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Violent Borders: Killings in Nagaland-Assam

The spate of violent incidents in the border areas of Assam, orchestrated by Naga militants, points to ulterior motives of redrawing boundaries by force to reap economic benefits at the cost of legality and livelihoods of the local people.

Violent Borders: Killingsin Nagaland-Assam

The spate of violent incidents in the border areas of Assam, orchestrated by Naga militants, points to ulterior motives of redrawing boundaries by force to reap economic benefits at the cost of legality and livelihoods of the local people.


ooked from the wrong end of the telescope from Delhi, capital of our highly centralised polity, the grimmest horrors in the north-east appear like trivial and insignificant broils.

The boundary conflicts that are flaring up among north-eastern states is because certain sections of tribal communities, many of whom remain sunken in age-old poverty, are lured by lucrative prospects of land and natural resources which they want to control through political power they enjoy at this time. It seems that those conflicts are kept on the boil by the centre

– either out of apathy or perhaps by deliberate design.

Some of these disputes are decades old, and now they are assuming more and more violent forms. In 1979 in the Chungajan area of the Golaghat district of Assam (pronounced Sungajan), armed Naga intruders gunned down 54 Assam villagers. A worse fate awaited unsuspecting people at Merapani in 1985,when more than a 100 Assam villagers were massacred. In 1989 again, 11 villagers fell before a hail of bullets. After the events, the central security forces, stationed there to keep the peace, patrolled the areas with zeal, but there was no attempt to bring the culprits to the book.

All this, in spite of the fact that the Sundaram Commission (1972-76) entrusted by the centre with the task of settling the boundary-issue made it clear that the more than 4,000 square miles of Assam’s territory had been claimed without any basis by Nagaland,which promptly rejected the findings. Today the Variava Commission appointed by the Supreme Court is looking into the dispute, but that has not deterred certain organised Naga groups, apparently with the connivance of the Nagaland government, from encroaching upon and occupying large chunks of Assam’s territory, totalling, according to some estimates, 2,00,000 hectares of prime land. The modus operandi is sudden, unsuspected and unprovoked attack by armed gangs, reportedly including rebel Naga elements, who force people to flee abandoning their homesteads and farms, and then consolidate the possession by planting signboards of the Nagaland government overnight. Soon after government offices, schools and police stations are built. Leaders of the Assam government lodge official protests, wring their hands and cry foul, but they are ignored. Why this should be so at a time when borders are supposed to have become friendly territory and are expected to melt away altogether in the near future, ought to be deeply pondered.

Boundary Problem

While received wisdom today pontificates that territoriality is an accident of construction of ethnic identity, ethnic groups on the ground seem to be investing a lot of emotion in the idea of their

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

territorial expanse. Yet it is well known that before the rise of nation-states boundaries between countries were defined in a rough-and-ready fashion, and they were not associated with military wariness and violence.

Colonial powers all over the world left a legacy of unending confusion and mayhem, not only by arbitrarily determining boundaries from the sole point of view of their administrative and military advantage, regardless of the history, needs and sentiments of the local population, but insisting on precise scientific demarcation of such borders. The successor-state in India was saddled with such a hodgepodge, with people in different states seething with resentment and wild hopes. It tried halfheartedly to mend matters with the States’ Reorganisation Commission. Further tinkerings followed from time to time, Parliament creating new states under political pressure or out of political expediency. Many ethnic groups have found themselves cheated out of their rightful place by such arrangements, and others have been blessed with windfalls.

In Assam, Koch-Rajbanshis had their historic kingdoms in the region allotted to the Bodoland Territorial Council. On the other hand, stronger and better-united groups have developed a flair for enforcing their claims of expansion with systematic terror.

