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Mizoram: 'Assam's bullying went too far'

By A GANESH NADAR
Last updated on: July 30, 2021 16:56 IST
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'This is not the first time that a large contingent of Assam armed police led by senior officers attacked and destroyed farm huts, crops and plantations of Mizo farmers.'
'There have been a series of such intrusions in the past and the pace of such intrusions increased in the recent past.'

IMAGE: Police personnel and locals during a clash at Vairengte in Kolasib district of Mizoram, July 26, 2021, in which 6 police personnel from Assam died and many were injured. Photograph: PTI Photo.
 

On Monday, July 26, the unthinkable happened. The police force of two states, Assam and Mizoram, fired on each other at their state border. In the ensuing violence six Assam policemen died and many civilians were injured on both sides.

The border dispute between the two states is a problem left over from the British era and there have been several attempts in the past two solve it -- in vain so far. But this is the first time that the police from either side has fired upon each other.

The Union home ministry called a meeting of the chief secretaries and directors general of police of both states in New Delhi on Wednesday, July 28, where both sides agreed to let things cool down and to settle the issue through dialogue.

Soon after returning to Aizawl from the meeting on Thursday, Mizoram Chief Secretary Pu Lalnunmawia Chuaungo, an IAS officer originally of the Gujarat cadres, spoke to A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com about what happened on that fateful day and the way forward to solve this dispute.

What sparked off the violence on July 26 that led to the death of six Assam policemen?

On Saturday, July 24, there was a meeting of the chief ministers and chief secretaries of the north east states in Shillong chaired by Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

On the sidelines of this meeting the chief ministers of Assam and Mizoram exchanged pleasantries. The Mizoram chief minister invited the Assam chief minister to visit Mizoram to discuss and resolve the border issues, which the chief minister of Assam gracefully accepted. The same was even mentioned by the chief minister in his speech at the said meeting.

We had high hopes of civilised discussions across the table between the two states.

On Sunday, the (Mizoram) chief minister came back to Mizoram by road. As there was another meeting of chief secretaries and DGPs of the north east states on Sunday, we came back by road the next day.

In fact we passed through that very place on that fateful Monday morning and everything was calm and peaceful.

However, at around 11.30 am, about 200 armed police force led by the inspector general of police of Assam, accompanied by the deputy IGP, district magistrate, superintendent of police and DFO (deputy conservator of forests) of Cachar district suddenly arrived by several LMVs, bus and trucks and forcefully occupied a duty post of the Mizoram police by pushing out about 10 policemen who manned that post.

This caught the government of Mizoram by surprise as there was a cordial environment in the meeting at Shillong chaired by the Union home minister, and the two chief ministers agreeing to meet in Aizawl at the earliest convenience.

In fact, this large contingent of Assam armed police crossed two Central Reserve Police Force camps stationed there to maintain peace after disturbance broke out around this place on October 17 last year.

The Assam police brought along with them ambulance, and truckloads of materials for setting up camps there. It was apparent that they came to take over the place, set up camps and occupy the area.

On getting a report of the incident, the superintendent of police of the district (in Mizoram) along with an executive magistrate went there and asked the Assam officials vacate and hand back the Mizoram police duty post, but without success.

On learning of the incident civilians from Vairengte (in Mizoram) and Lailapur (Assam) gathered around the place in large numbers. Tension escalated and sporadic stone throwing from civilians of both sides.

The Assam police started using tear gas shells etc. Meanwhile, some reinforcement of the Mizoram police also arrived.

Tension kept escalating and the Assam police kept firing tear gas shells on agitated villagers.

Some time in the afternoon, the IGP of Assam invited the SP of Mizoram for another round of discussion. While the discussions were going on between the SP and the IGP near the Mizoram police duty post taken over by the Assam police by force, the Assam police opened fire from rifles and light machine guns, injuring the Mizo police and civilians.

The Mizoram police also started firing back. Once firing started, the IGP ran towards the Assam side and the SP tried to get shelter in the CRPF camp, but was refused shelter. The SP had to return towards his men by detouring through the jungle.

This is not the first time that a large contingent of Assam armed police led by senior officers attacked and destroyed farm huts, crops and plantations of Mizo farmers.

There have been a series of such intrusions in the past and the pace of such intrusions increased in the recent past.

Only on June 29, 2021, about 300 strong Assam armed police led by senior officers entered the Aitlang area of Vairengte, destroyed farm huts, crops and plantations of Vairengte farmers and set up four police camps and 'dominated' -- according to their own word -- the area.

The farmers are not allowed to go to their fields which they have been cultivating for generations through the past 100 years or so.

Again, on July 3, 2021, Assam entered Buarchep village area of Kolasib district, Mizoram, with about 200 armed police force, again led by senior police and civilian officers and constructed new roads by deploying heavy earth moving equipment and destroyed farmlands, crops and plantation of farmers of Buarchep village.

The farmers who tried to block them were pushed aside through sheer force of numbers. However, about 30 police force from Mizoram reached the spot and blocked them from crossing a stream which could not be easily crossed by heavy earthmoving equipment.

