Nagaland-Assam Border Problems
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he meeting on August 2 between the chief ministers of Assam and Nagaland in New Delhi to settle the border problems assumes importance in the background of the fact that the two sides have been meeting again after more than 20 years. The one-on-one meeting between Mr Neiphiu Rio and Mr Tarun Gogoi, which lasted for about an hour, did not achieve much headway for those who may be looking for immediate results. However, as mentioned above, the fact that the two sides are meeting again is positive progress. This came about thanks to the efforts of the Supreme Court appointed lawyer-mediators.Newspaper reports have already stated that the two chief ministers had agreed to maintain the status quo for the time being so that peace is maintained while allowing the people-to-people efforts to move forward to the extent possible. This is on expected lines because the positions of the two state governments at the moment are such that it will be difficult to find a meeting point unless one or both sides are willing to make considerable concessions. One must be grateful that at least no frictions and fire-works were generated at this meeting. The two chief ministers have been wise.
It must also be taken into account that things have been complicated by long neglect of the border issue and delineation of the boundary and by politics of vote banks especially on the Assam side. The people who are creating problems in the border areas are really non-Assamese migrants in the border areas. Specifically, these belong to Adivasi and Miya communities. The irony is although these communities can create the problems they are not in a position to bring solution and it is doubtful if they will even be inclined to do so. However, they have become very significant vote banks for local politicians who are unable to displease their votes. And the Assam Government, as any government will, is unwilling to displease its MLAs.
On the Naga side, quite often, Nagas just keep harping on old, even ancient, positions and claims quite unmindful of changes that have taken place. The impracticality of such positions sometimes makes things difficult for the other side. When nothing else works, the Nagas would go back to asserting their position through the prism of the Naga political movement without giving a thought to actual ground realities!
So, given these ground situations, and when both sides decide to stick to their positions, the issue of settlement becomes untenable. As someone said, “the trouble with points of view is that when you stick to your point, you miss the view!” On the other hand, if both sides were to remember the adage that “A nation’s best defence is the friendship and love of its neighbours”, then doors and windows will begin to open to the realm of possibilities. Thankfully, in the present case, there is still much goodwill and warm relations between the Assamese and the Nagas. The present border peace committee is an instance of spontaneous goodwill between Assamese and Nagas. If we can build on good neighbourliness, there is no reason why things should not work out alright on any issue.
We will come back to this but for now let us take a look at the border issue. The Nagaland-Assam border problems began with the establishment of the State of Nagaland. The crux of the Nagaland-Assam boundary problem lies in the fact that ever since the creation of Nagaland State the boundary between the two states has not been delineated by the two sides. All this time, Assam Government has been claiming the erstwhile British Government notification (No 3102R, dated November 25, 1925) demarcating the boundaries of the Naga Hills District of Assam as the final boundary between the two states. To be fair, it must be mentioned that the Nagaland State Act went along these lines. Not surprisingly, Assam Government has been insisting that the boundary between the two states be maintained as per above Notification and filed a suit in the Supreme Court in 1988 asking the Supreme Court to give its ruling as per its petition.
Nagaland Government’s position, on the other hand, is that the1925 British notification, as also others, were things the Colonial British Government did for their own administrative and revenue conveniences and cannot be accepted as final because such demarcation was arbitrary without consultation or consent of the Naga people. Nagaland Government supports its stand by bringing into the picture the 9 Points Agreement and the 16 Points Agreement. The unsaid position of Nagaland is why should a colonial notification decide our present and future relations? Nagaland Government’s stand is that since the border between the two states has not been demarcated, this should be done, taking into consideration the terms and assurances given to Naga people in agreements with Government of India.
These two positions have become irreconcilable. The situation became so bad that some years ago, the two states even went to war! Ever heard of such a thing happening between two states within a country? And the tragedy has been that the two sides have stopped meeting one another on this issue. It might also be mentioned that the seeds of the problem were sown because the State of Nagaland was created in haste, as admitted by no less than former Governor B K Nehru, without carefully considering the ramifications of what was being created. (I had mentioned this in an earlier article also vis-à-vis the NPC, Eastern Mirror, July 22, 2013). Ultimately, on the boundary issue, as in some others, the creation of Nagaland State pleased no one including many Nagas.
