Assam meghalaya border
A women sells vegetables in the market in front of the Pillangkata Secondary School belonging to Meghalaya. Picture by B Sadanand.

Pilingkata (Assam-Meghalaya border): The decades-long border row between Assam and Meghalaya seems all set for the final resolution, at least regarding six “relatively less complicated disputed” areas. The talks between Assam and Meghalaya governments have renewed hopes among residents of these areas, and residents of Pilingkata, one such area, feel optimistic. They hope in anticipation that the decades-long uncertainty, claims and counter-claims of “area ownership” or which part belongs to which state, would be put to rest for good.

EastMojo visited Pilingkata to hear the residents of the border area, which has a mix of people from the Garo, Khasi, Karbi, Rabha and Assamese communities.   

“We want to save Meghalaya’s land…our people who have been here for decades want that only. We are banking on an amicable solution by the two states,” said R.K Singha, headmaster of the 1985-established Pillangkatta Secondary School in Ri Bhoi district.

The border row has seen areas, villages, and properties ‘change’ hands, and Singha is a witness to this. 

“After I joined the school here in 1991, I have seen many areas gradually occupied by people from Assam. This school was earlier in a field on the other side, which now houses the quarters of the Assam PHE (Public Health Engineering),” Singha said, pointing to the area separated by a road.

The entrance to the Pilingkata High School, one the disputed areas between Assam and Meghalaya

The former headman of Pilingkata, Arunjoy K Sangma, concurred with Singha. “People from the Garo community used to play football in the same field during the mid-1990. But the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led AGP government put pressure on these people to move to the interior jungles…many of whom owned land at neighbouring Latakata area, had no option but to sell off their land and relocate,” Sangma said. 

Asked what the problem area could be, even as an Assam MLA had recently revealed that “some portion of land in Pilingkata would be given away to Meghalaya, Singha asserted: “They want to divide us by the narrow raasta (road) that passes through the area between Latakata and Pilingkata. But there is a market (housing grocery and vegetable/fruit shops) belonging to Meghalaya, located on the other side where Assam has occupied land (PHE quarters).”

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had also recently referred to a playground, which he said would “be given away” to Meghalaya.

However, there is some confusion among the locals as to which playground could be given to Meghalaya.

“There is a big playground housing two government schools adjacent to a huge pond in Maikhuli, about 300 metres away. But that field (where the regional panel members had visited last October) belongs to Meghalaya. So, we don’t know which field will be given to Meghalaya even as we await a final declaration,” C.K Sangma, the headman of Pilingkata (A) told EastMojo.

The land housing the Assam PHE residential quarters at Pilingkata.

Some residents are a tad media-shy and wary of what they comment or don’t wish to say, given that the regional panel’s proposals have been approved by both state Cabinets and are under Central scrutiny. 

“We would like a decision based on the Survey of India’s demarcation of boundaries in 1972,” said W.L Marak, treasurer cum adviser of the Maikhuli Village Dorbar.

Recalling the past, Marak said, “Some non-tribals had gradually started encroaching under the Sixth Schedule back in the mid-seventies. However, since the 1990s, more and more people illegally occupied the land. The Umtyrnga Road passing through the Latakata area near Ganesh Nagar does not have an identity here. The land that now houses the Assam Police Radio Organisation (APRO) quarters at Latakata had belonged to Meghalaya.”

Near the APRO quarters at Swargapur in Latakata, about half a kilometre away, the residents are primarily Assamese. There is a Shiva temple (belonging to APRO) and a naam ghar in the area also.

Throwing more light on history, Prabhat Chandra Deka, a resident of Swargapur who retired from service recently, said: “There was a tea garden (Lahori Bagan) in the area a long time back. I bought land here and have been a resident here since 1990. Earlier, this place had a camp and some Garo residents had set up a market. There was an incident of violence during the Prafulla Mahanta-led government when the Assam government evicted the settlements and the market.”

Youths play at the Assam Police Radio Organisation playground at the Lakataka-Ganesh Nagar area.

Deka, in his sixties now, however, hoped that the “area stays with Assam” now that the border row resolution in six areas is in its final stages.

“We are a tad confused, however, as we do not know which area Assam will get and which area it might have to give away,” he added.

At the political level, the state Cabinets have approved the mechanism towards reaching a final settlement in six areas comprising Tarabari, Gizang, Hahim, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pilingkata and Ratacherra – falling under West Khasi Hills, Ri Bhoi, East Jaintia Hills districts in Meghalaya and Kamrup Metro, Kamrup and Cachar districts in Assam.

Sources in Boko constituency (housing three sectors – Tarabari, Gizang and Hahim), wishing anonymity, revealed that an area of 2.90 sq km approximately, comprising three Garo-inhabited villages in the Gizang sector – Amagaon, Gohanimara and Dobakdrop (already under Meghalaya) – with a dominant Garo population, would be given away to Meghalaya.

“On the other hand, Assam will get 10.63 sq km in the Gizang sector, comprising Gizang reserve forest (8.47 sq km) and two villages, Malchapara and Salbari,” a source told EastMojo.

