Drawing new boundaries

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Shifting lines The recent clashes left over 10,000 people displaced, Photo: Parikhit Saikia
Shifting lines The recent clashes left over 10,000 people displaced. Photo: Parikhit Saikia

Weeks after the violent clashes along the Assam-Nagaland border, Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang has suggested converting the disputed inter-state boundary into a Line of Control (LoC), triggering panic in both the states. Speaking to the media, Zeliang said, “An LoC type arrangement will ensure that there is no new settlement in the disputed territory, from any sides.”

The proposal comes after seven villages were attacked along the border in Assam’s Golaghat district on 12 August. Within the next 24 hours, 200 houses were burned down. In the following week, over 10,000 people were displaced.

The two states share a 434-km border and clashes on the stretch have persisted for decades. What happened in Golaghat was nothing unusual but for the scale of violence.

Nagaland was carved out of Assam in 1963, but villages along the proposed border were never realigned. While Assam alleges that Nagaland encroached upon 60,000 hectares of forestland in Golaghat, Jorhat, Karbi Anglong and Sivasagar districts, Nagaland lays claim over Merapani and Uriamghat in Golaghat district and parts of Sivasagar and Karbi Anglong district as well.

With Naga tribes demanding the unification of Naga-dominated areas for years, Zeliang’s proposal might start a debate in his own state. The Nagaland Tribes Council (NTC) has already claimed that this proposal would be a complete abandonment of the age-old demand of the Nagas to reorganise Naga-inhabitated areas in Northeast India. Although the Opposition in Nagaland, the Congress, is yet to take on the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) government on this issue, if Nagaland hard presses this proposal, civil society groups in the state might rally against the government.

“The idea proposed by the chief minister is a fresh idea but it has issues. If the LoC is accepted, it would force both the states to guard each other’s territory at any cost. This might result in more skirmishes,” says Rajeev Bhattacharyya, a journalist from Assam. While the Assam government is tight-lipped on the proposal, sources however have confirmed that Assam would oppose the proposal; more so, because Assam has already filed a case against Nagaland in the Supreme Court on the border dispute. The SC has been hearing the matter for over a decade now.

Assam would think twice before settling for such an agreement, considering the fact that it has border disputes not just with Nagaland, but also Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. If Assam agrees to Nagaland’s proposal, other states are likely to demand the same, and the Northeast will turn into a boiling cauldron again, since land and borders have been at the root of every ethnic crisis in Northeast India.

With the Naga peace process stuck in a limbo for the past few decades, the NPF government is trying its best to show the people of the state that it is indeed serious in resolving the border dispute. Former chief minister and NPF leader Neiphiu Rio had given up the chief minister’s chair earlier this year to make it to the Lok Sabha promising the people of Nagaland an early solution to the Naga peace process. Given the fact that a new regime is in power at the Centre the NPF, an ally of the BJP, will definitely try to wrest the upper hand.

But with several underground rebel groups operating in the area, the idea of an LoC might be too risky for the Centre. If it does it will be only on political compulsions and not priorities.

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