Indonesia Tribes

Territory, culture, identity: the Assam-Mizoram border crisis is more than a dispute over territory


oi-Vicky Nanjappa


Update: Tuesday August 3, 2021 9:53 am [IST]

Google One News India

There are many instances where states have had disputes over land and natural resources. Karnataka and Maharashtra, for example, have an ongoing dispute over the Mumbai Karnataka area.

Haryana and Punjab have had disputes over the status of Chandigarh. Karnataka and Kerala also had disagreements over the status of Kasaragod district. While many of these disputes are ongoing, none of them have escalated into violent clashes like the one seen along the Assam-Mizoram border. Why have the border clashes between Assam and Mizoram seen such levels of violence? To answer this question, one needs to understand how cultural and tribal identity is intertwined with land and territory in much of the Northeast.

Territory, culture, identity: the Assam-Mizoram border crisis is more than a dispute over territory

Recent border clashes have seen six members of Assam’s police force killed. However, this is not the first time that violent clashes have broken out between the two parties. Similar clashes took place in 1995, injuring nearly 50 people. Minor violence also took place last year and the situation was brought under control after the intervention of the Union government. The two parties have differing opinions on which set of border demarcations to use. Currently, the Assam-Mizoram border is based on the 1933 notification. This arrangement has the support of the government of Assam. However, the government of Mizoram does not agree with this border demarcation. They want the existing border to be drawn on the basis of the 1875 notification. The Mizoram government maintains that the Mizo tribes were not consulted until the 1933 notification was drafted. At the heart of the dispute therefore lies a land of 750 km² which changed camp between the Notifications of 1875 and 1933.

PM Modi meets Assam BJP MPs amid border tensions with MizoramPM Modi meets Assam BJP MPs amid border tensions with Mizoram

Although this is a simple territorial dispute between two states, the way different ethnic groups view the land has added a whole new dimension to this conflict. Much attention has been paid to the importance of land and territory in the literature on studies of global conflicts. A landmark work on this issue is Monica Duffy Toft’s article on Indivisible Territory and Violent Conflict. She argues that the way different ethnic groups view the land can influence the outbreak of violent clashes. Identities are often defined by a group’s ability to control a territory. This problem is magnified in situations where the population of an ethnic minority group is concentrated in a particular geographic region. These groups tend to regard the land they inhabit as their “homeland”. Control of the homeland is crucial to protect the identity of the group.

A good example for understanding the link between control of territory and ethnic violence are the many conflicts that have emerged in the outer islands of Indonesia from the 1990s and early 2000s. Chris Wilson, Jamie Davidson and Kirsten Schulze highlighted how the transmigration program endorsed by the Suharto government has helped fuel tensions between migrant groups like the Javanese, Madurese and Makian and various local ethnic groups. Local ethnic groups in the regions of Poso, Samba, Maluku and Kalimantan have seen their culture and economic interests threatened by the influx of immigrants from other parts of the country. For many of these ethnic groups, control of their territory was seen not only as a means of safeguarding their economic interests but also as a means of safeguarding their cultural identity.

There is a similar link between land and tribal / cultural identity throughout the Northeast. The Interior Line Permit (ILP) and requests for its implementation in Meghalaya and Assam underscore the importance of land and territory for the protection of the cultural identity of various tribal groups.

Take for example the protests that followed the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in late 2019. In northeastern Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, opposition to the CAA was motivated by concerns about the potential demographic impact of the law.

The All Assam Students Union (AASU) suggested that the underlying concern was Assamese identity and “Assamese pride”. Across the Northeast, fear was that AAC would mean the influx of large numbers of non-natives, which would endanger local culture and identity. In such situations, ILP becomes an important tool to ensure that residents retain control over what they consider to be their “homeland”. This gives various tribal groups a sense of security that cultural identity is protected.

The situation that prevails today along the Assam-Mizoram border is much more than a simple fight over 750 km² of land. Both parties regard control of the disputed territory as a necessary condition to protect their ethnic and cultural identity. Territory is seen as something “indivisible” and for both parties it is a zero-sum game. As a result, these disputes are often protracted and very difficult to resolve.

Given the emotional attachment to the territory, such conflicts are also much more likely to lead to violence. Similar border disputes between Assam and Nagaland have also led to violent clashes in the past.

Important lessons can be learned from the current tensions along the border. While central government intervention is needed to ease tensions, the search for a long-term solution will be more complex. It will have to involve the different parties to the dispute and take into account the broader concerns regarding the protection of cultural identities. In the future, we need to be much more sensitive to issues of cultural and tribal identity in the North East.

While the immediate task would be to ease tensions along the Assam-Mizoram border, there are also long-standing demands that the Indian government will need to heed. Several groups have called for the extension of ILP requirements to the Meghalaya.

Representatives of these groups met with Interior Minister Amit Shah a few days ago. Similar demands have also been made in Assam, Tripura and Sikkim. Extending ILP requirements to these states will be an important step in addressing long-standing concerns about cultural and tribal identities.

(Sanjal Shastri – PhD Student, Politics and International Relations, University of Auckland)

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