When boundaries do not reflect social realities

The seeds of the Assam-Meghalaya border disputes were sown in 1972 when Meghalaya was granted statehood without finalising the boundaries.

Published: 01st December 2022 12:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st December 2022 12:58 AM   |  A+A-

Soumyadip Sinha

It’s ironic that in July last year, the Mizoram-Assam border clash saw five Assam policemen slain at the hands of the Mizoram Police. In the wee hours of November 22, a border clash erupted allegedly because Assam forest guards and Assam Police chased a timber-carrying truck into Mukroh, which is well inside Meghalaya and about 9 km from the border outpost in Assam. Timber cutting from inside forests that stretch from one state to the other is a regular phenomenon. Forest guards often facilitate timber smuggling but in this particular case, the Forest guards of Assam decided to give the timber-carrying truck a chase and shot at its tyres.

On hearing the gunshots, the villagers of Mukroh, who grow rice wherever they can clear forests, without any idea which side of the boundary they are on, and who usually live in makeshift huts in the farms during harvesting and planting season, came out with their sticks and machetes which they usually carry to their fields. The Assam forest guards and Assam Police, too, chased the truck right into Mukroh. The Assam Police claim they were gheraoed by villagers who demanded they release the driver and two handypersons they had arrested. A scuffle ensued, and Assam Police shot one Assam forest guard and five villagers from Mukroh.

Meghalaya was busy with the Cherry Blossom Festival and a Literature Festival which drew participants from across the country on its second day when it was unceremoniously called off. As is the norm in Meghalaya, anything happening anywhere in the state has repercussions in Shillong. Tourists packed their bags and left. Those who had planned to arrive here for the host of autumn festivals cancelled their bookings. The pressure groups who looked for every opportunity to put the government on the mat began their agitations. Shillong had just recovered from a bout of violence on the streets when passers-by (non-tribals) were beaten up by a group protesting the lack of employment opportunities in Meghalaya. That was October 28. Then Mukroh happened. The internet was shut down.

Taxis from Meghalaya are not allowed to go beyond Jorabat, the Assam-Meghalaya border. Passengers bound for the railway station and airport in Guwahati have to take an Assam-registered taxi from that point. And why? Because so-called miscreants burnt an Assam-registered vehicle parked in a Shillong locality. Whenever there is tension in Shillong, the non-tribal residents, no matter how long they have settled in Meghalaya, feel vulnerable, for they don’t know when and where they will be attacked. The ‘othering’, encouraged largely by politicians who have run out of issues to fool the electorate, has unfortunately become the modus operandi for fighting elections. And Meghalaya is going to the polls in February 2023.

Mukroh is 127 km from Shillong, a five-hour journey on non-existent roads. Although tribal communities have been believed to be egalitarian, in the last 20 years or so, there have been huge income disparities. A small tribal elite owns most of the land, including those formerly designated as community land. Even community forests are being depleted by the tribal elite. So, while Meghalaya is buffeted by a lot of internal woes, it also has to deal with what is seen as a recalcitrant Assam Police Force guarding the borders.

The problem with demarcating political boundaries is that they don’t lend themselves to social realities. When Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972, the understanding was that all those areas under United Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills District would go to Meghalaya. At least that was what The North- Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971 stated. Before that, the Khasis, Jaintias and Karbis were all people of the larger state of Assam and occupied contiguous territories. Boundaries between states of the same countries are soft borders and not hard borders such as those drawn by the British geographer Cyril Radcliffe when East Pakistan was created, and hard boundary lines cut through people’s kitchens and bedrooms.

The seeds of the Assam-Meghalaya border disputes were sown in 1972 when Meghalaya was granted statehood without finalising the boundaries. Both states thought they would abide by The North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971 until they realised that the Act did not consider the changed social contours on the ground. At one time, the Khasi-Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya had invited the Karbi people to be part of the statehood movement and to be included in Meghalaya. For some reason, the Karbis backed out and chose to remain with Assam. The two states have had a longstanding dispute in 12 stretches of their 884-km shared border.

In 2011, the Meghalaya government had identified 12 areas of difference with Assam, spread over approximately 2,700 sq km. Some of these disputes stem from recommendations made by a 1951 committee headed by then Assam Chief Minister Gopinath Bordoloi. Interestingly, Assam has meticulously settled people of Nepalese origin in many of these disputed areas. In Pilangkata, several Naga families of Manipur, amongst others, are well-settled. Meghalaya has all but lost Pilangkata.

But the flashpoint between the two states is the district of Langpih in West Garo Hills bordering the Kamrup district of Assam. Langpih was part of the Kamrup district during the British colonial period but post-Independence, it became part of the Garo Hills and Meghalaya.

However, Assam considers it part of the Mikir Hills in Assam. In Meghalaya, the Khasis claim that Langpih should be with West Khasi Hills since its name is Khasi and the bulk of settlers there are Khasis. Meanwhile, Assam has changed the name of Langpih to Lumpi.

Since 1983, six rounds of talks have occurred, with five at the level of the chief secretaries and the latest one in March 2022 between the chief ministers of Assam and Meghalaya. The next and final round of talks was to be held November-end.

Alas! Before the rapprochement could arrive, things soured at the border between West Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya and West Karbi Anglong District of Assam. Therefore, one wonders how future rounds of talks will happen and who will be the arbiter between the two CMs at this sensitive juncture.

Patricia Mukhim

Editor, Shillong Times



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