“Likewise, seven villages in the Tarabari sector will be given away to Meghalaya, while Assam will get eight villages,” he added.

Asked about how people in the villages feel, he said that in the Gizang sector, about 80 per cent of the villagers are happy to be with Meghalaya.

“All the villages in the two sectors are primarily Garo-inhabited but a majority has come to terms with the give-and-take arrangement for the sake of peace and development,” he said, adding that there were protests last August when the encroached area was marked as a demarcation of the boundary in some areas. “We have our reservations against the give-and-take policy being applied to land already encroached,” he alleged.

Apple of discord

Langpih (called Lampi in Assam) along the Kamrup-West Khasi Hills boundary, one of the disputed areas, has seen trouble brew more often than the other areas, including inter-community clashes back in 2010 and subsequent police firing, resulting in injuries and even fatalities. The area is primarily inhabited by Khasi and Gorkha communities.

“More than 650 Gorkha families are currently living across 13 villages in the Lampi area. They cannot forget the sacrifice made by the community over the decades. We also lost a person from our community in the violence in 2010 and several others were injured. The Gorkha community in Lampi wants to be with Assam and will not leave any land inhabited by them in Lampi,” claims Gobinda Sharma, the general secretary of the All Assam Gorkha Students Union, Kamrup district committee.

Expressing hope of the boundary settlement in Lampi, Sharma said, “The Assam chief minister had said that a solution in three disputed areas, of which Lampi is one, will take time. But we are prepared to wait for an amicable solution to establish peace in the area. Lampi, an area with great tourism potential, has remained backwards on all fronts, especially in terms of good roads and mobile networks. We hope that the resources are used optimally, which will pave the way for progress.”

Reflecting on the “challenging” days as the Boko officer-in-charge (during 2013-2015 and 2018 to 2020), Jogen Barman said, “Things will change for the better once the final settlement is arrived at in Lampi, be it law and order, inter-community relations, trade, development as both states can now implement schemes. The road to Lampi (Langpih), which was in a dilapidated condition some years back, has seen some improvement already.”

“I remember the days when development was in limbo with both states maintaining status quo after objections were raised by locals, be it at Houhuwapara in the Malang area near Bondapara or at Lampi. Now, once the demarcation is finalised, the interior areas (where access to mobile networks is like a dream now) will see the light of development. More so, it will open doors to many tourists, resulting in revenue augmentation,” Barman said.

Now while both Assam and Meghalaya have moved ahead on the give-and-take formula applied to “a disputed area of 36.79 sq km” in six (out of the 12 areas of differences), the focus has been on historical facts, ethnicity, administrative convenience, contiguity of the land, willingness, and people’s sentiments.

While Lampi (Langpih) is among the six other ‘more complicated) areas of differences, and will feature in the future course of the chief ministerial-level discussions, “some areas will be left from Meghalaya”, as has been shared by West Guwahati MLA, Ramendra Narayan Kalita.

Political opposition

The “declaration” has irked Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP). Their party’s delegation visited areas in Lampi and interacted with the people there on Saturday.

 “We want a peaceful, amicable and permanent solution to the decades-long border problem between the two states. However, the approach of the Assam government of late has not been right. The government has taken a unilateral decision without consulting all the stakeholders,” claims AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi.

AJP however was not part of the all-party meeting that the chief minister had consulted with before the Cabinet approval to the findings of the three regional panels.

“Our stand is clear. The settlement should be based on the demarcation of the boundary at the time when Meghalaya was carved out of Assam. However, the government has compromised and surrendered land to Meghalaya, which we oppose. This is not give-and-take, rather, giving away land that has been encroached, and where evictions have taken place,” Gogoi alleged.

AJP President Lurinjyoti Gogoi meeting locals.

Throwing more light from the ground visit, the AJP chief claimed that 53 posts of Kamrup district have been removed with people “illegally occupying land inside 10km in the district.

“So the Assam government, to save its political interests, is taking the people of the state hostage by planning to give away land to the neighbouring state. I am surprised that Meghalaya has set up 19 government schools at Lampi (Langpih) against only three schools in Assam. Worse still, there are hardly any teachers at the schools, adversely affecting our children,” he alleged.

The Opposition Congress, which however was consulted unlike AJP, had demanded further deliberations on the disputed inter-state border issues at a special Assembly session.

However, post the Cabinet nod to the dispute-resolution mechanism and alleged side-tracking of party’s suggestions at the all-party meeting, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee on Saturday held discussions with educationists, legal experts and intellectuals.

Participants slammed the Assam government for its “one-sided” decision to give Cabinet approval and present the reports to the Union home ministry and even threatened to launch a protest besides taking legal recourse.

Speakers at the Congress-hosted interaction alleged that the resolution formula was “pre-planned” for promoting political interests, questioning how the state government could take such a prompt decision on such a sensitive issue. 

As Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma had recently summed up: “The boundary demarcation will be done after the due procedure in Parliament. The Survey of India will have to come in and joint inspections may have to be done and the Bill has to be passed.”

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