The Assam-Nagaland boundary has been a “disputed territory” in the sense that the Nagas claim that the present boundaries had been drawn by incorporating vast areas belonging to them into Assam. There does not appear to be much solid historical evidence in support of such claims, and medieval Assamese chronicles (called ‘buranjis’) and British official records appear to contradict many of these claims. But undeterred by such circumstances and irked by a dithering centre’s red-tape and the Assam government’s apathy, Naga groups have gone ahead to reclaim what they consider their “own” land.

Violence and State Apathy

The following is a brief summary of press reports on a series of such recent events. On July 5, “Naga miscreants” suddenly appeared in three villages (Sonapur, Borhola and Sorai-Sojiya), which fall under the jurisdiction of Geleki police station of the Sibsagar district of Assam, and started firing indiscriminately. Two villagers were killed on the spot and 220 families fled and took refuge in temporary ramshackle shelters at a safe distance. Their houses were engulfed by fire and a small tea garden was left in ruins. The CRPF began patrolling the area much after the incident.

The reports stirred widespread anger and unease in Assam. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) declared a 12-hour bandh in the district and the Sibsagar district branch of the AASU blockaded four roads along which truckloads of food-supply cross into the foodgrain-deficit state of Nagaland provoking protest among the Nagas.

When the commissioner of Upper Assam division visited the trouble spot a couple of days later, the clamouring refugees from the boundary complained to him that under the very eyes of the CRPF, the Naga intruders were extorting land revenue, house tax and “ration tax” (foodgrains).

But the turmoil did not die down even after high-ranking civil and police officials from Assam visited the area and assured villagers of protection.Bombs were set off and shots fired in the air in adjacent areas to strike terror among the villagers.

The Assam police identified 10 of the miscreants and in a closed-door meeting at the district headquarters with high-ranking officials from Nagaland urged the latter to arrest and hand them over to Assam for trial. Nagaland police officials expressed their inability to comply.

The Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) called a halt to the disturbances and alleged the involvement of a “third force” behind the violence. At the request of the NSF, the Konyak Naga Union and the Eastern Naga People’s Organisation, the blockade was withdrawn, but people on the Assam side of the boundary remain apprehensive about further incidents. In fact, 10 days later, a certain Enaki village council of Nagaland ordered “Assamese migrants to vacate Naga territory” and proceeded to rechristen Assamese villages like Borhola as Enaki-A, Sorai-Sojiya as Enaki-B and Sonapur as Enaki-C.

Unlike the Nagaland government, which is strongly backing both the illegal encroachments and the legal campaign, the Assam government seems to be in a strange state of somnolence. The 434 kilometrelong Assam-Nagaland boundary is watched by woefully understaffed 32 border outposts, which lack elementary amenities like drinking water, well-built stationhouses, electrical supply and phones.

Reacting to the unremitting press hostility and public censure the Assam chief minister Torun Gogoi woke up to tell an AASU delegation that (1) border outposts would be equipped with solar electricity and good roads to ensure quick and effective response to raids; (2) there were plans to provide villages with licences for firearms;

(3) village defence forces would be equipped with modern arms and ammunitions; (4) refugees were to be rehabilitated (it is unclear if in their original habitations); and (5) the state government was committed to accepting the Supreme Court verdict on the long-standing boundary dispute.

But the assurances did not relieve the villagers near the boundary of their anxiety. There was noticeably no commitment on recovering territory seized by Naga miscreants, and surprisingly no complaint had been lodged before the Supreme Court against the encroachments, pending the Supreme Court verdict.

The recent spate of violence follows a pattern that has reinforced Assamese fears that the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah)’s (NSCN(I-M)) demand for ‘Nagalim’ (greater Nagaland) would be largely carved out of Assam. The I-M group’s rival, the NSCN (Khaplang) has repeatedly warned that this indeed is the plan hatched by the centre to appease the NSCN(I-M) group.

The extent of the “encroachments” does seem to lend weight to such allegations. According to a statement made in the Assam assembly in 2006 by the revenue minister, 1,62,770 hectares of land had been grabbed by Nagaland.

