Malchapara did not have a reason since July 2021 to hold the melkhol nok, a kangaroo court that settles local disputes. This Garo tribal village had been too glued to a dispute far removed from its jurisdiction — along the Assam-Meghalaya border 7 km away — to handle petty issues all these months.
The opportunity to hold court came a week before Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad Kongkal Sangma met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi to seal a “historic” boundary deal. It was not to sort out any domestic or social issue, but to extract an apology from 65-year-old Starson Marak for “selling his soul” to Assam.
The border settlement followed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) the two Chief Ministers had signed on January 29 to resolve six of the 12 disputed sectors along the 884.9-km border between the two States. Deemed to be less complicated, these six sectors were chosen to be resolved first when the two Chief Ministers and Shah met in the Meghalaya capital, Shillong, in July 2021 to end the boundary dispute hanging fire for five decades.
Let down by their own
Marak, 65, is one of the oldest residents of Malchapara, located about 85 km southwest of Guwahati. His belief that Malchapara’s future lies with Assam had dragged him to the melkhol nok. “I was born in Assam and would like to die in Assam. I apologised in the people’s court because some of our people wanted me to apologise for betraying the community by insisting on not agreeing to be part of Meghalaya,” Marak said.
Winath Ch Sangma, who had egged the villagers on to hold the court, said Marak and a few elders misled the members of a government-appointed committee that came calling in October 2021 to seek the opinion of the villagers. “Time may have run out for us to be with Meghalaya, where we belong emotionally, ethnically and geographically. But we are not giving up,” he said.
Malchapara and the adjoining Salbari village, in Assam’s Kamrup district, are a part of Gizang, one of the six disputed sectors taken up for resolution in the first phase. Gizang is sandwiched between two other disputed sectors – Tarabari to the west and Hahim to the east. Many residents believed that the five principles the two States had considered for resolving the boundary dispute would automatically keep Malchapara and Salbari within the redrawn map of Meghalaya after the final settlement. The five principles are historical facts, ethnicity, administrative convenience, the willingness of people, and contiguity of land preferably with natural boundaries.
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“We were stunned when our Chief Minister (Conrad Sangma) told the State Assembly on March 16 that a majority in Malchapara want to go with Assam. As Garo people, it is but natural for us to be in Meghalaya where the Garos are one of the three principal tribes,” Jewash Sangma, a Malchapara resident said.
Marak and a few elders were subsequently marked for “betraying the community”. They had in October 2021 met the members of a regional committee, formed to study the disputed sectors and recommend solutions. Their opinion apparently spoiled Malchapara and Salbari’s chances of going to Meghalaya. Both States formed three such regional committees, each headed by a Cabinet Minister, tasked with preparing reports for the State governments to discuss and agree upon before forwarding to the Home Affairs Ministry. Each committee comprised stakeholders from the affected districts – Kamrup, Kamrup (Metropolitan) and Cachar in Assam, and West Khasi Hills, Ri-Bhoi and East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya.
Malchapara is not the only village divided over the boundary issue. Clashes between the pro-Assam and pro-Meghalaya groups have been frequent at Malang Salbari nearby, also a Garo village. Members of one group have allegedly been destroying the shops and betel nut plantations of those belonging to the other in order to “teach them a lesson”. The intra-tribe and inter-community distrust has reached such a level that people have invested in walkie-talkies to communicate with their “own” by often changing frequencies. Mobile phone connectivity is poor in most of the disputed zones.
Frylin R. Marak, an executive member of the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC), elected in 2019 from the Luki constituency, blames the division within the Garo villages and families of the jowains (sons-in-law) from “the other side” of the boundary line. The Garos are a matrilineal society where a man stays with his in-laws after marriage. The disputed sectors are within the RHAC, which has 36 constituencies and straddles the Rabha tribe-dominated areas of Kamrup and the adjoining Goalpara district of Assam to the west. The villages of the Christian Garos and the mostly Hindu Rabhas are scattered along the boundary with Meghalaya.
“There were no disputes in areas under my constituency all these decades. We don’t want a single Garo village to go to Meghalaya, but the jowains, who have a sentimental attachment to Meghalaya and are influenced by some vested interests from the other side, took advantage of the boundary settlement initiative to push for the exclusion of the villages from Assam. They are misleading their own people by claiming they will enjoy more rights in Meghalaya, a Sixth Schedule State with special provisions for tribal people,” Frylin Marak said.
