Tiny states ‘border’ on the defensive, sharing — as they do — tenuous relationships with their neighbours. This is especially true of states carved out of bigger ones, such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram that have a running boundary feud with Assam.
An almost ritualistic conflagration is being orchestrated on the Assam-Nagaland border at Uriamghat, which left nearly a score of people dead and thousands homeless. Assam shares over a 500km-long boundary with Nagaland, covering five districts: Golaghat, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao (formerly the North Cachar Hills district), and with no clear demarcation, skirmishes over land are routine. The latest flashpoint that led to the arson, deaths and exodus in Golaghat has had the chief ministers, Tarun Gogoi and T.R. Zeliang, rushing off missives to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his intervention in restoring peace. Their reasoning is irresponsible and naïve: the area is manned by the CRPF, so the onus is on the Centre to defuse the situation. On Tuesday, the police stepped in and killed a protester.
The CRPF was deployed as a neutral force. Gogoi has sought 10 additional companies for rapid security reinforcement in the area to contain the violence, but on Sunday, he blamed this very force for the prevailing unrest. Neither he nor his counterpart in Nagaland visited the disturbed area till almost a week after the deaths were reported.
The only politician to visit the spot within days of the arson was the parliamentary secretary for border affairs, N. Thomas Lotha. He said the latest violence was “not a border dispute or ethnic cleansing as depicted by the media, but a landlord-tenant issue”. For decades, the adivasi settlers in the buffer zone have cultivated land belonging to the Nagas on a share-cropping basis. “Now the farmers are demanding the land and seeking patta (deed). The protests escalated when the cultivators were caned by the CRPF and miscreants from Nagaland set fire to their homes,” Lotha added. Night curfew was imposed as a precautionary measure. Several organizations enforced an economic blockade on Nagaland, preventing vehicles with essential commodities from proceeding to the land-locked state.
Following the 16-point agreement of 1960 and an interim pact signed in 1972 between the two states, Assam and Nagaland admitted to the “disputed area” on the border and wanted all police posts removed. Given the century-old peaceful co-existence between the Nagas and the inhabitants of Assam, the recent years of violence smacks of political apathy and vested interests. The former border areas development minister of Assam, Siddique Ahmed, said: “No activities could be carried out in the border areas for paucity of funds. Only Rs 8 crore was allocated in last year’s budget and Central funds have also been frozen for not submitting utilization certificates on time.” Even Gogoi admitted that the border areas “lack adequate socio-economic infrastructure.”
Each time violence erupts in these zones, political parties resort to predictable blame-games and those living on the edge have to come to terms with an uncertain future. Whenever villages are set ablaze, the people are herded into makeshift relief camps. It is no wonder that camp inmates chased Gogoi away when he went on his belated ‘tour’. It is time politicians stopped making a mockery of suffering: their VIP entourage, whether on flood surveys or riot zone tours, invariably proves to be a menace. As if this were not enough, shoot-at-sight orders were issued on Wednesday, leading to two more deaths. The question to ask the chief minister is this: is there a probe in the offing?