OPINION

Conflicts within

Persisting boundary disputes among the northeastern States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland, reflect multi-layered conflicts in the region that the formation over time of those States on ethno-linguistic lines failed to address or resolve. The most intractable among them, between Assam and Nagaland, is on the boil again. After a round of arson and violence on August 12 attributed to armed groups from Nagaland led to the loss of nine lives and thousands of people from villages in Assam’s Golaghat district being driven to relief camps, demonstrations of protest in Assam, and some insensitive handling by the police of the volatile situation, led to further violence. On August 20, three persons were killed in police firing in Golaghat town during protests against police high-handedness. Transport blockades called by organisations in Assam against Nagaland, are also biting hard. While claiming cross-boundary ethnic contiguity, Nagaland says a 1925 notification that transferred stretches of forests from Nagaland to Assam was biased and that they ought to have been returned in 1947. The issue was raised during the signing of the 16-Point Agreement between the Centre and the Naga Peoples’ Convention in 1960 that led to the formation of Nagaland in December 1963. Nagaland thus wants the boundary redrawn on historical lines. Indeed, the principal demand put forward by militant groups including the NSCN (I-M) relates to the creation of a ‘Nagalim’, or Greater Nagaland. Assam insists on maintaining the constitutionally done demarcation, and says Nagaland is holding 591 square kilometres of its territory. It moved the Supreme Court in 1988 seeking a permanent solution and the court appointed a group of mediators; a decision is still pending.

Clearly, this is a dispute that cannot be wished away. Neither is it one that could be allowed to descend into violence. In 1979, the Central Reserve Police Force was posted to maintain status quo on the boundary as a neutral group. Law and order along the boundary, which is divided into six sectors, is under the Central government’s charge. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has now accused the CRPF of failure to protect the victims. Mr. Gogoi and Nagaland Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang need to work out ways to avoid further confrontations. As has now been decided, a series of meetings should be held between the political leadership and officials from both States. Civil society groups should play a role in restoring peace. In the longer term, a solution to the issue has to be worked out. The region as a whole should be able to imagine a common future and subsume and transcend its fragmented ethnic identities.

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