Why seven people died in clash between two northeast India states

Rare clash last week over longstanding border dispute between Assam and Mizoram leaves six police officers and a civilian dead.

Guwahati, India – Bullets, tear gas canisters and grenades were fired on July 26 at a contentious border point between the states of Assam and Mizoram in India’s northeast.

Six police officers and a civilian from Assam were killed and more than 60 people wounded in the rare incident at the village of Vairengte in Mizoram’s Kolasib district.

Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and his Mizoram counterpart Zoramthanga, who goes by one name, squabbled on Twitter, blaming each other for inciting the violence and causing a major embarrassment to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Dear Himantaji, after cordial meeting of CMs by Hon’ble Shri @amitshah ji, surprisingly 2 companies of Assam Police with civilians lathicharged & tear gassed civilians at Vairengte Auto Rickshaw stand inside Mizoram today. They even overrun CRPF personnel /Mizoram Police. https://t.co/SrAdH7f7rv — Zoramthanga (@ZoramthangaCM) July 26, 2021

In a rare move, Assam on Tuesday said it will deploy 4,000 commandos along its border with Mizoram and advised its residents to avoid travelling to the neighbouring state.

Mizoram police filed complaints against Sarma and four Assam police officers, accusing them of attempted murder among other charges.

Likewise, the Assam police registered cases against a Mizoram politician for his “threatening comments” and six other police officers who allegedly fired at their Assamese counterparts.

Tensions defused over the weekend, with the two chief ministers tweeting they would seek an “amicable” approach to the dispute. Zoramthanga urged locals to stop posting “sensitive messages” on social media while Sarma highlighted the “spirit of the northeast”.

“What happened along the Assam-Mizoram border is unacceptable to the people of both states… Border disputes can only be resolved through discussion,” Sarma tweeted.

But the situation on the ground remains tense, with Mizoram residents alleging that essential supplies, including COVID test kits, were being blocked from entering the state at a national highway at Lailapur, the border town in Assam’s Cachar district.

What caused the bloodiest clash ever?

India’s northeast – a region between Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Tibet, and tethered to the rest of the country by a narrow land corridor – has been a hotbed of ethnic tensions for decades and borders between its seven states are not clearly defined.

Tensions between Assam and Mizoram had been building since June when Mizoram alleged that Assam had encroached on its territory. Assam, in turn, accused Mizoram villagers of encroaching on its reserve forest land.

The longstanding border dispute between the two states dates back to the colonial era when northeast India consisted of Assam and the princely states of Manipur and Tripura.

After India’s independence in 1947, the states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of Assam, with Mizoram first declared a federal territory in 1972 and elevated to a state in 1987.

Three of Mizoram’s districts – Kolasib, Mamit and Aizawl – share a 165km (101-mile) boundary with the three Assam districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi.

Paramilitary forces in the border village of Lailapur, Cachar, Assam [Biswa Kalyan Purkayastha/Al Jazeera]

Much of the disagreement between the two states arises from different views on which border notification to follow.

Mizoram’s view of the border is based on an 1875 notification by the British administration, which made a clear demarcation between the Cachar plains in present-day Assam and Lushai Hills, which later came to be known as Mizoram.

Assam, on the other hand, goes by a 1933 map drawn by a British survey of India along linguistic and tribal lines, leading to a new boundary separating Lushai Hills, Cachar and the former princely state of Manipur. The demarcation showed some parts of Lushai Hills in Manipur.

The people of Mizoram (Mizos) rejected the 1933 demarcation, saying their tribal chiefs were not consulted.

“If Assam is pointing at 1933, then Mizoram also has every right to go back to the 1875 notification. In a democratic country, there has to be an equal consensus between both the states,” Mizoram-based border analyst Joseph K Lalfakzuala told Al Jazeera.

Longstanding border dispute

Clashes between Assam and Mizoram have occurred in the past as well, with the first dating back to 1994.

Burned settlements of Mizo villagers at the border village of Vairengte in Mizoram [Zion Lalremruata/Al Jazeera]

In the last few years, however, tensions have spiked.

