The swift response on March 13, 2018, by Union home minister Rajnath Singh soon after the chief minister of Mizoram Lalthanhawla dashed off a letter apprising him of the flashpoint at Zophai on the Assam-Mizoram border and seeking Central intervention was unexpected but welcomed by all. Mizoram is located on the most strategic point as the wedge in the tri-junction where India meets Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh.
It is the first time that the government of India (GoI) has taken a stand on the old festering issue with alacrity. He directed the chief secretaries of the two states to discuss the boundary issue on March 20 with the brief that it is to be followed by a chief ministerial level meeting. Likely, it averted a bloody confrontation, what with students, policemen and supporters of both sides of the boundary wrangle converging on Zophai, to ‘settle’ the dispute. Far from being friendly neighbouring states of the same country, the sabre-rattling and the jingoism sounding out from people on both sides was frighteningly akin to hostile countries before a war. The local Member of the Assam Legislative Assembly, Suzam Uddin Laskar went so far as to call on his state government to provide civilians with weapons to fight the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, the students group from Mizoram.
“We will not give an inch of our land,” he thundered into the mike of an Assam based TV news channel. On the other hand, there were several social media posts showing people posing with guns and serious discussions comparing the weapon worthiness of the cops on the two sides and an outright call to shed blood.
Such berserk chest-thumping on the imaginary line between the Indian states of Mizoram and Assam have punctuated life in the countryside along the 165 odd km of boundary they share. Mizoram’s Kolasib District nudges the present Hailakandi, Cachar and Karimganj districts of Assam. The boundary line is imaginary because it has never been demarcated on the ground by the government of India. It is important to note, though, that the ‘border’ between the Mizo areas ( known officially in British records as “Lushai territories”or “Lushai country”) and the British Imperial Government of India was surveyed, lines drawn more than once and boundary pillars planted. All done by the British without local consent.
The current standoff at Zophai, the plains falling from the Kolosib mountains a few kilometers from the Bairabi town in Mizoram’s Kolosib district, between MZP, a Mizoram based students body and the Assam Police, over the former wanting to build a ‘rest house’ and the latter under orders to stop them, has an element of déjà vu. To take the liberty of using native Mizo imagery, “ this is just one more altercation in a 174 year-old on-going conflict between the Mizo tribes and encroaching invaders.” In native history, the entire period of siege, which includes the current era, is known as “Vailen” which translates into the ‘era of the Vai’, normally taken to mean the people from the plains.
During the entire course from mid-19th century Vailen, the British killed and pillaged, burnt granaries, plundered villages, slaughtered many and carried off scores of Mizo chiefs from their abodes as their prisoners to subdue the defiant Mizo defending their homeland. Many chiefs starved themselves to death in British prisons rather than live in their confinement. To give further credence to the native narrative of boundary history, one might recall the controversy in 2016 over the Government of India’s decision to confer the title “Indian Freedom Fighter” on the legendary Mizo fighter, Pasaltha Khuangchera. This was unanimously opposed on the ground that he was a Mizo warrior who died in 1890 fighting to expel the British and defending the Mizo lands at the height of the Vailian Hun and not for Indian freedom. They did not even know what India was at that time, they said.
In fact, when the bullets started flying on March 10, 2018 with trigger happy Assam Policemen opening fire on the Mizo students and reporters, Lalthlamuana Ralte, assistant professor of Economics in the prestigious Pachhunga University College, Aizawl, Mizoram, who is also a well known social observer and commentator, had a momentary flashback which he promptly typed into his facebook wall for all the world to see: “Today is the first time invaders fired on defenders of our land since 1871, when invaders then too fired at our warriors defending our lands. At that time the Mizo did retaliate but only in defense because the British failed to respect the boundary line between us drawn earlier by themselves intruding into our lands to set up their tea estates.” The only noteworthy difference then and now, is that the current defenders at Zophai are descendents of the same defenders of the land of 1871, whereas the people they stand up against are no longer the British who left in 1947, but the officialdom of the Indian state and now-fellow Indians who migrated into those areas during the century since then and literally poured into in the wake of India’s gory independence pang and still flooding in till date.
