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Territory, culture, identity: Assam-Mizoram border crisis is more than a dispute over territory

By Sanjal Shastri
Google Oneindia News

There are multiple instances where states have had disputes over territory and natural resources. Karnataka and Maharashtra for example, have an ongoing dispute over the Mumbai Karnataka region.

Haryana and Punjab have had disputes over the status of Chandigarh. Karnataka and Kerala have also had disagreements over the status of Kasaragod district. While many of these disputes are ongoing, none of them have escalated towards violent clashes like that witnessed along the Assam-Mizoram border. Why have the border clashes between Assam and Mizoram witnessed such levels of violence? To answer this question, one needs to understand how cultural and tribal identity is closely tied to land and territory in large parts of the North East.

Territory, culture, identity: Assam-Mizoram border crisis is more than a dispute over territory

The recent clashes at the border have seen six Assam Police personal being killed. This, however, is not the first time violent clashes have broken out between the two sides. Similar clashes took place back in 1995, injuring nearly 50 people. Some minor violence also took place last year and the situation was bought under control after the Union Government stepped in. Both sides have differing opinions on which set of border demarcations should be used. Currently, the Assam-Mizoram border is based on the 1933 Notification. This arrangement has the support of the Assam Government. However, the Mizoram Government does not agree with this border demarcation. They want the existing border to be drawn based on the 1875 Notification. The Mizoram Government argues that Mizo tribes were not consulted before drawing up the 1933 Notification. At the heart of the dispute therefore is a 750 sq.km piece of land which has changed sides between the 1875 and 1933 Notifications.

PM Modi meets Assam BJP MPs amid border tensions with MizoramPM Modi meets Assam BJP MPs amid border tensions with Mizoram

While this appears to be a straight forward territorial dispute between two states, the way different ethnic groups view land has added a whole new dimension to this conflict. A great deal of attention has been given to the importance of land and territory in global conflict studies literature. A landmark work on this issue is Monica Duffy Toft's article on indivisible territory and violent conflict. She argues that the way in which different ethnic groups view territory can have a bearing in the outbreak of violent clashes. Identities are often defined by a group's ability to control a territory. This issue becomes magnified in situations where the population of a minority ethnic group is concentrated in a particular geographic region. These groups tend to view the territory they inhabit as their 'homeland'. Control over the homeland is crucial to protect the group's identity.

A good example to understand the link between control over territory and ethnic violence are the numerous conflicts that emerged in Indonesia's outer islands from the 1990s and early 2000s. Chris Wilson, Jamie Davidson and Kirsten Schulze have highlighted how the transmigration program bought in by the Suharto government helped ignite tensions between migrant groups like the Javanese, Madurese and Makian and various local ethnic groups. Local ethnic groups in the regions of Poso, Samba, Maluku and Kalimantan found their culture and economic interests to be under threat with the influx of immigrants from other parts of the country. For a lot of these ethnic groups, control over their territory was not only seen as a way of safeguarding their economic interests but also as a way of safeguarding their cultural identity.

There is a similar link between territory and tribal/ cultural identity across the North East. The Inner Line Permit (ILP) and demands for its implementation in Meghalaya and Assam underscore the importance of land and territory to the protection of the cultural identity of the various tribal groups.

Take for example the protests that followed the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in late 2019. Across the North East in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, opposition to the CAA was driven by concerns over the Act's potential demographic impact.

The All Assam Students Union (AASU) suggested that the underlying concern was about the Assamese identity and 'Assamese pride'. Across the North East, the fear was that the CAA would mean the influx of a large number of non-natives, which would put the local culture and identity at risk. In such situations, the ILP becomes an important tool ensure that locals retain control over what they consider their 'native lands'. This as a result gives the various tribal groups a sense of security that the cultural identity is protected.

The situation prevailing today along the Assam-Mizoram border today is far more than a mere fight over 750 sq.km of land. Both sides view control over the disputed territory as a necessary requirement to protect their ethnic and cultural identity. Territory is seen as something that is 'indivisible' and for both sides this as a zero-sum game. Hence such disputes are often protracted and very difficult to resolve.

Given the emotional attachment to the territory, such disputes are also far more likely to result in violence. Similar border disputes that Assam has with Nagaland has also led to violent clashes in the past.

Important lessons can be learnt from the current tensions along the border. While intervention from the Central Government is necessary to bring down tensions, settling in on a long-term solution will be more complex. It will need to involve the various parties to the dispute and consider larger concerns over protection of cultural identities. Moving forward we need to be far more sensitive to issues over cultural and tribal identities across the North East.

While the immediate task would be to bring down tensions along the Assam-Mizoram border, there are also some long standing demands the Government of India will need to consider. Multiple groups have been demanding the extension of the ILP requirements to Meghalaya.

Representatives from these groups met Home Minister Amit Shah a few days ago. Similar demands have also been made in Assam, Tripura and Sikkim. Extending ILP requirements to these states will be an important step in addressing longstanding concerns over cultural and tribal identities.

(Sanjal Shastri - Doctoral Student, Politics and International Relations, University of Auckland)

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