NHRC directs Centre and NE states to submit report on Mukroh tragedy
Firing incident at Mukroh village in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills (File Image)

July 2021. The country is fighting the deadly pandemic, with many regions reporting hundreds of fatalities every day. The northeast is slightly better off, but not much. And yet, on one fateful day in July, almost all conversations around the pandemic halted and for a few days, it seemed even the rest of India was talking only about one thing: the death of six Assam Police personnel, allegedly at the hands of the Mizoram Police following heightened tensions over the border dispute. 

Few people had heard of the village of Mukroh until November 2022. Yet, it took one fateful night to catapult the village into national news. Reason? The death of five civilians and one forest official over alleged smuggling. Cut to 2023, Assam CM claims the village is part of West Karbi Anglong district and ergo, Assam. Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma points towards the recently-held state elections to clarify that it is a part of Meghalaya. Amid these claims, six lives were lost forever.

Border disputes are a touchy topic and you do not need me to give examples of contentious international borders across the world. Northeast India, at times, can give you that feeling too: state borders resembling international frontlines. So, when we heard that Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are taking important strides towards resolving their border disputes, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

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Now, if that sounds dramatic, allow me some editorial leeway. 

Thankfully, people are not ready to shoot each other at the Assam-Arunachal border, but that does not mean there are no issues. In a significant milestone in the border talks between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the two states signed the Namsai Declaration, an agreement to reduce the number of disputed villages from 123 to 86, in 2022. This week’s talks between the two chief ministers, both poster boys for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Northeast, are another step towards resolving the vexed border disputes that plague the northeast. 

Now, talks alone do not suffice, as we saw in Meghalaya. Months after congratulating each other over settling the first phase of Assam-Meghalaya, we started reading reports of how the people were unhappy with the decision and that tensions, albeit low-key, are frequent. The fact that two CMs are claiming ownership over a village–Mukroh–also shows that a lot needs to be done. 

For me, however, the biggest reason we must sit down and address the borders is that it presents the strongest impediment towards ensuring equal, consistent development in the region. During the run-up to the Nagaland elections, I interviewed the then MLA from the Bhandari constituency, Mmhonlumo Kikon, who explained how the dispute between Assam and Nagaland had derailed road construction in his constituency, and every other idea of development will remain just that–an idea–until roads are built. 

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When the Assam-Mizoram border tension was at its peak, we were getting regular reports of farms being vandalised, schools ‘bombed’ and infrastructure being damaged. Mukroh firing was over alleged smuggling claims, even though Meghalaya residents said the people killed were regular farmers. 

It is pretty obvious that no one benefits when people are deprived of roads, farms are damaged, and natural resources are looted.

The reason why I am also hopeful that not just Assam-Arunachal, but rather, all state border issues could be solved soon, is because of who is at the helm. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura all have a BJP government. In Meghalaya, strange as it may sound, they are allies with the NPP. The Central government, of course, is under the BJP. 

With no ‘counter’ voices to derail talks for vested interest, there is no reason why the states cannot sit down and talk among themselves and arrive at a conclusion. 

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The BJP never fails to remind us that under their regime, the Northeast has received a lot more attention and that the region is more peaceful than ever. But can we really talk about long-lasting peace as long as cops are being shot at near state borders and civilians are losing lives? There are important lessons to learn from the Assam-Meghalaya first phase border talks too. It is one thing for governments to sign an agreement, but a completely different matter for locals to accept the status quo. I hope that Assam and Arunachal governments are consistently talking to locals and explaining to them what is going on, and how this helps them. 

We are years behind the rest of the nation in terms of development, yet, we must not hurry into solving long-standing disputes. It will be a big missed opportunity if, despite having the BJP at nearly every level of government, we do not solve the border issues. This is precisely where a ‘double-engine’ government is supposed to show its might. 

Also Read | Northeast needs a lot of things: Hindi is not one of them 

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