However, a large contingent of Assam police set up camps there and occupied the area, preventing the farmers from going their fields which they have been cultivating since the time of their forefathers.

Because of these recent intrusion into Mizoram, tension escalated which prompted the ministry of home affairs to intervene and call the chief secretaries of the two states to Delhi on July 9, 2021.

Though no specific agreement could be signed by the two states, it was agreed to abide by the advice of the Union home secretary to refrain from doing anything that could escalate tensions.

Very unfortunately, the incident happened on July 26 resulting in the unfortunate loss of precious lives.

So light machine guns were indeed used by Mizoram as alleged by the Assam chief minister?

There is no denying the fact that both sides deployed and used light machine guns. The pictures and video clips of the incident showed them clearly. It was very unfortunate.

Both Assam and Mizoram blame each other for the intrusion. Is the border not clearly demarcated?

The border dispute is there since Independence, it is not clearly demarcated on the ground. However, one fact which is undeniable on July 26 was that 200 strong armed police force with full battle gear and logistics crossed the duty post of 119 Battalion CRPF deployed by Assam and duty post of 225 battalion CRPF deployed by Mizoram which are lying adjacent to each other along NH 306, and captured the Mizoram police duty post manned at that time by about 10 policemen.

These central armed police forces have been deployed as neutral force by both the states to prevent intrusion from either side as advised by the MHA after scuffles broke out around this place in October-November last year.

But as a forest area, is it not out of bounds for all? Which is why Assam says Mizoram has encroached upon it.

It is technically a forest area. Around 509 square miles is the area declared as Innerline Reserve Forest (IRF) in 1877 before Lushai Territory (in Mizoram) was a part of British India, and Mizos have been claiming the entire IRF as theirs.

In fact, the northern boundary of this IRF coincided with the southern boundary of Cachar district of British India at that time.

The boundary was the same as the Inner Line boundary beyond which no British subject was allowed cross without permission, as the areas beyond were ruled by sovereign Lushai (Mizo) chiefs.

Therefore, technically all settlements in this IRF area could be termed as forest settlements.

But there has never been any difference in how people engaged in jhum cultivation and earned their livelihoods in this area and other parts of the state.

To claim that this area is reserved forest and term livelihood activities as forest encroachment is too simplistic an approach.

The police forces of two states of the Indian Union firing at each other is a very serious issue. What steps have you taken to prevent it from happening again?

To put things in the correct perspective, the Mizoram police or people from Mizoram did not start any of the flare-ups that we witnessed during the past.

Our clear instruction to our police was, they shall not open fire unless they are fired upon first.

This was the reason why the Assam police have been pushing them around every time there is confrontation as they are overwhelmingly outnumbered.

It was bullying that went too far last Monday.

I am confident that Mizoram has not and will not take any action that could disturb the peace. We have been taking all possible measures to maintain peace and safety of all residents of the state.

The Assam government has said Mizoram has started constructing a road in the reserve forest area in Lailapur area and also set up a camp there.

They are the ones that have constructed new roads and set up police camps. Mizoram only responded to that.

There have been clashes and simmering tensions between civilians on both sides of the border. What are the issues and what steps are you taking to resolve them?

Tension is created by Assam and not by us. We are doing our best to stop this by dialogue and discussions.

We are a small state hopelessly dependent on Assam for road and rail communications to the mainland India; and Assam knows it well.

What has been done since Independence to solve the boundary dispute?

Discussions have been going on for many years. The chief ministers of both states met in Delhi on February 6, 1994, and had a fruitful discussion. It was followed by meeting of the chief secretaries at Guwahati in the same month. It was decided in the meeting that the two chief ministers would meet at Aizawl to take the dialogue forward.

The chief minister of Mizoram wrote to his counterpart in Assam inviting him and requesting him to intimate the date convenient to him. A response did not came forth.

However, there have been several meetings at the official level. We hope that a meeting at the level of chief ministers will take place shortly as suggested by the chief minister of Mizoram, and things will turn for the better.

We strongly believe that dialogue is the only way forward for settlement of differences and not show of force.

Don't you think this is the best time to resolve this issue as political allies are ruling both states?

The present government at the Centre and in both states are allies. This is the best time to solve this issue.

We firmly believe that the present government at the Centre has the wisdom and capabilities to guide the two states for an amicable settlement of their differences.

How long will it take for sentiments to calm down on both sides?

I hope both the states will take all necessary measures to calm down frayed tempers on both the sides.

The incident at Vairengte on Monday was not a one-off incident. It was a result of a series of incidents, some of which are mentioned above. We are doing our best to calm down the situation.

What do you think is the permanent solution to this dispute?

Dialogue can lead to a permanent solution with the goodwill of the central government.

How have you responded to the blockade imposed by Assam following Monday's violence?

We have requested the Assam government to lift the blockade. They have destroyed railway tracks also. But they have not responded.

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A GANESH NADAR / Rediff.com
 
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