The killing of five personnel of Assam Police in the exchange of fire with their Mizo counterparts has stunned the people of the country who had long forgotten sporadic clashes between the staff of different security forces in a bygone era. The issue carries with it baggage from history, which makes it a complicated one, perhaps a reason why successive governments in independent India left the mess created by the British in 1875 and 1933 unaddressed. While Mizoram used to be a part of Assam at some point and the inter-state dispute over a part of the Lushai Hills bordering District Cachar of the Barak Valley mainly rides on the Mizo grouse, the blame for not setting right a disturbing legacy after 1947 must fall on the party that ruled for a major part of all these decades across the country. The BJP-led NDA cannot shrug off the onus either as, in the past seven years, it has never shown intent for structural corrections by way of reforms in governance sectors that include cartography. How the police of one state will be able to tackle crimes that involve inter-state movements of criminals is another unanswered question, which assumes more significance in an area (Aitlanghnar about 5 km from Vairengte) infested with smugglers, terrorists and petty crooks. If it were a conflict merely between the police forces of two neighbouring states, miscreants in hundreds, armed with sticks, rods and even rifles, would not have attacked personnel of Assam Police at Lailapur. The nation cannot let such a flashpoint fester, more so because China is likely to take advantage of the fracas.
Economics is a part of the issue. Chief Minister of Mizoram Zoramthanga is on record saying that the people of his state do use land within Assam’s constitutional boundary and that they have been doing so for a century. His counterpart in Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma has pledged to deal with the demographic challenge thrown up by the influx of both migrants and infiltrators. Chances of harm to citizens with the requisite bona fides are high in this situation while the prospects of employment remain dull in the region.
It is doubtful that activating an inter-state council by virtue of Article 263 or asking the Supreme Court to adjudicate under powers vested on it by Article 131 can address the issue, as the tribunal approach to the Cauvery waters dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has clearly failed. Indeed, the Justice MC Mahajan and Justice YV Chandrachud Commissions did not succeed, neither did the three-member local commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge that demarcated all the boundaries between Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The attempted mediation between 2010 and 2013 did not work either. Such attempts do not hit the target for the simple reason of the nature of Northeastern society where the tribes of one state live in sizeable populations across quite a few other states, thus making the 1956 reorganisation of states as well as the subsequent changing of union territories into full-fledged provinces artificial exercises. Assam, one of the largest states in the Northeast, has had a problem with the Bengali population too, which included their unacceptance of Hindu Bengalis — a conundrum not solved by the accord signed between AASU and the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985. Then there are Manipuris living in Nagaland and Nagas living in Manipur, which give rise to demands of changing the inter-state borders between those states too. To the rest of India, where a massive Telugu population lives in Tamil Nadu, a sizeable Bengali population thrives in Bihar and Jharkhand, the Punjabis remain in chunks in Haryana and the labour class of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are settled in all vibrant cities, the Northeast is a riddle. The differences there need to be sorted out with an entirely local approach not hitherto tried anywhere else in the country.