In the Jorhat district, 80 per cent of the land in Tiru Hills (site of iron-smelting works under the Ahom kings of Assam), Diroi and Disoi valley have been occupied by Nagas who have declared reserve forests there out of bounds for the Assamese who are traditionally dependent on them for fuel and timber. Since 1997, the Nagaland government has established post offices, petrol depots, schools and government offices there. In Golaghat district 84,000 hectares have been grabbed in Doiyang (settled as early as the 17th century by Ahom kings, according to buranjis or historical chronicles) and Nambor, Diphu and Rengma forest reserves.

In 1991, the Nagaland government established two administrative subdivisions, Newland and Kohobotu in sector A of the boundary, and in 2006, a new Uriamghat subdivision and a Hukai subdivision were established forcibly in sector B, whereas according to agreements signed between

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007 the two state governments status quo was to have been maintained in all sectors of the boundary (A-E) until the boundary issue was finally resolved.

The state of Nagaland was formed in 1963 by an act of Parliament, and it was stipulated that the boundary between Tuensang district (to be carved out of the North-East Frontier Agency, commonly known as NEFA, but now as Arunachal Pradesh, and merged with Nagaland) and Assam would be the boundary between the former and the newly-formed state. And that boundary had been determined in 1925 by the Geological Survey of India, eliminating all previously confusing and conflicting folklore.


Assamese public opinion regards this as the authentic boundary, but the Nagas believe they used to roam much further north in pre-British times. How substantial are such claims? It is possible that the Nagas in their hunting-gathering times ranged much more extensively than today, but then, they had formed no territorial state, whereas in the areas in dispute, the Dimasa (southern Bodos) kingdom was followed by the Ahom kingdom, both territorial states with some definite ideas of boundaries. Territorial kingdoms raised revenue from farmers engaged in settled agriculture, and therefore needed and insisted on firmer, more definite boundaries. Some of the areas now claimed to be theirs by the Nagas (and they might have hunted there) were mentioned in Ahom chronicles and state documents as lying within the Ahom kingdom. For example, Doyang was settled in the 17th century with farmers and artisans.

In the late 18th century, a prolonged and vicious civil war (the Moamoria rebellion), where neither side showed any mercy to the other, ravaged the Ahom kingdom, and this was followed by an invading Myanmarese army that deliberately devastated settlements with a policy of terror. Large agricultural tracts were swallowed up by forests in a tropical region where vegetation quickly reclaimed any area that was left fallow. The Nagas might have then wandered in those forests or even settled in some parts, but that does not amount to a definite claim on territory for Nagaland.

The Sundaram Commission had sifted historical evidence and come to the conclusion that the claim by the Nagas to 4,975 square miles of Assam territory was not based on verifiable facts. In fact, British colonial rulers, forming Assam as a separate province in 1873, had merged territory under the former Ahom kingdom into the Naga Hills district, according to colonial records.

But the Nagas for decades have been pursuing a policy of defying constitutional arbitration to extend their northern boundary. In 1991 and 2006 the Nagaland government established new administrative subdivisions on disputed territory. The Assam government duly lodged protests, but did not carry matters further, to the chagrin of the people of Sivasagar, Jorhat and Golaghat districts.

The present attacks are perceived by the people of Assam as a continuation of that revanchist design.

History gives an account of the Naga tribes as proud, fiercely independent, warlike and brave people warring as often among themselves as with non-Naga neighbours. (They also had a fine aesthetic sense as seen in the formal economy and expressive power of their wood-carvings in the Indian Museum, Kolkata.) The Ahom kings used a mixture of conciliation and conquest to keep them under control, and buranjis record both successful military expeditions forcing tribute on Nagas and appeasement with annual exchange of gifts. It was the British who through a series of strenuous and bitterlyfought military expeditions finally subdued them and gradually extended some sort of administrative arrangement to keep the peace, so that their tea gardens and lucrative timber-trade did not suffer from disruptions.

