By Sagarneel Sinha
Often the northeast region of the country is clubbed together but the fact is the states of this region are different from each other in terms of tribe, language, food, clothing, culture and history. These kinds of cultural differences are seen inside these states too. This shows the kind of diversity the region has. Sometimes, the history of one tribe contradicts that of another tribe. Different tribes claim the same land. Let’s not forget that there is a religious division as not all the tribes follow the same religion. Although it has been seen that two tribes, despite following the same religion, share differences between them.
Actually, the region has many existing fault lines and these continue to exist as the Centre kept these issues in cold storage to maintain the status quo. One of the main issues is there has always been a long-distance between the aspirations and expectations of people of the region and the Centre. It is not that the Centre never tried to bridge the gap but somehow failed to do so. But the bitter truth that can’t be neglected is the powers ruling at New Delhi in the past often ignored the region. As a result, the issues, however critical they were, remained as they didn’t matter much for those who were at New Delhi.
The problems of the region became more complicated after it had to bear the brunt of immigration. These immigrations mostly happened after 15th August 1947 as religious minorities like Hindus and Buddhists of East Pakistan, present Bangladesh, facing persecutions at the hands of the fundamental groups of the majority Muslim community were forced to migrate to India as refugees and settled mostly in the underdeveloped northeastern region. If this wasn’t enough, the powers ruling in the northeastern states like Assam with the support of the powers at New Delhi encouraged illegal Muslim immigration from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) to reap electoral benefits. As a result of both historical and religious vote bank politics, new problems arose in the region, where already the residing tribes have their own issues related to land and cultural survival.
The recent Assam and Mizoram deadly border clash, where seven including six police jawans from Assam died, is also an old issue going back to colonial times. Mizoram was formed in 1987 carving out of the Lushai (Mizo) hills of Assam. But the border disputes remained and in the past too there had been tensions on the border between the two states. The problem was the borders drawn between them weren’t properly demarcated physically and the demarcation was mostly focussed on maps. Even the Supreme Court had ordered in the past to form a boundary commission to resolve the border dispute between the two states but nothing much happened on this issue and the dispute remained as it is.
Both Assam and Mizoram have blamed each other for the recent border clash. The truth, however, remains in darkness. According to Assam, its strong actions on drug cartels, which operate from Myanmar to Mizoram and then to Assam and the rest of the country, is one of the main reasons. But Mizoram also says that it has seized drugs coming from Assam in the past and puts the blame on the latter for encroaching its lands. Assam also alleges the same against Mizoram. Importantly, the immigrants are also related to the issue with Mizos blaming Bangladeshi immigrants residing in Assam for destroying their forest lands. The bitter fact is both the state governments are responsible for this clash. The chief ministers of both the states — Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam and Zoramthanga of Mizoram — have to create an atmosphere of dialogue, which should never become a victim of emotional appeals. Although quite late, the two states have been trying to de-escalate the situation with home minister Amit Shah asking both Sarma and Zoramthanga to restore peace.
The seriousness of the dispute can be measured from the fact that just two days before the clash between Assam and Mizoram, all the chief ministers of the northeast region met together to discuss the border issues where Shah himself chaired the meeting of the North Eastern Council (NEC). This deadly clash is going to haunt Shah and the Narendra Modi government, which has increased its focus on the region since it assumed power in 2014, for a long time.
Along with Mizoram, Assam has border disputes with Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Tripura also has a border dispute with Mizoram. From 1979 to 1985, around 100 people had lost their lives in Assam-Nagaland’s deadly border clashes. There was a time when Congress was in power at the Centre and in the northeastern states — but it failed to solve the issues. Today BJP is in power at the Centre and all the northeastern states are either ruled by it or by parties that are part of the NDA. But the border tensions remain despite the same political parties or alliances sharing the power — both in the present and the past. It clearly shows that these tensions of the region go beyond party politics and these issues shouldn’t be looked at through the prism of the same.
In the disputed border of Assam and Mizoram, already both the states have agreed to deploy a neutral (CAPF) force with the Centre playing the mediator role. Amid this tension, Assam and Nagaland signed deals to de-escalate the border tensions existing between them. To be fair, such attempts have been done in the past too.
There should be a permanent solution to all these disputes and the Centre can’t just be a facilitator in these talks. It has to lead the talks to find a forever permanent solution to these tensions. For the time being, the Centre has to ensure the status quo is maintained by the states. Some experts have argued to turn these disputed areas into economic hubs under the watch of the Centre. This proposal should also be looked into. The region already is an underdeveloped one and turning these areas into economic hubs may turn the tide. The areas also contain forest lands, which can also be turned into tourist spots. Forest lands need to be preserved too.
The Modi government, which deserves its credit for focussing on this often ignored underdeveloped region, has to move beyond the syndrome of only blaming the previous Congress governments at the Centre and find an amicable solution to the border tensions existing between the north-eastern states. These tensions have the complete potentiality to derail the path of development and stability in the region. The Modi government’s Act East policy too faces a big hurdle due to these tensions. These can’t be solved by force but by constructive patient dialogues, not by mere hollow ones. (IPA Service)