The resolutions against Centre’s border plan

Why have two northeastern States opposed the scrapping of the Free Movement Regime with Myanmar? 

Published - March 03, 2024 04:17 am IST

A protest in Mizoram capital Aizawl against the government’s decision to scrap the Free Movement Regime.

A protest in Mizoram capital Aizawl against the government’s decision to scrap the Free Movement Regime. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: The Mizoram Assembly on February 28 and the Nagaland Assembly on March 1 adopted a resolution to oppose the Centre’s decision to fence the 1,643 km long porous India-Myanmar border and scrap the Free Movement Regime (FMR) agreement that allows cross-border movement up to 16 km without travel documents.

What led to the resolutions?

At an official event in Guwahati on January 20, Home Minister Amit Shah said the Centre has decided to fence the India-Myanmar border and scrap the FMR implemented in 2018 as part of India’s Act East policy for cultural, business, and terrestrial connectivity to Southeast Asia and beyond. The Centre decided to suspend the FMR ostensibly to thwart illegal migration of people, the smuggling of drugs, arms and ammunition, and the cross-border movement of extremists. The decision was influenced by the Manipur government’s push — after the ethnic violence between the Meiteis and the Kuki-Zo people began on May 3, 2023 — for fencing the border to stop Myanmar nationals from settling in the State illegally. Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur welcomed the Centre’s decision but Mizoram and Nagaland, the other two States bordering Myanmar, opposed it because of the ethnic composition along the border “imposed by the British rulers” and their age-old social, cultural, and trade links.

Editorial | Misplaced priorities: On the scrapping of the Free Movement Regime between India and Myanmar

Why is the India-Myanmar border in focus?

India has had an on-off diplomatic relationship with Myanmar since 1948 when the latter attained independence from the British. India’s border districts absorbed waves of refugees following military coups and pro-democracy movements in Myanmar in the 1960s, 1980s, and after February 2021. The growing Chinese influence in Myanmar made New Delhi establish warmer relationships with Yangon (Nyapyidaw later), but certain issues remained. The areas of Myanmar bordering India are controlled by ethnic militias and extremist groups such as the Arakan Army, Chin National Front, and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), some of which have sheltered northeast-based outfits such as the United Liberation Front of Asom. These outfits have carried out hit-and-run operations in India. Although the Myanmar border is guarded by the paramilitary Assam Rifles, the terrain and lack of fencing are said to have made it difficult to check the movement of extremists and the trafficking of drugs, arms, and other contraband items.

What do the resolutions say?

Much of India’s present-day northeast was temporarily under Burmese occupation until the British pushed them out in the 1800s. The victors and the vanquished signed the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, leading to the current alignment of the boundary between India and Burma, later renamed Myanmar. The border divided people of the same ethnicity and culture —specifically the Nagas of Nagaland and Manipur and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo communities of Manipur and Mizoram — without their consent. Asserting the right of the Mizo-Chin people to live together, Mizoram’s Home Minister K. Sapdanga, moving the resolution, said a fence would divide their ancestral land and alienate people with blood ties. Nagaland’s Deputy Chief Minister, Y. Patton, said while moving the resolution in the State Assembly that the Centre’s move would disrupt the age-old ties of the Naga people living on both sides of the international border. Mr. Sapdanga belongs to the Zoram People’s Movement, a party said to have been backed by the BJP. Mr. Patton is a key leader of the BJP, a minor partner in the coalition headed by the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party.

What impact will the resolutions have?

In March 2021, the Supreme Court said there was no harm in State Legislative Assemblies adopting resolutions against central laws like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. It said that such resolutions are merely “opinions” of the majority members of an Assembly and do not have the force of law. Some of the northeast States have adopted several resolutions over the decades but these have had little impact apart from reflecting the sentiments of the people, although a section of Mizos in “dry” Mizoram are not averse to fencing the India-Myanmar border primarily because of the inflow of drugs. Mizoram Chief Minister Lalduhoma had said earlier that his government does not have the authority to stop the Centre from fencing the border and scrapping the FMR. But security experts say a hostile terrain, issues of logistics and connectivity, and affinities among the people will make it difficult to fence the border.

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