It was reported on WEdnesday, January 29, 2014 that 10 civilians had been killed in Assam while allegedly trying to resist encroachment in Behali Reserve Forest along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Gunmen from Arunachal Pradesh reportedly opened fire on a gathering in Chauldhua area of Sonitpur district. They were carrying hunting guns which are commonly found in Arunachal.
Given the remote nature of the area, news-gathering has been mostly over the phone and has been based on information from the police or local people. Most of the reports read like press releases which fail to provide any context to why 10 civilians suddenly died in the middle of a protected area. According to some news reports today, “the Assam Director General of Police has confirmed that all the victims were from Assam and part of a vigilante group, called the Arunachali Agrasan Birodhi Samiti, set up to protect the Assamese territory from being taken over by people from Arunachal Pradesh”.
Behali is located in Sonitpur district of Assam where most of the reserve forests have either been flattened by the timber mafia or encroached on by people, often aided by political forces. Portable timber mills are found inside this forest which provides for a flourishing furniture industry run openly on National Highway 52. An industry which the forest department of Assam is very involved in. In 2003, I had reported on it and the trade was shut down but only temporarily and a forest officer was suspended – only to be reinstated after six months. Timber smuggling from Arunachal and Assam is a major source of black economy of the region. There are political gains too. For decades, Bodo militant groups have forced the migration of Bodo villagers and helped them settle in these forests in an attempt to increase the ethnic population and claim statehood by dividing “Assam 50-50”. This border has remained disputed like most of Assam’s borders and there is a Supreme Court order on maintaining status quo till a resolution is arrived.
There is some update to the dispute as well. Recently, Arunachal Pradesh had set up temporary beats or posts inside the forest. The Assam administration went and dismantled them. Encouraged by this action, villagers from Assam started occupying the area and Wednesday evening’s clash was a result of this ongoing skirmish.
This isn’t the first clash along the border. Clashes were first reported in 1992 when the Arunachal government alleged that Assam was encroaching upon its territory. Since then, intermittent clashes have been reported. In 2005, during an eviction drive by the Assam government, almost 100 houses in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh were set ablaze allegedly by Assam Police and forest officials. Again in 2007, tensions flared up along the Assam-Arunachal border when villagers from across the border fired at a peace meeting in Assam injuring eight people.
Wednesday’s violence is part of this ongoing tension and highlights the mismanagement of interstate borders. Following the 1960 war with China, India had re-organised Assam and carved out states to appease and accommodate regional aspirations. (A policy which led to the emergence of several insurgent ethnic assertions). The first Meghalaya-Assam border dispute goes back to 1971 and now they have 13 points of dispute along the 733 km border. The most violent of border clashes have been over disputes with Nagaland, which began in 1965 (incidentally inside a reserve forest) and remain unresolved even today.
Though some reports have quoted the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist)’s claim that they were mobilising villagers to resist encroachment, it is perhaps just another group making an effort to win over villagers for a safe haven given that Maoist activity has been recorded in Assam lately. Many more groups will descend on NH 52 and some have already called for an “economic blockade” hoping to affect the bordering areas of Arunachal Pradesh which depend on this highway for most products. It is unlikely though that the incident will be followed up by the media or discussed in television studios at any point.
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