Border disputes have led to several skirmishes between Assam and Nagaland since the mid-1960s ~ and between Assam and its neighbouring States after they attained statehood in successive years. The reasons are several and date back to the advent of the British into this region. However, none of these skirmishes were hostile, perhaps except for the “First Merapani War” of 1985, and the “Second Merapani War” in 1990-91, (I had reported on both, which were published in the then Nagaland Times and the then Jorhat-based The Eastern Clarion). But even the bad blood between Assam and Nagaland, created by the “Merapani Wars” were resolved somewhat affably and soon relations between the two States returned to “normal”. However, Assam’s obvious belligerence in its current skirmish with Mizoram and Meghalaya needs very serious notice because Assam, under the chief ministership of Himanta Biswa Sarma, appears to have a very big game-plan as regards the disputed areas in the borders of its neighbouring States ~ some of which are still under judicial process.
It may be recalled that in a matter of weeks, soon after Himanta was sworn in as Assam’s Chief Minister on May 10, the Mariani MLA created ruckus in our border areas of Mokokchung district at the end of May. Thankfully, the flare-up was resolved cordially. On hindsight, it is now difficult to assert whether that was the “usual” provocation at another border skirmish with Nagaland or a diversionary tactic from Assam’s designs on its borders with Mizoram and Meghalaya. It is also possible that these two States became more of a priority hence the Mariani MLA’s provocation at Mokokchung district’s borders was doused only too quickly. After all, even Assam ~ however “big” it is or believes itself to be ~ can fight only on so many fronts and geographically, it is easier to take on Mizoram and Meghalaya together.
Leaving aside the several factors for all these border disputes in the Northeast, for now let us focus on some red flags that have serious implications for Nagaland too. First, the BJP’s Hindutva project of which the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) being a major component. Already non-Muslim peoples from some neighbouring countries have been granted citizenship. Now, where would these people be accommodated? If we look at the land-people ratio in the country, then Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and the Northeast are the obvious choice. But notwithstanding these new citizens, we already have the problem of massive illegal influx from Bangladesh in almost all Northeast States for decades. However, the BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre is committed to provide a home to non-Muslims of some neighbouring country therefore space must be made for them to settle down.
Now, who in the Northeast is the most zealous BJP-RSS acolyte in the Northeast? On June 23, Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted: “Providing Land Pattas to the landless people of Assam is the commitment of the Assam Government under the able leadership of @PMOIndia. Grateful to the govt. for their remarkable step. Something very necessary at this hour”. This explains a lot of what have been happening in this region vis-à-vis border skirmishes. Assam needs land to give to “the landless people of Assam” but who are these “landless people of Assam”? Despite the increase in population in Assam, as everywhere, the indigenous people of Assam have their own land, as indigenous people do in Nagaland and other Northeastern States. So, most of these “landless people of Assam” have to be from elsewhere. Then again, Assam still has to verify a few lakhs of her population as citizens of Assam ~ and remember that the decades of the influx from Bangladesh has brought in people subscribing to various religions and it is quite certain who amongst them will be granted citizenship under CAA. Let us have no doubts that ultimately, CAA will adversely affect our land ~ it’s already begun. Unfortunately, our State Government has so willingly endorsed the CAA despite opposition from various sections of society.
The CAA project of the BJP-Led NDA Government at the Centre is a well planned one ~ indubitably it was implemented after much strategizing. Assam’s Chief Minister has certainly internalized and prioritized this project hence one of the Assam BJP’s manifestoes in the Assembly elections this year was “Land Pattas to the landless people of Assam”. If the people of Assam failed to understand the implications of this, even more so the political parties, Governments and the people of the other Northeastern States. This is a consequence of insularity, as is the wont of tribal societies ~ in an increasingly aggressive post-colonial world. What is happening in the Northeast today is internal and inter-colonialism all over again ~ spring-boarding on our numerous border disputes. But then again, is only Assam guilty of this? Northeastern States must soul search for the answer if we desire to live peacefully ~ keeping in mind that population everywhere is increasing leading to intensified search for a “better life”.