The native narrative sees these events as one string of encroachments into their domain since they first collided with the spreading land grabbing frontline of the British Empire in the mid 1800s in the hills of Chittagong, the plains of Sylhet and when they started occupying what is known to the official world as Cachar. The British policy was to ignore the ‘savages’ and keep away from them but the discovery of tea plants in these adjoining lands brought them into direct conflict as the expansion of tea estates soon infringed into the areas which were claimed by various warring tribes and ethnic people, mostly made up of the tribes and clans of the Mizo constellation. The British claimed this land as ‘Terra nullius’. They advertised these terrain for sale for tea plantations in London newspapers. But these lands they arbitrarily put up for sale included the Mizo tribes’ claimed hunting grounds, most importantly, their ‘Sai Ram Chhuahna’ (their elephant herding grounds). Elephant hunting was an important livelihood which also held significant social and ritual meaning in their life. As the encroachments increased, so did the Mizo raids. The British retaliation deepened into “Lushai” territory as noted in their official records . The Mizo resistance lasted for more than half-a-century, interspersed with periods of lulls and false peace. Boundary lines were drawn and redrawn during this period to suit the British whims and profit. What stuck on is the one created in 1875 after an agreement with the chief Suakpuilala, which was notified as the Inner Line in 1875 under Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 and the line was established as the southern Cachar boundary, say researchers. In the meantime a new Chief Commissionership was established in Assam.
While the British was making these administrative allocations and boundaries were being established, a portion of territory, 509 sq miles to be exact, which was between this Inner Line and the territory of the Lushai chief Suakpuilala came under a government notification declaring it as the Inner Line Forest Reserve (ILFR). Many scholars have noted the illegality of the British action. The ILFR changed administrative hands many times across the decades as the fate of the Mizo changed from being a British subjects in a district in the British province of Assam to being a district under Indian Assam, changed to a District Council (1952), a Union Territory (1972) and then a state (1986). Meanwhile, the ILFR, an acknowledged ‘Lushai territory’ in official documents is now part of the Assam State, in particularly within Cachar and Hailakandi Districts currently.
To fully understand what’s going on at Zophai, it is of utmost importance to understand that this strand of history is deeply etched in the memory of the Mizo of this generation. It is important too, to know that there are two running narratives - the native and the official; the first is the oral ethno-cultural history of the tribe linked to the land and the forests, while the second one is based on official nation state history based on the rulers. In this context, the MZP, represents the first and the narrative from the Assam state represents the second.
The MZP represents the wish of the Mizo people for official acknowledgement that the entire area of 509 sq miles is Mizo land and that it must be returned. These are decade’s long standing demands and the issue comes round like the yearly monsoon rains. Impending polls serve to whip up the emotions as politicians and would be politicians stir up the issue to suit themselves. The British kept meticulous records and it is all there, say the campaigners. But surprisingly, with all its public appeal backed by well documented facts existing in the British records now inherited by the Indian state, the issue has never been taken off the streets, off from the hands of angry young students, spent old men, out-of-power-politicians and emotional activists by the political rulers of Mizoram. In all these years the successive Governments of the state ruled by sons of the soil did precious little to get the boundary demarcated. A glaring example of the failure of the decision makers to address this foundational issue is when the underground government of the Mizo National Front (MNF) ‘forgot’ to even mention the boundary demands in the Peace Accord they signed with the Government of India in 1986. They got Mizoram state but sans the native boundaries for which they went to war originally.
Representations were made to the ruling powers from time to time. There was the 1947 memorandum to the British Crown by the Mizo Union, the first democratic political party, claiming 18,993 sq miles enveloping contiguous areas to the Mizo Hills in the then Burma present Myannmar, neighboring states of Assam, Manipur and Tripura and of course the Chittagong hills. This was based on their calculation of linguistic affinity.
In 1972, the first chief minister of the Union Territory Mizoram, Ch Chhunga also wrote a memorandum seeking the return of the ILFR and sought the recognition for marking boundaries as per the 1875 regulation.
There was a fact finding committee in 1973 led by the famous Rev Zairema, the one who was instrumental in brokering peace between the then MNF.