In 2018, about 50 people from Mizoram were attacked by Assam police after some youth from the Mizo Students Association tried to build a makeshift shed on the “disputed boundary”.

In October last year, the two states clashed twice within one week, leaving a number of people injured and resulting in a two-week blockade of the main highway passing through Assam to Mizoram and on which the latter depends for essential supplies.

On July 26 last week, a large contingent of Assam police went across the buffer zone and came up to the Mizoram police, according to the residents of Vairengte village in Mizoram.

“They said this is Assam and we are going to take over your camp. They came prepared with tents and ambulances,” Zion Lalremruata, a peasant leader from Vairengte, told Al Jazeera.

Civilians on both sides heard about the scuffle and rushed to the border where blows were exchanged and stones were pelted.

“This kind of tension has been there before and the Assam police has always been polite but this time they were very aggressive and bossy,” Lalremluata said.

H Lalthangliana, an official from Mizoram’s home ministry, told Al Jazeera that Assam police had been destroying the huts of Mizoram villagers on the border for quite some time now.

“What really angers the Mizos is that no notifications are usually given on why their huts and plantations are burned down,” he said.

Burned settlements of Mizo villagers at the border village of Vairengte in Mizoram [Zion Lalremruata/Al Jazeera]

The Assam side had its own version of the deadly incident.

Police superintendent of Cachar district in Assam, Ramandeep Kaur Dhillon, told Al Jazeera the forests along the border, controlled by the federal government, are behind the tensions between Assam and Mizoram.

Mizoram claims 1,318sq km (509 sq miles) of the so-called inner-line reserve forest under the 1875 notification, which Assam rejects.

Dhillon said no settlement is allowed in the forest area, but there have been encroachments in the last few years, which the Assam officials were trying to remove.

“The divisional forest officer requisitioned the eviction of the encroachment and all senior officials went to the post for talks and suddenly there was unprovoked firing from Mizoram’s side,” Dhillon told Al Jazeera.

Dilbhag Hussain, a resident of Lailapur in Assam, also said the Mizoram police and civilians were present at the border and the firing started from their side.

“That’s why, you see, people from Assam have died and so many were injured. There is no point in having a discussion with the Mizos – they don’t consider themselves Indians.”

Hussain said the Vairengte police check post used to be 5 to 6km (3 miles) above Lailapur, but the Mizos kept bringing it further down and now it is situated just 2km (1.2 miles) away.

“They have built huts and have set up camps in the status quo area,” Hussain added.

Another Lailapur resident, Abdul Laskar, who was present at the altercations and sustained injuries, said the situation had never escalated to this point.

“Earlier there used to be sticks and stones involved, but things would eventually cool down and we would be brothers again.”

An Assam police vehicle in the village of Lailapur in Cachar, Assam [Biswa Kalyan Purkayastha/Al Jazeera]

‘Illegal Bangladeshi migrants’

The Mizos say there is no encroachment from their side and insist that their main issue is the “illegal migration from Bangladesh” into what they perceive as their land.

“We have been occupying our own land for the past 100-150 years. This is the land of our forefathers and now there are so many of them on our lands,” Lalremruata said.

Mrinal Talukdar, a senior journalist from Assam, told Al Jazeera there has been a perception among the Mizos that “certain sections of people from East Pakistan are dominating” their gateway from Vairengte and that they see these people as a “threat to their existence”.

A large number of people on the Assam side of the border are Bengali Muslims, with the Mizos calling them “illegal migrants from Bangladesh”.

Talukdar added that the anxieties of the Mizos are similar to those of the Assamese, who also consider themselves indigenous and dislike the Bengali Muslims.

Assam Chief Minister Sarma, on the other hand, alleged that people who have entered Mizoram from neighbouring Myanmar are trying to settle in the state’s Dima Hasao district, creating ethnic tensions.

While the situation at the Assam-Mizoram border continues to be tense and unpredictable, experts say a consensus can be achieved through a political solution to the dispute.

“Border issues should be tackled constitutionally, else civilians are the ones who end up suffering,” said analyst Lalfakzuala.