All It Took Was A Hut For A Riot

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Violent legacy Disputes along Assam’s borders have persisted for decades
Violent legacy Disputes along Assam’s borders have persisted for decades

On 12 August, seven villages were attacked in Assam’s Golaghat district, along the state’s border with Nagaland. Within the next 24 hours, 200 houses were burned down. In the following week, over 10,000 Assamese were displaced and 17 people were killed in police firing and clashes along the border.

Weeks later, tensions along the border have subsided. The displaced have started returning home, and curfew in the region is relaxed. And while there hasn’t been any violence in the past few days, apprehension runs high.

Border disputes between Assam and Nagaland have persisted for years but Golaghat has never seen rioting on this scale ever. At the heart of this mindless violence is a petty land dispute involving an Assamese tenant and a Naga landowner that was later taken over by political actors, says a note sent to the home ministry by the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

According to the note, an Adivasi from Assam had entered into an agreement to cultivate a plot of land owned by a Naga in the disputed area belt (DAB) along the inter-state border near Uriamghat. The Adivasi was supposed to share his produce with the Naga. When the Naga tried to build a hut on the land, the Adivasi objected. Their arguments soon turned into an ethnic clash involving the Adivasis of Assam and the Nagas.

Things took a turn for the worse when two Adivasi boys from the region went missing, triggering panic. Soon suspected members of the insurgent outfit Adivasi National liberation Army (ANLA) chased away Nagas from Golaghat. The Nagas, in turn, sought support of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khole-Kitovi), who allegedly abducted three Adivasis in a retaliatory move. On 12 August, all hell broke lose, as houses were torched and people chased out of their homes in Golaghat.

The note falls in line with most land-related disputes in the region, where a row between two individuals often turns into an ethnic clash, it is what follows that is interesting.

Soon after the Adivasis of Assam fled to a relief camp in Uriamghat, a noted Assamese activist tried to trigger a protest on Independence Day. Meanwhile, some civil society groups started an economic blockade of Nagaland by barricading a key national highway linking Nagaland to the rest of the country. The note suggests this was done at the behest of a strong anti-Tarun Gogoi lobby inside the Congress in Assam.

The note also points a finger at the media, indicating that a Guwahati-based news channels may have aired old grainy visuals of police firing on a mob and the same visuals were telecast by another national English news channel, which added to the prevailing tension.

Protesters accused the Assam Police of failing to protect people from the attack from Nagaland. National Highway (NH)-37 and NH-39 that link Upper Assam, Nagaland and Manipur to the rest of the country were blocked for almost a week, the Numaligarh oil refinery stopped functioning and hundreds of oil tankers loaded with petroleum products were left stranded.

Apart from a judicial probe, Assam has asked for a CBI inquiry into the violence. The Centre, meanwhile, has rushed extra forces, but all these perhaps cannot guarantee peace in the area. Assam’s border will simmer because its land disputes are quite unique and historical in many ways.

“I agree that the administration handled the situation in a tardy manner; there was an effort to divert the issue and make it ethnic for political gains. The core issue is the border dispute and since the case itself is sub-judice in the Supreme Court, the Centre will have to play a key role in solving it. According to the SC order, the CRPF is deployed in the contested region, but they aren’t performing their duties,” says MP and the CM’s son Gaurav Gogoi.

Assam and Nagaland share a 434 km inter-state boundary. Nagaland was, in fact, carved out of Assam in 1963. Assam alleges that Nagaland encroached upon 60,000 hectares of forestland in Golaghat, Jorhat, Karbi Anglong and Sivasagar districts. Nagaland, on the other hand, lays claim over Merapani and Uriamghat in Golaghat district and parts of Sivasagar and Karbi Anglong district as well.

“The origin of these border disputes lies in history. The Assam government has failed to bring a lasting solution. The root of many conflicts in the Northeast is land. Control of land and resources are being keenly contested. The easy availability of arms in the region only makes things bloody and complex,” says Rajeev Bhattacharyya, a journalist.

In fact, disputes have persisted along Assam’s borders with Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh for decades. The erstwhile Assam of the British era was divided into several states on linguistic basis after Independence, creating fissures of conflict. Every once in a while, civil society of one state imposes economic blockade on the others.

While Nagaland was carved out of Assam in 1963, Meghalaya was separated from Assam in 1972. Mizoram, which was part of Assam, got a separate state status in 1987, and Arunachal Pradesh, which was annexed with Assam, became a full-fledged state in 1987. The boundaries were redrawn, but none of the new states obliged. Assam and Meghalaya have 12 points of conflict along the 733 km border. Meghalaya claims Lampi and part of Karbi Anglong that lies in Assam.

Arunachal Pradesh claims parts of Sonitpur, Lakhimpur and Tinsukia district of Assam. Even Manipur and Nagaland are at loggerheads over Dzuko Valley. While Manipur claims it to be part of Senapati district, Nagaland is of the view that the tourist hot spot is part of Kohima district.

“Assam has been like an elder brother for the other smaller states in the region. Communities should not fight for some vested interest groups. It is time that civil society groups across the region come together and take the government both at the state and the Centre to task,” says noted activist from Nagaland Niketu Iralu.

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