Navigating Border Complexities
The recent announcement made by Home Minister Amit Shah that the government of India has decided to scrap the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and fence the entire Indo-Myanmar border like the Bangladesh border, has triggered an uproar in several north-eastern states of India, with civil society organisations as well as political leaders openly speaking against the move. The Centre is clearly apprehensive amid reports of demographic changes in the border areas, especially in Manipur which is in turmoil since the conflict between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities broke out in May last year. Such a measure may appear ideal in the eyes of India but it is a sensitive matter for many ethnic communities of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh that share 1643-km long border with Myanmar, and the consequences will be immense. If the Free Movement Regime is suspended, people belonging to same ethnicity but divided by the international boundary will no longer be able to travel 16 kilometers into each other’s territory without any restriction. For instance, Naga tribes in Nagaland and Manipur, especially the Konyaks, Khiamniungans and Tangkhuls will be affected most if the border is fenced as the communities live on both sides of the border and share deep ethnic and cultural ties. The same applies to the Mizos and Chins of Myanmar. This is why civil bodies and political parties in some north-eastern states are vocal in opposing the move of the Indian government.
The border drawn during the British rule literally separated people of same ethnicity, particularly the Nagas and the Kuki-Chin-Mizo communities. For instance, the residents of Longwa village in Mon district have dual citizenship as the international border cuts through the village, wherein a portion of the chief Angh’s house falls on the Indian side and the other portion in Myanmar. Isn’t this baffling? Well, the two countries are aware of the complexity, which is why a special arrangement was made to enable such communities to continue their ties. Now, any move to divide them by building fences, is bound to be met with resistance, as it will not only severe the strong cultural and familial ties but also deprive those in Myanmar side of the border to access better education and healthcare facilities on the Indian side. While India’s concern is understandable, the historical aspect of the region can’t be undermined while taking any decision that can disrupt the strong bond shared by different ethnic communities. As pointed out by several civil bodies and political leaders in Nagaland and Mizoram, a thorough discussion and consultation with the general public is necessary to chalk out an acceptable formula that will not disrupt the ties of the people and at the same time check illegal trade practices and other apprehensions of the Indian government. Hasty decisions can even undo the gains made in Naga peace talks with several groups over more than two decades. India should build bridges instead of walls given the border complexities.