn’t end in 1947 with the birth of Pakistan. There was no respite from these conflicts after that. In fact, it marked the beginning of an era of internal border disputes. Sir John Strachey was indeed right when he said that the differences between European countries were much smaller than the ‘countries’ within India; ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like Punjab.’ But it is this diversity, which some may term as differences, that constitutes the essence of a country that remains integrated even after 74 long years of independence.
The list of internal border disputes is long. It goes back to 1957 when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was faced with the demand for reorganisation on linguistic grounds. Since then many new states have been born but a few bones of contention still remain. The North East of India has had a turbulent history in this regard and recent developments still have something to add to it.
The map of the seven sisters has undergone several modifications. Every state was once a part of Assam, except Nagaland & Tripura. So was the case with Mizoram, which was formerly known as Lushai Hills, which attained statehood in 1987. Distrust between Assam and Mizoram has its roots in history as long back as 1958 when Mizoram [then Lushai Hills] was struck by a famine. Despite warning the Assam State Government and the Central government, they received no support. This paved the way for a 20-year long insurgency that ultimately culminated in the statehood of Mizoram. Today, both the states follow two different boundary demarcations that were made in 1875 and then in 1933, by the colonial government, which leads to constant border skirmishes.
In the 19th century, the British began expanding Tea Cultivation in Assam and this disturbed the Mizo lifestyle of shifting cultivation and hunting. Now, they couldn’t occupy the land they needed as the British were occupying most of it for tea estates. As a form of protest, Mizos started raiding the Cachar Hills in Assam. To end this conflict came to the 1875 border demarcation, where the British formed the imaginary Inner Line Regulation [which continues to be in place today] between Lushai Hills and the plains of Assam. Half a century later came the 1933 demarcation which defined the beginning of Manipur at the tri-junction of Assam’s Cachar Hills, Mizoram and the princely state of Manipur. However, here lies a difference. In the former demarcation, the Mizo chiefs were consulted while the latter was a decision taken entirely by the British.
In 1987, the two states agreed to maintain the status quo and established a ‘No Man’s Land.’ The 165km long boundary has Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj on Assam’s side and Mamit, Kolasib and Aizawl in Mizoram.
Sporadic skirmishes have always happened as multiple rounds of peace talks didn’t yield any solution. In October 2020, locals in Assam’s Lailapur village allegedly built huts in the disputed border area. In retaliation, the Mizos set the huts on fire. The Mizo officials claimed that the land has always been under Mizo cultivators and Assam broke the status quo. In the same month, allegedly a farmhouse owned by the resident of Mamit district was burnt down by Assam’s Karimganj officials. H Lalthangliana, the Kolasib deputy commissioner, told The Indian Express, “There is no clear line indicating the Assam-Mizoram border in some areas. According to an agreement between governments of Assam and Mizoram some years ago, status quo should be maintained in no-man’s land in the border area. However, people from Lailapur broke the status quo and allegedly constructed some temporary huts. People from Mizoram side went and set fire to them.”
"After October violence, the disputed area was handed over to CRPF as neutral forces. But, we saw that Mizoram was constructing a road in Assam's side of the reserve forest that would run into Assam through the Range Gaon and a post to oversee the works were built. When we went there to talk, taking advantage of the higher grounds they fired at our police," Assam Chief Minister Hemanta Biswa Sharma told the assembly. According to reports, the recent 26 July clashes erupted when around 200 Assam police personnel allegedly came to the auto-rickshaw stand on Vairengte [Mizoram] and “forcibly” closed the CRPF duty post along with a section of the Mizoram police personnel. In response to this, Assam officials claim that the Mizoram police and civilian-clothed people with rifles are responsible for the dispute. Keerthi Jalli, Cachar Deputy Commissioner, said, “They opened fire.” The clash claimed the lives of 5 police personnel and about 60 people injured. Both sides expressed their regret over this incident and looked forward to a peaceful resolution.
A very clear pattern in the North Eastern states’ border dispute is that it is only between Assam and the states that were carved out of it. The differences between Assam and Mizoram have also led to economic blockades by locals. This mainly included blocking National Highway 306, which is the only route that connects to Mizoram for exports and imports. To this, CM Sarma said, “We cannot destroy the spirit of the northeast. We have convinced the people to lift the economic blockade.” But the fire rekindled following the recent bomb blast at a government school in Assam.
The battle has been a long one. Like most issues, the history of this has its roots in the colonial past. Experts say that this can be resolved either by Central intervention or mutual agreement to uphold peace-talks outcomes. However, border issues are complex and expecting an outcome overnight would be naivety. Someone very rightly said- “If you see two fishes fighting, be sure that an Englishman passed by the pond!”
Karmakar R. (2021, July 26) 5 Assam policemen killed in border clash with Mizoram. The Hindu.
Choudhury R. (2021, August 13) Assam Says 20 Police Outposts Set Up Along Border With Mizoram. NDTV.
OpIndia staff. (2021, July 27) Assam-Mizoram dispute: How India’s colonial past rages violent interstate border conflicts. OpIndia.
Rao V. (2021, August 11) Mizos favouring the 1875 border and Assam the 1933 line, the dispute needs a permanent solution. National Herald.
Web Desk (2021, July 27) Explained: The Assam-Mizoram border dispute, which resulted in death of five police officers. The Week.
Deb D. (2021, August 5) Explained: Why did a 150-year-old Assam-Mizoram dispute get violent now? The Indian Express.