The history of the Northeast is the history of borders. The formation and reformation of borders have framed and re-framed the narratives of the North-eastern region of India. Interstate borders in the Northeast have always been on the boil intermittently. Assam has always been at the centre of these disputes- both geographically and otherwise. Assam shares borders with the six of the North-eastern states. Of the six, four have been carved from Assam at different points in history.
Manipur and Tripura both being princely states had more or less clearly defined boundaries since colonial times and disputes related to boundary issues are seldom reported compared to the other four. When we look into the states with which the states have most of the border disputes are the ones that were part of the Province of Assam during the rule of the British and were later carved out from Assam to form new states.
Nagaland was formed from Assam in 1963. Mizoram became a union territory in 1972 and later a full-fledged state in 1987. Arunachal Pradesh or erstwhile NEFA was formed into a union territory in 1971 with complete statehood in 1987. Meghalaya where Assam’s former and the hill state’s current capital Shillong is located was, enjoyed full autonomy since independence and became a full-fledged state in 1972.
However, experts have commented that the constitutionally demarcated boundaries overlooked many of the historical factors thus making these areas hotbeds of border disputes between the states.
According to leading sociologists during the Ahom rule, the boundaries between the hill communities (tribes) and the plains were not rigid and absolute but soft and fungible. There was regular trade and commerce between the Ahom Kingdom and the Kingdom of Bhutan. There was a mutual understanding about using the resources in the areas falling within the borderland by both those in the hills and the plains. According to historian SL Barua tribes of Nagaland were given tracts of land for use known as khat. The rivers and lakes were used for fishing and navigation.
When the British arrived and took up the governance of the Northeast, they found that there were no "calibrated" boundaries. Boundaries often defined by geographical features like hills, rivers water bodies etcetera were ‘fluid’ or ‘overlapping’.
The colonial administration started with forming boundaries on paper. Once they performed expeditions to map the different hill tracts of the region to protect their commercial interest. They implemented the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873 ostensibly to protect the tradition, culture, and heritage of the ‘tribes’ that dwelled in the hills. What is interesting to note is that while coming with the inner lines between specific hill tracts and the plains the British tried to legitimise it by taking the consent of the dominant tribe of that area.
It made sure that the ‘tribes’ in question did not cross those areas willy nilly and harm the commercial interests vis-à-vis the Tea Gardens which were being set up in the ‘wastelands of those ‘soft’ boundaries. However, it also laid down a line that became difficult to cross in the future.
The colonial masters left in 1947. With the passing decades, four states were formed from the erstwhile Assam province and each formation gave birth to a ‘border’ issue whose echoes have crossed 2021.
According to eminent sociologist Prof. Chandan Kumar Sharma, two factors have played a key role in escalating the border disputes in the Northeast. One is the increasing demographic pressure on the states. With every passing decade, the population has increased incrementally. Decadal population growth has remained north of 20 per cent since 1951 with major bumps in 1961, 1971 and 1981.
The second one according to Prof Sharma is the change of land use and ownership patterns in these borderland areas. The communities which depended on Jhum or shifting cultivation in these soft borders suddenly found themselves coming face to face with those hard boundaries no longer able to manoeuvre in the space where their ancestors roamed and intermingled with the plains freely and vice versa. Also the idea of permanent ownership of the lands in these border areas which have become the hotbed of permanent agriculture, industries have ‘infringed’ on a centuries-old established status-quo in these areas. If examined closely presence of these factors can be found in all the border disputes Assam and the other states of the northeast.
The Assam Nagaland border dispute is perhaps the oldest on paper. Assam and Nagaland share a 434 km long border which immediately became the source of contention since Nagaland’s formation in 1963. At the same time, it has to be kept in mind that it is also part of the larger demand for ‘Nagalim’ and the ‘Naga Peace Process’.
Even before independence, the Naga National Council had asked the then Governor of Assam Sir Akbar Hydari to return forests they claim were part of the ‘Naga areas’ transferred to Nowgaon and Sivasagar districts of Assam. The current border with Nagaland was formed in 1963 based on inner line demarcation the demarcation made by the British in 1925 clubbing together the ‘Naga’ areas.
The Assam-Nagaland border issue has been the site of many violent clashes in the region, leaving many dead in its wake and thousands displaced from time to time.
For Assam and Mizoram, the boundary demarcations of 1875 and 1933 have been the years of the genesis of the vexed issue. Assam and Mizoram share a 165 long boundary. Two different boundaries were formed in these years. The 1875 notification demarcated the boundaries between Lushai Hills and Cachar and the 1933 notification reformed the boundaries and consequently Mizoram.
Mizoram has time and again claimed the 1975 demarcation based on BEFR to settle the border issue, which involves huge tracts of reserved forest.
Arunachal Pradesh-Assam Dispute
With nearly 804 km, Arunachal Pradesh is the state with which Assam shares its 2nd longest boundary within the North-eastern states. Disputes between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh began with the formation of the union territory in 1972. The boundary demarcation which started in 1973 had to be stopped in 1979 due to multiple disputes arising out of it.
Currently, the matter is sub judice at the Supreme Court of India. However, governments of both states have issued statements indicating their willingness to settle the issue out of court. Arunachal’s contention is Bordoloi Committee had transferred huge tracts of land in 1951 which historically belonged to its indigenous communities.
Meghalaya was carved out in 1970 as a union territory, and it was later formed into a full-fledged state in 1972. Assam shares nearly 880 km with the state which houses its erstwhile capital.
Much like the issue with Arunachal Pradesh, the Bordoloi committee recommendations transferred lands to Karbi Anglong from Jaintia Hills and from Garo Hills to Goalpara. There are contentious areas between Kamrup Metro and contiguous Ri-Bhoi as well.
A common element that is seen in these disputed areas are that they are resource-rich, fertile, and filled with timber and other products. What started as a historical anomaly has metamorphosized into a resource war between the states of the Northeast. The change of land use and the demographic pressures in these border areas have made them complicated to settle requiring a nuanced understanding and a deft approach.
The Way Forward
A healthy relationship with neighbours is the key to the success and prosperity of any state or nation and the same applies to the northeast as well. There was, is, and always will be some tension along the borders, which is usually politically orchestrated. As citizens, we have to understand and identify these motives and moves so that the brotherhood that has existed for years among the people of the northeast is not harmed at any cost. Almost all of the states are connected by a common thread of history, and hence, understanding history and interpreting it the right way is another way to make things better in the region.
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