The relationship between the Nagas and the plains-people was not one of unremitting hostility. There was a recognition of mutual need and support, and the Assam districts mentioned above saw an annual visit from Nagas coming downhill to exchange chillies, precious salt, iron choppers (called da), bamboo shoots, deer skin, arum and edible roots for rice, vegetables, pulses, cotton cloth, pots and pans and other handicrafts. The traditional ties were such as to make the word ‘mita’ (friend) a common word of address between visiting Nagas and the plains Assamese.

But orthodox Hindu rules on caste and pollution and a sense of superiority among the Assamese prevented closer relations. The British and American missionaries did selfless work by founding schools and hospitals and introducing Nagas to


Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

elements of modern life, while propagating the Christian faith among them. The colonial authorities also took care to widen the division between the hills and the plains.

The Naga armed struggle for independence from 1947, led by an educated band of Nagas, has been better documented by more knowledgeable people and I need not waste space repeating it here. The government of India also adopted ruthless military measures and imposed draconian laws (including the infamous Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act) from the 1950s in order to quell their indomitable spirit. The rebellion is yet to subside, though a moderate section has grown up, content to live and work as equal citizens. There are distinguished civil servants, academics, professionals, scientists and public figures among them today. Income from steady modern livelihoods like business, commerce and government service and professions has diluted the taste for insurgency, though pride in their war-like, native traditions remain strong. But corruption (a euphemism for plunder of state coffers) and a fascination with the modern western lifestyle have further eroded old values and have replaced them with a rapaciousness for material gain among the betteroff sections (this is not to say that the Assamese are immune to such cravings).

Ulterior Motive?

The Naga interest in Assam’s territory does not spring from a simple urge to recover supposedly lost ancestral land. They are fully aware of the economic benefits to be had from it. The forest wealth, the rice (cultivated with the help of non-Naga migrant labour) in a food- deficit state, and above all mineral wealth like oil (of which there are proven large reserves in the area claimed from Assam) attract a new ruthless class of contractors and wheeler-dealers who would think nothing of killing off numbers of innocent people to lay their hands on these sources of wealth.

In this they are at one in sentiment with the NSCN (I-M) group, which has morphed in recent decades from a fervent Marxist to a militant Christian (‘Nagaland for Christ’) organisation. The abandonment of Marxism with its international outlook has turned national sentiment into ruthless ultra-nationalism. The NSCN(I-M) group is now prepared to abandon the path of war with India in favour of an integration of all Naga-inhabited areas under one greater Nagaland (‘Nagalim’) state. As mentioned earlier on, the historical claims do not appear well founded. But the NSCN(I-M) has taken advantage of the long truce to propagate their new vision among all Nagas now scattered in different northeastern states.

The idea has caught fire among those Nagas to the point where Naga students from Manipur have petitioned the Nagaland government to affiliate them to the Nagaland School Board! The Meiteis of Manipur are dead against ceding the Nagainhabited territory to Nagalim, and in Arunachal Pradesh too, there is a backlash from “natives” against the idea. Of course, this is not to say that Nagas there have no genuine grievances. In Assam, there is deep and growing resentment against the Congress state government’s surrender of state territory to rampaging marauders. A certain Naga organisation called the “Bura Council” has recently laid claim to Nazira, site of capital cities of the old Ahom kingdom. There is a deep suspicion in Assam that the state government is complicit with the centre’s secret plans to appease the rebel Naga leadership by handing over huge chunks of Assam’s territory at a time when lakhs of floodaffected landless Assamese are living in desperate poverty and want, and hundreds of teenagers are exported annually to “flesh markets” outside.

The key to the present discord may thus lie not in immemorial ethnic realities, but in the contemporary international economy. The NSF may well be right in their hunch about a “third force” fomenting discord on the border between Nagaland and Assam. If so, we are likely to witness more such strife and violence in decades ahead, and increasing misery for multitudes of poor people of the north-east. Can one expect an organised effort to defeat such evil designs?



Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

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