24 September 2014
by Udayon Misra
The violence in August on the border of the Naga Hills that left 17 people dead, scores injured and over 200 houses burnt has its roots in the colonial period. But a solution to this long-standing dispute over land lies not in the realm of constitutional borders or assertion of historical claims to "ancestral land", but in mutual give and take.
What happened on the nights of 12-14 August in 16 villages situated on the border of the Naga Hills, some 5 kilometres from Uriamghat of Golaghat district of Assam was not totally unexpected. The Assam-Nagaland border in the region had long been simmering, with the Nagas insisting that the villages near the 2-km stretch of forest area near Uriamghat are inhabited chiefly by relatively recent settlers who are “encroaching” upon Naga territory. The fact is that encroachment of forest areas has been taking place over the years, with both Nagas as well as villagers from Assam setting up hamlets.
Most of the villages set up by the Assamese on the border of the Naga Hills are populated by marginalised sections of society consisting mainly of adivasis or tea tribes as well as some local Assamese and Nepalese settlers. These villagers have been cultivating crops for years, all the while regularly paying “taxes” to the Naga militant factions in the hope that they would not be disturbed. But the overall situation has been far from peaceful. Stray attacks on the villagers, abductions and extortions of money from the Naga side of the border had become a common feature of an area which was supposed be under the control of a “neutral” central force, in this case, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
The 12-14 August violence carried out by Naga villagers, apparently backed by non-state militant groups, left some 17 people on the Assam side dead, scores injured and over 200 houses burnt down. The attacks on the Assam villages led to the displacement of about 10,000 people from the area and they are at present housed in over a dozen ramshackle refugee shelters on the interstate border without the minimum of basic amenities.
What Sparked the Violence?
The violence is said to have been triggered by a land dispute centred on a 25 bigha plot of land in Sector B of the forest area which was claimed by both sides. The plot is officially said to belong to the Assam forest department. Given the fact that most of the people from the Assam side died of gunshot wounds, it seems that non-state militant outfits possessing sophisticated weapons were involved in the violence. Reports suggest the involvement of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN (I-M)] and the NSCN (Khaplang) [NSCN (K)]. On the Assam side, the adivasis had been mobilised for the past few months by activists of the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA) who had urged the people not to pay “taxes” to the Naga militant outfits (Handique 2014). This had aggravated the simmering tensions.
The immediate fallout of the killings and arson was in the form of massive protest demonstrations in the Golaghat district and the blockade of National Highway 39, which is the lifeline to Nagaland from Assam. Hundreds of trucks carrying goods to Nagaland were held up, resulting in a crisis in that state. Attempts by the security forces to lift the week-long blockade and break up the demonstrations resulted in police firings which left three persons dead and dozens severely injured. An indefinite curfew had to be imposed in Golaghat town. This was followed by a state-wide bandh called by the Asom Gana Parishad, supported by the adivasi and student organisations and which received support from all segments of the population. The Assam government’s handling of the situation and the chief minister’s attempts to shift the entire blame for the developments to the ineffective role of the CRPF has come in for strong criticism.
Ancestral Land’, Constitutional Borders
Assam has been consistently maintaining the stand that the state’s borders as they existed when Nagaland was formed in December 1963 need to be respected. But Nagaland has been insisting on “historical” borders which takes one back to colonial times when the borders between the different districts of Assam (of which the Naga Hills, and subsequently the Naga Hills district itself, was a part) had been altered from time to time to suit colonial administrative needs. For the Nagas, the demand for the return of their “ancestral land” has a long history.[. . .]
FULL TEXT AT: http://www.epw.in/commentary/assam-nagaland-border-violence.html
EPW, Vol - XLIX No. 38, September 20, 2014