Eleven and perhaps still counting. That’s the death toll in the most recent Assam-Nagaland border dispute — a chilling reminder that it takes little to instigate violence in the North-East, where ethnic rivalry invariably ends in bloodshed and arson. The latest conflagration has displaced 10,000 people who have been forced to take shelter in relief camps. With 200 houses gutted, about 1,000 people have lost most of their possessions. The villages worst hit are Chetiagaon, Romanbasti, Chainpur, Ratanpur, Kamphur and Sukhanjan in Sector B of the inter-state border region. The locals believe that Naga rebels are the main culprits. What began as a protest rally last Tuesday in Chetiagaon in response to the abduction of two local boys by some Nagas, soon turned violent. When the CRPF resorted to lathicharge to disperse the crowd, some people from the Nagaland side opened fire, killing a man and injuring two others. In no time, the situation spiralled out of control. Central paramilitary forces have been pressed into service to restore calm.
In the last couple of decades, areas around the border have been witness to regular skirmishes. Given the scale of violence this time, the Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, has sought Centre’s help to resolve the crisis. For Narendra Modi government to play peacemaker, it has to adopt a nuanced approach. This is a complex and delicate situation that requires deft handling. At the heart of this crisis is the demand for the unification of all Naga-inhabited territories. The relationship between the two states has progressively worsened with both sides accusing each other of illegally occupying the other’s territory.
While Assam claimed that Nagaland had usurped a huge chunk of its land (nearly 50,000 hectares), Nagaland has complained that the Centre, instead of being impartial and objective, has often favoured the neighbour in times of conflict. Nagaland has also been accused of fomenting communal violence in Assam by instigating illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
However, the root cause of all conflicts in the North-East is the failure of the people to see beyond their ethnicity and forge a common identity. The many tribes of the region have often taken up arms against each other to consolidate their holds in respective zones. The consequences have been devastating, leading to a stupendous loss of lives and property.
Territorial battles are also triggered by fights over resources as North-East — in spite of being rich in natural resources — has seen scant development over the years. The Centre’s apathy since Independence has been stark and consistent even as the region has degenerated into killing fields.
Against the backdrop of the current spate of clashes, the Centre has advised Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur to settle border disputes peacefully. Now, that would require a willing participation of all the states involved, where New Delhi plays the role of a facilitator. In 2010, the Supreme Court, apart from appointing a local commission to look into Assam’s contentious border with Nagaland and Manipur, had also roped in two mediators in the hope of “resolving the issue through mediation”. Four years on, it’s evident the initiatives haven’t worked.
For now, of course, the only concern should be to stop the ongoing violence as innocent people are falling prey to hatred and animosity. Once there is a semblance of normalcy, the Modi government should spearhead the peace process.