There is also the recent cow protection legislation in Assam, with which even the people of that State are unhappy because it has serious economic implications especially for farmers, irrespective of religion. Besides, this legislation has a direct implication on the right to food and freedom of religion. And for tribal communities in the hills States of the Northeast, it is a direct threat and provocation not only because we import cows from or through Assam for consumption and economic activities but also because of the BJP’s insidious efforts to impose Hindutva in this region at the cost of religions and cultures and re-engineer our food habits to suit the Hindutva project. True, BJP leaders have been very emphatic that beef consumption in the hills States of the Northeast would not be banned but when the source is cut off, it’s as good as beef banning.
The other issue is the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), of which Himanta Biswa Sarma is the Convener. This Alliance was formed sometime before the 2014 parliamentary elections, ostensibly to provide a united front against the Congress Party ~ in the BJP’s quest to make India Congress-free. Because of political ambitions, Northeastern regional and non-Congress national parties were sold to the BJP’s sales pitch of Congress-muft India project and joined the NEDA bandwagon. The success rate is ambiguous because in the subsequent years we saw that the Congress could be kept out of power only through alliances of regional parties and the BJP in most States in the region, which of course was followed by blatant horse-trading. Now, the NEDA is also not an overnight development. It appears to have been planned years ahead ~ ostensibly the objective was to fully control Northeastern regional and non-Congress national parties and make them subservient to the BJP. Indeed, a very successful project so far because no regional and non-Congress political party today in the Northeast dare sneeze without the BJP’s say-so. Nagaland is a prime example. In effect, Himanta Biswa Sarma has become the Chief Minister ~ nay, the Prime Minister ~ of the Northeast. And, none of our regional and non-Congress parties dare to oppose that ~ despite the Congress having been rendered toothless in the region. So, any political analyst/commentator would then question the self-confidence quotient of our regional and non-Congress parties as indeed the BJP itself.
Now, we don’t know what carrots the BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre has dangled before our Northeastern regional and non-Congress parties but whatever the carrots, events are proving that these carrots aren’t juicy for the people. It is also possible that soon these carrots will turn into bitter gourds ~ obsequiousness to seemingly invincible powers-that-be has the propensity to do that. So coming to Nagaland, how beholden are our regional and non-Congress parties to the NEDA, the BJP and the BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre? This is pertinent because it will impact on the shape and future not only on any land under dispute in our borders but also on other facets of our political, economic, demographic and social profiles. While Assam and Nagaland have withdrawn police forces from two areas at our borders the other day, we cannot let down our guard ~ till Assam is done with Mizoram and Meghalaya ~ taking one step backward to gain two forward is also a political strategy. But the point is what would be the advantages of Nagaland’s “two steps forward”? Would it be for the people and State of Nagaland or for some political parties? This differentiation is crucial ~ there is also something called the Pyrrhic victory. So, much would depend on the pliability quotient of our State leaders. That, further, would depend on our regional and non-Congress parties, and our State Government’s level(s) of indebtedness to Himanta and the Centre, which further would depend on their confidence quotient(s) to gain and retain power without the BJP prop. Testing times ahead definitely for our regional parties and our State Government; in fact, testing times also for NEDA itself ~ should one or more of Northeastern regional and/or non-Congress parties find the spine to break off from this Alliance because of border issues. When, and if, those with spine go marching out of NEDA, will Nagaland’s regional and non-Congress parties be in that number? Or, will there be a land-for-power trade or some other trade-offs under the guise of “cordial resolution of border disputes”? It’s always the Fifth Colum we need to be wary of.
Border disputes today cannot and must not be perceived only through the prism of historical territorial rights and any other old dynamics of a colonized Northeast by a long-gone foreign colonial power. Post-colonialism also creates the space for more intra-colonials.