Major incidents happened in 1994 and 2007. In 2012 the Mizoram Government set up a 5 member boundary committee under C Chawngkunga, a scholarly politician. But its request to the Central Government to form a Boundary Commission fell on deaf ears.
Interestingly, during all these years it was the Congress party which held power at the Centre as well as the states of the region including Mizoram. But despite having the same party in power they failed to resolve it. Now with the country under rule led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) it remains to be seen how they take it forward. In poll bound Mizoram, the BJP may well play the native tune to gain the only remaining non-BJP state in North East India on its side. All the other tribal states of the region, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya have the same kind of boundary history with Assam.
This current confrontation came up when the MZP set out to make a ‘resting shed’ or chawlh buk as they call it in the local language, in an area where, according to them, was being encroached upon by the people from the Assam. Setting up ‘resting-sheds’ in lands where Assam’s teeming boundary population encroaches into what is held as Mizo lands has been an on-going campaign of the MZP. This is done to bring the issue back into public and political centre stage. They have done the same in other locations in the past but with little impact outside. They say that the people living across in Assam have encroached into Mizoram lands and are laying an illegal claim on it. “Whether it is recognized or not by the state of Assam, we know that all these areas is our land,” assert the students.
The shed at Zophai was constructed on February 28, 2018. It was destroyed by the Assam Police. On March 5, a posse of Mizo Students Union (MSU), another students’ organization, went to inspect the MZP rest-shed, but they found that the shed had disappeared. In its place nearby, was a hut set up by the Assam Police for a make-shift outpost. The MSU dismantled it. Following this the MZP set out to rebuild their shed on March 10. When the students with their supporters landed there carrying their timber and carpentry equipment, they were stopped by the Assam Police, who were already prepared, some sources allege, with firing orders already in their pockets. They were lathi charged and fired upon injuring many including several journalists. This started off the chain reaction which was widely reported by the media.
Besides waking up the state and central governments, this round of episodes has had an unprecedented impact on the relations among the Mizo constellation of tribes. It seems to have served to resurrect the ancient bloodlines and hoary kinship systems that had all but dried up under the stress of modern life lived in the modern political boundaries. Usually quarrelsome and at odds, squabbling and even running fratricidal feuds, the various organizations representing these affiliated tribes and clans, such as the Lai, Mara, Hmar, Paite, Kuki, Hrangkhawl, Kaipeng, Lushai, etc. from within the state and across the state boundaries are pouring in with their support to the MZP’s plans to construct the rest-shed or Chawlh Buk as they call it. Several delegations arrived on the spot. Support came from affiliate groups in Myanmar too. The last comes in handy for the Mizo people if ever the irate organizations based in Hailakandi and Cachar go ahead with their threats to blockade the roads and choke Mizoram only supply line which is through their district.
As far as the government of Assam is concerned they have no dispute with Mizoram. They go by the boundary as notified under Notification No. 2106 AP dated March 9, 1933 despite there not being any official demarcation. A meeting was held at Shillong, Meghalaya on 24th September, 2014 between the officials of Assam and Mizoram, where they agreed to maintain status quo along the border. But the same question brings the issue back to square one: what is the definition of “status quo”. Status quo in relation to what ? The Natives want to go back to the original boundary marked in 1875.
While that does not seem even remotely achievable under the present circumstances, what can be done, besides, forcing open the boundary discussion with Assam and taking it on from there, is ensuring that the frontline of encroachment does not continue to slither deeper into the Mizo State. As Chawngkunga told journalists, “The most important step is to occupy the lands we call our own. But the tragedy is that people who are from these border areas abandon their land and migrate inwards to the town and cities. We Mizo ourselves are offering the land to the land hungry people waiting just outside our doors now. Land cannot be protected by documents alone.’ His advice, ‘physically occupy, ’ is perhaps the one way to stop the unstated policy of lebensraum that’s pushing the Mizo tribes and other indigenous and tribal peoples out of their territories in this corner of South Asia.
(Linda Chhakchhuak is an independent journalist. The views are her personal.)