How on earth did the police forces of two neighbouring states, Assam and Mizoram, end up shooting at one another using firearms? What exactly happened, and why? There are, as may be expected in any such incident, two contradictory versions of the events that took place on and around a stretch of National Highway 306 between the towns of Lailapur in Assam and Vairengte in Mizoram.
According to Lalchamliana, home minister of Mizoram, around 200 personnel of Assam’s armed police, led by an inspector general and accompanied by the Cachar district commissioner, superintendent of police and divisional forest officer arrived at Vairengte autorickshaw stand around 11.30 am on July 26. They “forcibly crossed” a duty post manned by CRPF and “overran” another post manned by the Mizoram police, he added, and damaged several vehicles travelling along the highway.
Hearing about the Assam police’s alleged raid, the residents of Vairengte went to the auto stand to enquire, the minister said, only to be lathicharged and teargassed. Then, the police superintendent of Kolasib, Mizoram, and a magistrate went to meet the police party from the neighbouring state and try to resolve the matter. The Assam policemen allegedly did not listen and lobbed teargas canisters and grenades at the Mizoram police, and, at around 4.50 pm, started firing.
The Mizoram police retaliated even though the Kolasib police chief was still inside the CRPF duty camp negotiating with the Assam police, Lalchamliana said. “It all started with the Assam police’s aggression into the duty camps of CRPF and Mizoram police near Vairengte autorickshaw stand,” the home minister added.
The Assam government’s version of what happened is this: “In another breach of existing agreements and the existing status quo, Mizoram began constructing a road towards Rengti Basti in Assam, destroying the Inner Line Reserve Forest in Lailapur area. Simultaneously, the Mizoram side set up a new armed camp on a hillock next to the camp of the neutral force, CRPF, in the same vicinity. In an attempt to diffuse the situation and resolve matters, a team of Assam officials, including IGP, DIG Cachar, SP Cachar and DFO Cachar went to the area this morning to request the Mizoram side not to disturb the status quo. Sadly, however, they were surrounded and attacked by a mob of miscreants from the Mizoram side, which was visibly supported by the Mizoram Police…while the mob pelted stones on the Assam officials including the DC’s car, the Mizoram police simultaneously fired tear gas shells on the delegation. The IGP was injured in this barrage.”
The statement claims that sometime after 4.30 pm, while the Kolasib SP was talking to the Assam officials, “the Mizoram police opened fire on the Assam officials and civilians, who had by then gathered there, from two dominating high features with automatic weapons including LMGs”.
Five Assam police personnel were confirmed killed and over 50 injured, including Cachar SP Vaibhav Nimbalkar, who is in hospital with a bullet wound.
While the border dispute erupted into violence suddenly and spectacularly on Monday, tension had been simmering for a while. The trouble started on October 9, 2020, when a hut belonging to a Mizo farmer, John Zolawma, and a betel nut patch of another Mizo farmer, Ben David, on a tract of land disputed between Assam and Mizoram, were burnt down by the Assam government staff, allegedly acting on the orders of the then DC of Karimganj, Anbamuthan MP. This was followed by the Mizoram police deploying in the area. As tensions soared, a meeting was held on October 14, 2020 where Anbamuthan met his counterpart from Mizoram, Dr Lalrozama, to try and diffuse the situation. The two DCs referred the matter, which arose out of conflicting claims over the interstate boundary, to their respective governments for resolution and agreed to station police personnel of both states to maintain law and order.
That, however, did not calm things down. A blockade of the highway from the Assam side, preventing the movement of essential commodities into Mizoram, followed. A powerful Mizo student union, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, retaliated with a blockade on traffic exiting the state. More than 1,000 trucks were stranded. Another meeting was held a week later between the home secretaries of the two states, in the presence of Satyendra Garg, joint secretary in the union home ministry. At this meeting, Assam sought the withdrawal of the Mizoram police while Mizoram sought the passage of essential commodities. Some passage of trucks resumed after this, but the Assam side complained that Mizoram had not kept its end of the deal. One more meeting of the Karimganj and Mamit DCs followed. The Mizo Zirlai Pawl and Mizo Students Union burnt copies of the minutes of the meeting and sought the transfer of Mamit’s DC and SP for having held talks with their Assam counterparts. The issue of withdrawal of the Mizoram police was the focus of their anger – the student unions refused to allow a pullback from what they held were Mizo lands.
The ownership of the lands in dispute has been a matter of contention for decades. The origins of the dispute go back to the creation of Mizoram as a union territory in 1972, when it was carved out of Assam in a major reorganisation of Northeast India by the Indira Gandhi government following the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The stretch of road where the latest clash took place is flanked by a thin belt of forest land that runs along the border between the towns of Lailapur and Vairengte. It is part of an Inner line Reserved Forest that stretches over 1,318 sq km and whose ownership is at the heart of the conflict. It was notified as a reserve forest by the British Raj in October 1878. At present, 570 sq km of this forest is in Mizoram under the Kolasib and Darlawn forest divisions, while the larger part of 748 sq km is in Cachar district of Assam.
The Mizoram government and civil society are unanimous in their opinion that the entire reserve forest is Mizoram’s land. The Assam government has a different opinion. The difference in territorial perceptions between the neighbours is exacerbated by an ethnic tension. The population on the Mizoram side is tribal, mainly Mizo, with a smattering of Khasi. The population on the Assam side of the border, which lies in the Barak Valley, is predominantly Bengali, Hindu and Muslim. Although this part of Assam has historically been inhabited by Bengalis, these people, merely because of their ethnicity, are held in suspicion as being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh regardless of their actual citizenship.
The trigger for the latest flare-up is unclear. It came barely 48 hours after a meeting of chief ministers of Northeast states with the union home minister on interstate border disputes. The Assam government’s statement mentions an inspector general of police, accompanied by a DC, SP, and DFO visiting the spot. That is a high-power delegation. The officers seem to have reached the spot without informing their counterparts from Mizoram. The gathering of crowds on both sides worsened the situation. Stone-pelting by mobs is said to have led to police firing, which went on for almost one hour. Both police forces have accused the other of starting the shooting. The area is now under the CRPF.
Mizoram police are back in the post that was allegedly "overrun" while Assam has withdrawn its police from the disputed area, but chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has announced that he will be sending 4,000 commandos to guard the border with Mizoram.
Assam has longstanding border disputes with three other states – Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya – as well. The day of the firing, there was tension along a stretch of the Assam-Meghalaya border as well. In the past, Assam-Nagaland border clashes have claimed many lives, and seen the use of firearms. In Northeast India, a region already disturbed by the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, the rekindling of these interstate border tensions is adding one more complication to an already unstable state of affairs.