So, it should bring cheer to both Nagas and Assamese that the two sides, through their chief ministers, are meeting again. If the two contending parties agree then there is no longer a dispute. But, obviously, they have been careful and tentative in this first meeting. They have also given opportunity for their peoples to work things out among themselves. This is all to the good. What we must not forget is that while the ultimate agreement will be between Assam and Nagaland, the possibility is coming through the good offices of the Supreme Court appointed lawyer-mediators.
This is a golden opportunity for both Assam and Nagaland to solve their boundary problem once and for all. It not only provides a face-saving mechanism for both sides but also a chance for them to remain good neighbours. Once an agreement is arrived at, the later trouble-makers can be identified more easily and dealt with. This means that both sides must approach the table on the basis of give and take. It means Nagas must stop making historical claims and give a chance to Assam Government to take a stand with which it can carry its people. On the other hand, Assam must also respect the traditional boundaries of Nagas to the extent possible. This also means that Assam must also forget its own understandable sensitivity about the fact that all NE was once Assam. Both sides can remember the best of the history of their relations and renew their ties. Nagas and Assamese have often been at loggerheads but they have also had some of the best and warmest relations. This should not be lost.
A little diversion here but I want to mention an instance of Assamese friendship to Nagas. In 2001, following Government of India and NSCN-IM agreement to extend ceasefire to all Naga inhabited areas, the situation in Manipur became explosive and all Nagas from Imphal also ran away from the Valley fearing for their lives. The national media was churning out news of the unreasonableness of the Nagas and supporting that Manipur should not be divided. The Nagas in Assam were also beginning to feel the heat. In short, the Naga people had more or less become encircled with unfriendly neighbours because even in Assam a lot of voices were being raised in support of Manipur and against Nagas—if the road from Assam side had been cut off, the Nagas would have become completely encircled. Following two meetings in Kohima within two months by all representatives of Naga NGOs, Churches and those from Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, it was decided that Nagas needed to carry out a journey of reconciliation within Naga Family and with neighbouring communities.
Considering the immediacy of the situation, the decision was to pay a goodwill visit to Assam and other neighbouring state communities. Assam Sahitya Sabha was approached whether such a Naga goodwill visit would be welcome. Mr Homen Borgohain, then the Sabha’s President, whole-heartedly welcomed it. A three day visit followed, led by then Naga Hoho president, Mr M Vero. The visit started by the Naga team paying respects to the two grand old ladies of Assam – Mrs B.P. Chaliha and Mrs G Bordoloi. The chief minister of Assam, Mr Tarun Gogoi cancelled his own election programme to stay back in Guwahati and receive the Naga delegation. The then Home Minister of Assam, Mr Pradyut Bordoloi, attended all the major functions of the delegation to show that Assam Government was fully supporting the Naga visit. The Opposition political parties and ULFA also welcomed the visit. The warmth shown by the Assamese people at a time when the Nagas were in trouble could not be forgotten. The fall-out was the Indian media changed its views, the Meitei agitation fizzled out and the discussion went up to the BBC while research scholars from as far away as America started coming to Nagaland. The Assamese people stood with the Nagas in their time of need. Would Nagas do a similar thing to a neighbour in need?
Mr Homen Borgohain continues to be in the fore front of good Naga-Assamese relations. Recently, he and his son have also brought out a book on Nagas called “Scrolls of Strife: The Endless History of the Nagas”, published by Rupa.
From such experience one is convinced that the best way to finding a solution to our border problem would be a people-to-people solution. But for this to happen it would require people of substance on both sides who would be able to carry both their people and their Governments. There is, of course, the Border Peace Committee which has been playing a very useful role in defusing the situation and tension every time things went bad. But it may be a little beyond the Committee to actually bring the issue to closure. There is no intend to belittle the Committee here but its dealings are more sectoral and it would also need to carry their peoples and governments to solve the entire border issue. This, of course, also depends on whether Nagaland and Assam decide to settle their boundary issue sectorally or all at once.
But one is very hopeful of a positive outcome on the border problem because of the following:-
i)There is Border Peace committee with goodwill towards one another
ii)The landowning tribes on Naga side, from all accounts, are willing to play a positive role. The Nagaland Government, one is sure, will also play a positive role.
iii)The Assamese people who showed such warmth during the Naga Goodwill Visit in 2001 are still alive and in positions of power and influence.
The above is not to suggest anything or to put anyone in a spot but to simply state that the positive “ingredients” are all there! One is painfully aware that at this time Assam is pre-occupied with other more immediate problems but given the people mentioned here and the availability of political will, one thinks the time is ripe to hammer out a solution and renew the good Naga-Assamese relations.