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While many of the younger people have been rooting for the inclusion of their villages in Meghalaya, the older people think remaining in Assam is a better option. “Our people have been divided, so much so that last Christmas was celebrated separately by the two camps, a departure from tradition,” he said. “What the misguided Garo people do not realise is that the district on the other side is the West Khasi Hills, where they will be second-class citizens to the Khasis (also a matrilineal community). On the other hand, Garos have their own panchayats and, like I did, get elected to constitutional bodies in Assam. A satellite autonomous council for the Garos is also on the cards, although it will be difficult to carve out areas from the RHAC,” Frylin Marak said.
Since July 2021, there has been friction between the “Meghalaya supporters”, mostly Garos, and the “Assam supporters”, mostly non-Garos such as Rabha, Boro, Assamese and Gurkha. The strategic weekly market at Gamerimura, for instance, has split between the non-Garos and the Garos, who have set up a parallel market at Sildubi on the inter-State boundary about 3 km south. Gamerimura, about 5 km from Malchapara, is in the disputed Tarabari sector.
“The boundary dispute had never come in the way of local business until the two State governments decided to settle the issue once and for all. Two days after the two Chief Ministers met in Shillong last year, large groups of people from Meghalaya went on a painting spree. They began marking fresh boundaries with red paint, encompassing even non-disputed villages deeper inside Assam. Soon, most Garo people were made to pull out of Gamerimura market and set up stalls in Sildubi,” Niten Rabha, the general secretary of the local unit of All Rabha Students’ Union, said. “Business has been down since the two governments started the process of resolving the boundary. The Meghalaya supporters don’t like to come to the Gamerimura market on Fridays, our people don’t like to go to their new market on Wednesdays for fear of being abused or assaulted,” Biren Rabha, head of the Gamerimura Bazaar Development Committee, said.
Members of the Sildubi market committee said they set up the new market to be self-dependent and not because of any agenda.
“Only give, no take”
Assam has boundary disputes with Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland besides Meghalaya — all carved out of it between December 1963 and January 1972. The issues cropped up because of conflicting reading of the demarcation of boundaries in the agreement for the creation of the new States (Union Territories in the case of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, which became States later).
Assam said the neighbouring States have dishonoured the “constitutional boundaries” to capture its land. The other States have stuck to their “traditional boundaries” to claim Assam was the aggressor. Meghalaya said the local chieftains and traditional bodies possess pre-1947 documents that prove their ownership of land that wrongfully went to Assam at the time of the creation of the new State through a “one-sided” Reorganisation Act of 1969. The chieftain of Nonglang in West Khasi Hills, for instance, has had control over Malchapara and Salbari villages for centuries, Meghalaya claimed.
Over the years, Assam and Meghalaya held at least 50 high-level meetings to resolve the border issues. Pressure from the Centre for putting an end to the dispute during the celebration of India’s 75th year of independence made the two States push for a solution.
In 2021, Chief Minister Sarma said in the Assam Assembly that Meghalaya had encroached upon 53 areas of Assam. The Assam government later said 12 areas of differences evolved over time since 1993. The two governments agreed that the disputes will be limited to these 12 areas based on a decade-old claim by Meghalaya and that no claim in new areas would be allowed in the future. They also agreed to start with six “less complicated” sectors — Tarabari, Gizang, Hahim, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pilingkata and Ratacherra.
“Meghalaya made an official claim in 2011 and gave maps of the areas it wanted in the State. Based on that, we decided to accept the decision of villagers who want to go to Meghalaya but refused to accept claims in areas that were not part of their original claim,” said Kailash Karthik N., the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup. He denied allegations that the district authorities had exerted pressure on the pro-Meghalaya villagers to be in Assam.
His counterpart in the adjoining West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, P.D. Sangma, also denied any coercion by the State authorities on pro-Assam villagers. “Some people are not happy to be included in Meghalaya, but there have been no law-and-order problems in the disputed sectors where the regional committees gave the locals the option to go either way,” he said, declining to go into the details of the territorial split. The committees adopted a five-phase approach entailing the exchange of records, joint field visits, detailed deliberations, negotiations, and the preparation of the final recommendations. In each of the six areas, the committees took into account the composition of the local population and recommended that Assam would get 18.51 sq. km of the total of 36.79 sq. km of disputed areas, while 18.28 sq. km will be in Meghalaya’s possession. The MoU was subsequently signed.
“We adopted the policy of give-and-take for a lasting solution to the boundary dispute that has affected so many lives all these years,” the Assam Chief Minister had said. “There has been no take, only give,” Nandita Das, the Congress MLA of Boko constituency, said. All three contiguous disputed sectors – Tarabari, Gizang and Hahim – are under her constituency, as is the “more complicated” Lampi to be taken up in the second phase of discussion. “The entire land belongs to Assam, and we have never made any claim on land belonging to Meghalaya. The Survey of India map, which Meghalaya refuses to accept, makes this very clear. Their claim is illegal and our government must find a way of holding on to these stretches rich in natural resources and with tremendous tourism potential. Meghalaya has been inching forward strategically because past governments in Assam did not foresee a long-term design of grabbing more land,” Das said.
