The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 1 August 2021, as a way out of the ensuing border disputes in India’s northeast, announced to resolve the perpetual border contests using geospatial technology. The project, the MHA stated, would be executed by North Eastern Space Application Centre (NESAC), jointly managed by the Department of Space and North Eastern Council (NEC). At face value, it appears as a responsive strategy. Delving to a deeper stratum, one may however feel anxious as mapping often entails the practice and relation of power-knowledge. 

The goal

Mizoram asserts that in drawing its dividing line with Assam, reference is to be made to the 1875 Cachar Inner Line based on the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR) of 1873. This, they claim, is the only boundary line that they truly greeted. This is disregarded by Assam asserting the supersession of the 1875 line by the notification of 1933. 

Knowing the bone of contention between both parties, the Centre has to act out its responsibility tactfully as an impartial third party to prevent further conflicts. Simply using satellite mapping will not solve the problem as both the states have their version of reference maps that exceedingly overlapped each other. An on-site survey has not been carried out so far since 1971. This has to be done promptly but carefully as settlements are already made. 

Mere space tech won’t solve

Cartography has undergone a major turn with the intervention of geospatial science and technology. Nevertheless, if it is a state-sanctioned craft without participatory mapping, border tussles will eventually resume. Drawing of political boundaries, if it is not seen as a cultural text, will suppress the knowledge of indigenous minorities. Boundaries are constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. This dialectical production process may silence the understanding and acceptance of rigid imaginary lines of the relative disadvantaged by the dominant discourse. So, the politics of cartography has to be checked to administer justice.

In the case of the Assam-Mizoram borderline to be drawn using space tech, what has to be considered is the database for the satellite mapping. For example, the open-source google map principally followed the data of Survey of India (SoI), which is not accepted by states having a dispute with Assam. SoI has been updating maps of all Indian states at regular intervals. Pertinent to Assam’s boundaries with its neighbouring states, NEARA demarcation has continued to be used since 1971. As per information embedded by the SoI, the boundary is “yet to be verified” even at the latest update (2nd edition, 2021).

What makes some Mizos suspicious is the possibility of imposing the unaccepted boundary line by the third party. Space tech and its end production should be preceded by an on-site survey, consultation of archival sources and collection of ethnocultural information. Application of available data such as the NEARA line will not appease the people as it has been experienced in the recent past. 

Also Read | Mizoram, Assam agree to maintain peace along disputed border

Cultural framing

Every culture and ethnic groups have their understanding of spatial boundaries. Here, the communities in question need to have their point of view recorded. They are not to be considered only as subjects, but authors who partake in the process with their past knowledge and spatial information. 

This exactly has been the stance of Mizoram in their advocacy of the 1875 line since they were consulted as the author. If we look back a century, dwellers of the land around the British tea gardens of Cachar—that was gradually expanded southwards—were ethnic Mizos. British subjects were manual workers who lately settled due to their work. As Mizos knew that their land was encroached, attacks were made against such people. This led to the birth of the demarcating line, technically called the Inner Line Regulation under the BEFR. Along with this, the Inner Line Forest Reserve (ILFR) measuring 509 sqm, which was included within the territory of Mizoram (then Lushai Hills) is still considered as part of Mizoram in the hearts of its people for two reasons. First, legally, no revocation is made until now. Second, and more important, it is the land of their ancestors. 

One thing yet to be noted is Mizos’ conception of land. Mizos never settled in all their claimed territories. Apart from the settlement area (khua), the land is reserved for cultivation (lo or huan) and uncultivated forest (ngaw). This is the reason why, before and after the official notification, the ILFR remained almost intact from human activities. But sadly, encroachments have been made until the present time by illegal foreign settlers of Assam, thereby disturbing the residents of Mizoram that borders Assam. 

The future ahead

It will be complicated to solve the recurrent contest at the border, but violence could be avoided. As the recent scuffle coloured the media, suggestions have been put forth by eminent citizens. Some recommended the expansion of CIJWS along the border, some went for border haats, some proposed the construction of an airport, some endorsed the launching of economic zone, some favoured the setting up of social infrastructures, while some advised to maintain the status quo with central forces monitoring the buffer zone.

But the most important act by the Centre would be redrawing the boundary line accepted by both the states. For this purpose, circumvention of imposed boundary lines produced without consulting either party or both parties is imperative. After the explicit presentation of the demarcation line, as the spatial extent is long and lacks a natural barrier, the interstate highway between Manipur and Tripura may be constructed to act as an objective edge to physically prevent future hostilities.

The author is a PhD research scholar at the Department of History & Ethnography, Mizoram University. Views are personal.  

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