The story so far: Two months after signing a draft resolution on January 29, Assam and Meghalaya partially resolved a 50-year-old dispute along their 884.9 km boundary. An agreement in this regard, termed historic, was signed between Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad K. Sangma in the presence of Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi on March 29. The agreement is expected to pave the way for resolving disputes in the remaining sectors of the Assam-Meghalaya boundary and similar areas of difference between Assam and three other northeastern States.
How did the boundary dispute start?
Meghalaya, carved out of Assam as an autonomous State in 1970, became a full-fledged State in 1972. The creation of the new State was based on the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act of 1969, which the Meghalaya government refused to accept. This was because the Act followed the recommendations of a 1951 committee to define the boundary of Meghalaya. On that panel’s recommendations, areas of the present-day East Jaintia Hills, Ri-Bhoi and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya were transferred to the Karbi Anglong, Kamrup (metro) and Kamrup districts of Assam. Meghalaya contested these transfers after statehood, claiming that they belonged to its tribal chieftains. Assam said the Meghalaya government could neither provide documents nor archival materials to prove its claim over these areas. After claims and counter-claims, the dispute was narrowed down to 12 sectors on the basis of an official claim by Meghalaya in 2011.
How did the two governments go about handling the issue?
The two States had initially tried resolving the border dispute through negotiations but the first serious attempt was in May 1983 when they formed a joint official committee to address the issue. In its report submitted in November 1983, the committee suggested that the Survey of India should re-delineate the boundary with the cooperation of both the States towards settling the dispute. There was no follow-up action. As more areas began to be disputed, the two States agreed to the constitution of an independent panel in 1985. Headed by Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, the committee submitted its report in 1987. Meghalaya rejected the report as it was allegedly pro-Assam. Following more disputes and resultant violence, the two governments agreed in January 1991 to jointly demarcate the border with the help of the Survey of India. About 100 km of the border was demarcated by the end of 1991, but Meghalaya found the exercise unconstitutional and refused to cooperate. In 2011, the Meghalaya Assembly passed a resolution for central intervention and the constitution of a boundary commission. The Assam Assembly retaliated with a resolution to oppose the move. But the Centre made the two governments appoint nodal officers to discuss the boundary dispute to minimise the points of difference. In 2019, the Meghalaya government petitioned the Supreme Court to direct the Centre to settle the dispute. The petition was dismissed.
How was the ice broken?
In January 2021, Home Minister Amit Shah urged all the north-eastern States to resolve their boundary disputes by August 15, 2022, when the country celebrates 75 years of Independence. It was felt that the effort could be fast-tracked since the region’s sister-States either had a Bharatiya Janata-led government or that of its “allergic-to-Congress” allies. In June 2021, the two States decided to resume talks at the CM level and adopt a “give-and-take” policy to settle the disputes once and for all. Of the 12 disputed sectors, six “less complicated” areas — Tarabari, Gizang, Hahim, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pilingkata and Ratacherra — were chosen for resolving in the first phase. Both States formed three regional committees, one each for a district affected by the disputed sectors. These committees, each headed by a cabinet minister, were given “five principles” for approaching the issue. These principles are historical facts of a disputed sector, ethnicity, administrative convenience, willingness of people and contiguity of land preferably with natural boundaries such as rivers, streams and rocks. The committee members conducted surveys of the disputed sectors and held several meetings with the local stakeholders. On January 29, the two governments signed a draft resolution prepared on the basis of the recommendations of these regional panels. This paved the way for the March 29 closure of the six disputed sectors.
Will the partial settlement impact border disputes elsewhere in the Northeast?
According to the partial boundary deal, Assam will get 18.51 sq. km of the 36.79 sq. km disputed area while Meghalaya will get the remaining 18.28 sq. km. There is no clarity yet on the villages or uninhabited stretches that would be divided, but some political parties and community-based groups in Meghalaya are unhappy about acceding any part of the disputed areas to Assam. Reactions are similar in Assam, where the opposition Congress and local organisations said the agreement boiled down to how much land Assam could save from “aggressor” Meghalaya. But officials in Assam said it was better to let go of areas where they did not have any administrative control rather than “live with an irritant forever”. However, residents in the other six disputed sectors — Langpih, Borduar, Nongwah, Matamur, Deshdemoreah Block I and Block II, and Khanduli — feel the “give-and-take” template could spell disaster for them. The fear is more among non-tribal people who could end up living in a “tribal Meghalaya with no rights for us”. The apprehension is similar for residents of Assam in disputed areas along the border with other States. According to a paper tabled in the Assam Assembly in August 2014, six neighbouring States control 77,531.71 hectares of Assam land. Apart from Meghalaya, the other States are Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and West Bengal.