“With a BJP government at the Centre, the BJP-led Assam government should have made Meghalaya understand that it is at fault. But what is more jarring is the silence of the RHAC, which will end up losing large swathes under its jurisdiction,” she said.
RHAC’s chief executive member Tankeswar Rabha chose not to comment on a matter “taken up at the highest level”.
About 40 km east of Gamerimura, the Gurkhas of Lampi are worried that the 50-50 formula of settling a “manufactured dispute” would set a bad precedent for the remaining six sectors. Lampi (Meghalaya calls it Langpih) has been a disputed place since 1974 when the Assam police personnel came face-to-face with their Meghalaya counterparts who had allegedly expelled some Gurkha grazers from the area. The area, a set of villages divided almost equally between the Khasis and the Gurkhas, has been on the boil since May 2010 when clashes broke out between the two communities. Four Khasi men were killed in police firing.
“The very idea of seeking people’s consent is flawed. A village with a 1% Khasi population will not like to live in Assam and a village with 1% Gurkhas will be uneasy with the idea of living in Meghalaya, which has had a history of ethnic cleansing of non-tribal people. The encroachment of Assam land has been a long-term conspiracy and if we yield to an unjustified demand, our people will have nowhere to go,” Arjun Chhetri, the executive member of RHAC’s Jongakhuli constituency, said.
Lampi, a hill village unlike most others in the disputed sectors, is in Jongakhuli. “The give-and-take formula is dangerous. All the Gurkhas will be driven away within 24 hours if Lampi happens to be officially under Meghalaya. As it is we live constantly under stress. Our houses are often burnt down, livestock taken away,” Biju Chhetri, a Lampi resident, said.
The past came to haunt the Gurkhas when Raj Baruah, the Boko circle officer, held a meeting at the Jongakhuli panchayat office on March 23 for taking the Jal Jeevan Mission programme forward.
“We have insisted on getting water supplied from Assam although our main source of water, the Kupri Nalo, flows down from Meghalaya. But the officials want to revive a water conservation project on this stream that never took off in 1979,” Lampi’s Hemraj Sharma said.
“We are afraid that the stream will be poisoned if it becomes the source of our piped water,” he added, recalling an incident in 1979 when miscreants had sprinkled toxic substances in the stream and the village wells, killing 40 of his cows. The local unit of the Khasi Students’ Union and members of traditional Khasi village said these are tall claims aimed at maligning their community. In reality, they said, outsiders have occupied their ancestral lands.
Regional political parties in Assam and Meghalaya have demanded revisiting the border deal in view of the protests it has triggered. They have been egging the aggrieved villagers to keep up the tempo of protest before the boundary deal is approved by Parliament and ratified by the Assemblies of both the States. The Asom Sattra Mahasabha, the umbrella organisation of Vaishnav monasteries, said it was wary of two monasteries and nine namghars or prayer halls going to Meghalaya if the boundary deal is sealed. “We will appeal to the people and local organisations to agitate to save our places of worship. We will also approach the court for staying the deal,” the Mahasabha’s general secretary, Kukum Kumar Mahanta, said.
The two monasteries – Mateshor and Netwajapa – are two centuries old and are in the Boklapara sector under the West Gauhati Assembly constituency. Ramendra Narayan Kalita of the Asom Gana Parishad, who has been representing the border constituency since 1985, attributed the possible ceding of the areas to forest rules that have hindered the development of the villages along the Assam-Meghalaya boundary, prompting some fringe dwellers to side with Meghalaya.
“The Assam government can neither provide land deed in forest areas nor develop villages in forest areas due to the green laws unlike in Meghalaya, where forest rules are different. They can provide settlement, power connection and water supply to forest dwellers,” he said.
Officials in the border districts of Assam admitted that Meghalaya has had administrative control in stretches that are easier to monitor from the other side. “We have had zero or partial control in several border areas. Take the case of Athiabari beyond Hahim. The place has been completely under the control of the Meghalaya police although constitutionally in Assam. It is not wise to keep fighting for territory and shedding blood,” Karthik N. said.
The Chief Ministers of both States have been asking those opposed to the give-and-take policy to look at the bigger picture. “History matters and so does a future that eliminates the chances of more conflicts between two sister-States. We have managed to find a win-win solution for all,” the Meghalaya Chief Minister said. “Some people are feeling aggrieved but not solving the problem may lead to more such issues with reports of people from Meghalaya settling down in new areas. At the end of the day, this is not the India-China or the India-Pakistan border. It is a boundary involving our own people in our own country,” Karthik N. said.