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DEVELOPMENT - The KEY to BORDER DISPUTES

That Assam is a State that  is facing many problems  does not need any elucidation. The very thought that dominates our mind is when will the Government be able to resolve at least some of the serious maladies affecting it such as recurring floods and erosion which are rendering thousands of families homeless, the illegal cross – border infiltration, border rows, to mention a few. It is quite natural that the people of the State are deeply concerned about these burning problems, solutions to which are still kept pending for future consideration, because they have valid reasons to be worried about these they know that any further laxity on the part of those in power may result in an acrimonious situation in the State. And, that is, of course, what it has been witnessing for a long time now. What is frustrating is that, as of now, there is no information regarding any measures of the Central and State Governments to address these troubling issues.

As we are well aware, periodic boundary rows among the North Eastern States is largely responsible for the dearth of land records. This is one of the reasons why Assam, more often than not, witnesses land disputes along its borders with Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Not too long ago, Naginijan tea estate in the Mariani sector of Assam’s border with Nagaland had been in the news for an unpleasant development – an alleged shot – out by some miscreants from the other side of the borer targeting a farmer named Sanjay Bhumij who was reportedly ploughing his paddy field there. He breathed his last on his way to the local dispensary.

Two days after the death of the farmer, on the 3rd of June 2013, Assam police personnel claimed that the NSCN (IM) faction was involved in the shoot – out. However, according to the Nagaland Government, it was the Assam Tea Tribes’ Liberation Volunteers which had been behind the disturbance on that day as they had opened fire at Naga farmers near the border. The Assam Government has countered this by denying the existence of any such rebel outfit by that name. It is true that no one can say for sure whether the Naga rebel organization was behind the tea estate worker’s death till the ongoing investigation is over but, interestingly, the preliminary investigation has, in the meantime, given a hint that the NSCN (IM) might have been behind the shoot – out “given the nature of the attack.”

Although normalcy returned to the trouble – torn area soon after with three platoons of security personnel deployed along the border being posted in and around the garden, there was great excitement in the neighbouring Sivasagar district on the night of the 4th of June when goons from Nagaland demanded that the people in the Geleky area of Assam along the disputed border retaliate against the indefinite blockade which was called by the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (ATTSA) on that day on about six roads linking the two States. It is however heartening that the ATTSA had called off the blockade the following day from Sivasagar and Golaghat districts after an assurance from the district administrations to take up the issues raised by them. Had this blockade not been lifted, it would have been the poor people who would have been the most affected as is the case with any blockade, counter – blockade which invariably results in the cost of essential commodities soaring through the roof. This group of people was confronted with a similar crisis when a counter – economic blockade was imposed by various Naga bodies on Manipur’s national highways a few years back in protest against the Manipur State Government’s refusal to allow NSCM (IM) Chairman Th Muivah a visit to his native village Somdal which lies in Manipur.

From whichever angle one may look at what had happened at Mariani, it is clear that land is the bone of contention between Assam and Nagaland which is being termed as a struggle for identity. The tragic bloody clashes and the skirmishes between the two neighbours along the inter – state border are not a new development. Candidly speaking, these confrontations indulged in by both sides began even before the creation of Nagaland in 1963 and are still going on at almost regular intervals, the border line having been well demarcated on the lines of the 1925 British Notification notwithstanding. A number of political leaders and activists of the armed insurgent groups are of the view that some areas were wrongfully detached from the then Naga Hills district and integrated with Assam. This is probably why the Naga leaders, especially A.Z. Phizo, the then President of the Naga National Council were never happy with what they called the ‘Constitutional boundary’ of their State. They in fact laid claim on about 5,000 sq, km of Assam including the three Rengma Naga mouzas of the Karbi Hills and the Zemi Naga villages of the North Cachar Hills.

This feeling of deprivation on their part is what seems to induce the frequent angry outbursts from Nagaland as is mirrored in the recent shoot – out in Mariani. A couple of months ago, what had come about at Gaur Basti near Merapani in Golaghat district was also a clear manifestation of this sentiment. Farmers of Nagaland had, through frantic efforts tried to forcefully eject the villagers from their 250 hectare of arable land in Assam and grab it for themselves. The situation was finally salvaged when the former welcomed the latter to cultivate the same plot of land.

It is worth mentioning here that it is not that Assam has a border row only with Nagaland. To be honest, Assam has serious border tussles even with Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. On several occasions in recent times, we have seen the Government of each State blaming illegal intrusion and encroachment on large tracts of land on the other. At times, the concerned States are heard of putting up polling stations, check posts and even bunkers in disputed territories. The purpose of making a reference to Assam’s border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya here is just to make ourselves aware  of how, through decades of a casual approach by successive Governments at the Centre and in the States, these sores are suppurating, thus triggering a rift into the age – old relations between the communities and the States. What is even more frustrating is the fact that the Centre is not taking up the matter seriously.

The question now arises – What can be done to resolve the lingering border dispute between Assam and Nagaland and defuse the tension among the people who have been living in the areas along the inter – state boundary for centuries? There is no gainsaying the fact that whenever the situation along the disputed areas of the border heats up following incidents of tragic clashes or depredation whatsoever, the presence of police personnel there is increased, peace meetings are held at the official level or the Chief Minister level to instill a sense of security among the people in the border areas. However, what is needed most at that critical juncture is ignored, the participation of the leading civil society groups and influential students’ bodies from both sides in the meetings. As a result, the normalcy that limps back to the trouble – torn area in most cases is on most occasions short – lived. Who knows if the presence of these groups may pave the way for a permanent solution to the problem?

Indeed, from the nature of the recent confrontations at Mariani and Gaur Basti near Merapani last year, what is understandable is that there is a larger issue involved in the dispute than mere land and this larger issue is the poor economic state of the people living in these border areas. If the rural economy is made more vibrant through the setting up of industries, the local population o both sides of the disputed border will get gainful employment besides a ready market for their local products. Fully – fed and busy, they will not waste time in joining hands with miscreants from either side of the border in their diabolical plan to create trouble along the inter – state border.

Dwaipayan