Why such aggression between Assam and Mizoram -- two states of the same country?
Violent border disputes flare from national antagonism, but what happened between Assam and Mizoram earlier this week is beyond bizarre.
On July 26, 200 armed police from Assam raided checkpoints that separate the state from its smaller neighbour. According to the official statement tweeted by Lalchamliana, home minister of Mizoram, they “forcibly crossed the duty post manned by [Central Reserve Police Force] personnel stationed there and overran a duty post manned by one section of Mizoram police.”
Lalhamliana said the Assamese damaged vehicles, and when local residents went to enquire about what was happening, “these unarmed civilians were assaulted.” Later in the day, “confrontation continued and a volley of tear gas canisters and grenades were launched at Mizoram Police followed by firing from Assam.” According to him, that’s when his men shot back, killing six from the other side.
Across the narrow breadth of Highway 306, the view is considerably different.
Assam’s new Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s own official statement argues: “In another breach of existing agreements and the existing status quo, Mizoram began constructing a road towards Rengti Basti in Assam [and] also set up a new armed camp next to the camp of the neutral force CRPF.”
According to him, his 200 armed police were dispatched merely “to diffuse the situation and resolve matters” when they were “surrounded and attacked by a mob of miscreants from the Mizoram side.” He decried “this unimaginably horrific attack” and declared “Assam will not concede even an inch of land” to its neighbouring state.
All this is curious timing. Just 48 hours earlier, all the northeast chief ministers held meetings in Shillong with India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, focusing on intrastate border disputes. At that time, the excellent hometown Shillong Times remarked that Sarma refused to comment on what transpired. Immediately afterwards, his actions spoke volumes.
What’s going on in this highly unusual aggression between states of the same country?
The outstanding analyst of the region Samrat X wrote in Newslaundry: “The difference in territorial perceptions between the neighbours is exacerbated by an ethnic tension. The population on the Mizoram side is tribal ... the population on the Assam side of the border, which lies in the Barak Valley, is predominantly Bengali, Hindu, and Muslim. Although this part of Assam has historically been inhabited by Bengalis, these people, merely because of their ethnicity, are held in suspicion as being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh regardless of their actual citizenship.”
It is precisely that angle taken in the inflammatory July 28 open letter to Sarma by Lalmuanzuala, president of the powerful Mizo Student’s Union: “You have initiated violence against civilians in Mizoram knowing fully well that your actions can hamper the cordial relationship we have with the Indian Union for your selfish motives to take away the land that our ancestors had fought for through blood and sweat.”
Lalmuanzuala wrote: “This havoc you have created has a hidden agenda and political motif and interest from your part and we are not ignorant to this. Within the Inner Line Reserve Forest Area of 509 sq miles, there are many illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who reside in the area. Your sheer attempt to appease this population and give them an autonomous district council to strengthen your political ambition must end immediately.”
It was a directly personal attack on the Assam CM: “Before your entrance into the world of politics, there was peace among the northeast states under the umbrella of the nomenclature ‘seven sisters.’ However, your disrespect and disregard to this unity because of your personal political ambitions even to the point of death have threatened and shaken the peace among the sisters. In short, you have made enemies with all your neighbouring northeast states.”
This is wildly overheated rhetoric, which nonetheless reflects popular understanding in this corner of India spilling over into Bangladesh and Myanmar.
That view holds that Sarma is the leading edge of the BJP’s trademark hard-line majoritarianism that seeks to drive a wedge between the 20 million plus Hindus in Assam, and the state’s Muslim minority, as well as the much smaller tribal and Christian populations in surrounding states. Here, the Bengali (always slurred as “Bangladeshi” whether Muslim or not) is an extremely reliable scapegoat.
That exact scenario in playing out with the astonishingly draconian Assam Cattle Preservation Bill tabled earlier this month, which aims to ban the sale of beef in areas absurdly designated as “dominated by non-beef consuming communities” as well as anywhere within a five-mile radius of temples or satras (Vaishnavite monasteries).
The obvious aim is to interfere with the traditional diet of millions of Assamese, as well as the vast majority of everyone in the surrounding states, but to justify his actions, Sarma raises the same old convenient bogeyman: “We want to prevent the smuggling of cows to Bangladesh.”
To get some perspective directly from Mizoram about this week’s ugly incidents, I wrote to the wonderful poet Mona Zote, who lives in the state capital, Aizawl. She told me: “Assam has several long-standing boundary altercations going on with neighbouring states, and it’s unlikely anybody’s oblivious to the uptick in aggression under their new dispensation. The motives of the BJP government are open to interpretation.”
But from her own home in Guwahati, the capital of Assam, the outstanding novelist Mitra Phukan cautioned me not to read too much national politicking in what happened this week.
She said: “Let us not forget [Himanta Biswa Sarma] won a very popular mandate, because he is viewed as efficient and very accessible. His handling of the Covid situation as health minister was excellent. Here too he is definitely working very hard. I feel that every now and again he makes those Hindutva noises to show Delhi that yes, he’s the BJP guy here. But actually, his appeal is completely regional.”
Phukan’s told me that “negotiation is the only way out, of course, with both parties taking into account the realities on the ground. Let’s not forget, we are part of the same country!”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.