Borders between states in India are often conflict zones of different kinds. Disputes over small tracts of land or some other local issues remain a constant threat to peace in these areas. In the country’s Northeast, boundary disputes between states have an added dimension. The people living on the borders between several of these states feel they have been wronged historically — first by the British rulers and then by the boundary-makers of independent India. The border dispute between Assam and Nagaland, that claimed over a dozen lives earlier this month, is rooted in such perceptions. That is why violence has periodically gripped some of these areas ever since the separate state of Nagaland was carved out of old Assam in 1963. While these areas are part of Assam’s territory, local Naga inhabitants have always known them as their home. Assam’s claim may derive from the ‘constitutional’ process of the 1963 boundary-making, but Nagaland seems to have both history and demography on its side. For the people living on the Assam-Nagaland border, though, life remains as insecure today as it was in 1963. There are the usual shows of State power after every bloodbath, but that hardly makes life any less insecure in these areas.
This time, too, the chief ministers of the two states played their part in the blame game. New Delhi also discussed the situation with the chief minister. But there are no indications so far that either the Centre or the states have a realistic strategy to put an end to the recurring tragedies on the Assam-Nagaland border. Border disputes in the Northeast do not offer easy solutions. There are more complicated disputes between Nagaland and Manipur, which the militant groups in the region routinely exploit. What has been done over decades may not be easily undone. All this does not mean, however, that the Centre and the state administrations should stand by and give trouble-makers a free run of the place. In 2006, the Supreme Court set up a three-member commission to identify an acceptable boundary. The commission’s report could be the basis for a fresh attempt at resolving the dispute. Obviously, any changes in the existing border could be a political minefield. It may be too naïve to expect politicians to rise above territorial chauvinism. However, the least that they can do is help maintain peace in the areas until the dispute is resolved.