Assam, Mizoram, and the Construction of the "Other"
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
Violent clashes along the Assam-Mizoram border have a 150-year-old history. What’s behind the recent border flare-ups?
· ABHISHEK BASU
IN JULY 2021, violent clashes along the “no-man’s land” border between Assam and Mizoram erupted, the latest in a conflict that dates back to over a century. This time, however, the clashes were accompanied by a battleground along party lines. In the lead up to India’s 75th Independence Day, Mizoram, the only remaining non-Saffronised, Congress-backed state in the northeastern region of India, seemingly became a target for India’s ruling party, the BJP, and its project to establish politically motivated “peace.”
The seven sister states in the northeastern part of India are well acquainted with sporadic bouts of violence along their borders. The dispute along the border between Assam and Mizoram centers around contentious claims about where the exact border lies. Mizoram claims 509 square miles of the inner-line reserve forest under an 1875 border demarcation, a claim Assam rejects based on a demarcation in 1933. In turn, this contentious space has long become a locus for the political aspirations of both regional and central ruling parties and powerful groups.
Following the violent clashes in July 2021, news reports quoted villagers in Mizoram as describing the situation as “a war between two countries.” The optics were indeed strange: two police forces of the same country—albeit different states—engaged in a violent shootout against each other. 48 hours before the first clashes, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah had met with the Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) to discuss the possibility of a border settlement. Over the next few weeks, the series of police firings that began in Kareemganj, Hailakandi, spread to the Cachar district of Assam.
The renewed conflict has deeper roots: on a macroscopic level, contemporary political, cultural, and economic structures continue to bolster the active construction of enemies, within and without, for both the Assamese and the Mizo populations. What appears to be behind the violent clashes along the 165km-long fluid border—alarming in breadth and scope—in the region is a complex game of both ethnic identity politics as well as the central government’s agenda of putting an end to the Burmese supari or areca nut (often called betel nut) trade, an economy in which locals from both states are involved. The import of Burmese areca nut is now illegal in Mizoram, but continues to feature in vested economic and political interests that make up the fragile peace along the Assam-Mizo border.
Assam has unresolved border disputes with all four of the largely tribal states that have been carved out of it since Independence. This past November, at the border with Meghalaya, the Assam Police killed six people. In each case many diverse communities in the hilly and forested northeastern region are imbricated, with many array of exports; in each case, the conflict is oversimplified in mainstream media narratives which ignore how identity and political economy become intertwined, and few point out the common charge placed on Assam: that much of its incursions occur without consent and punishment, and regularly trammel either already-codified or customary rights that communities have over their lands.
Recently, much was made of an agreement between Assam and Mizoram in the form of a joint statement. While the statement by both the state governments to amicably resolve the matters of unrest along this border have reached the third round of talks, a high-level delegation from Mizoram expressed that "there has been huge unrest among the areca nut growers in Mizoram on account of problems being faced in the transportation of their produce to Assam and other parts of the country." The joint statement also seemed to flatten the nature of the conflict, simply stating that "economic activities such as cultivation and farming along the border areas would be allowed to continue regardless of the administrative control presently exercised by either state at such locations... subject to forest regulations and after informing the deputy commissioners concerned." The problem of the in-between in this region, however, cannot be mitigated with such generalities which highlight a kind of identity performance about border disputes that tie into political parties' agendas.
This past December, the opposition in the Parliament of Assam staged a walkout, aggrieved about the perceived lack of action against Mizoram after a school in Cachar district of Assam was allegedly occupied by Mizo students. Meanwhile, the plight of local areca nut farmers goes generally unnoticed in Parliament. December 2022, six vehicles carrying areca nut into Mizoram were set ablaze, allegedly by Central Customs and Assam Rifles, which regularly prevent the export of areca nut from Mizoram and Tripura by seizing them at the border. Regardless of the party responsible, an areca nut growers' society in Mizoram, Hachhek Bial Kuhva Chingtu Pawl (HBKCP) argues that farmers are suffering because the Assam Police are unable (or unwilling) to verify if areca nuts from Mizoram are local or foreign. The Mizoram government too has come under fire for its laxity with smuggling, or care for farmers.
Despite the entangled politicking and trade relations between Assam and Mizoram, however, there is a deeper history of the Mizo peoples being seen as the “other.” This has only intensified in recent years, as has the illicit trade of the areca nut. Whether borne out of an acute sense of cultural or political difference, the stereotypes that circulate in Assam deploy the Mizos’ native language, their Western convent education, or their land use, to construct notions of fundamental differences in identity.
Who “they” refers to, however, as is often the case, is vague and context-dependent. The Assamese in general seem to mean the Mizos, but locals often mean politicians, police mean locals, and locals may also mean their wives, many of whom hail from villages across the border.
In 2021, we visited the village of Lailapur, in the Cachar district of Assam, where residents had pelted stones at policemen from Mizoram who had previously clashed in 2020 with residents of Vairengte, a town in Mizoram’s own Kolasib district, exemplifying how any border is insufficient to explain the blurred nature of the conflict.
Imtiaz Akhmed a.k.a. Ronju, was born and grew up in Lailapur. He is one of several truckers who ferry goods such as areca nut and black pepper between Assam and Mizoram (goods that are smuggled into India from Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia). He also has a Mizo wife, and claims that their son has the cutest mixture of the facial features of the two sister states, while simultaneously asserting that there are fundamental differences between the Assamese and Mizo peoples.
From Ronju’s perspective, the areca nut trade is at the core of the conflict on a local level:
“What can we do if the betel nut is cheaper on that side? They [the Mizos and the Burmese] have been in this business for long enough to establish a monopoly. A kilo of betel nut sells for INR 128 there, while it's INR 300 here.”
But despite the monopoly, working in Mizoram has its advantages for Ronju. “I have big connections with ministers [in Mizoram] who make life easier for me by way of permissions. I get supari here for the Assam State Police at times too! Currently, my truck, loaded with tatka [tight] Burmese supari, is waiting at the border because of the blockade. The Mizos themselves will help unload it on this side though,” he cackled. Ronju emphasizes difference, but his family and work hint at complex aspects of lived reality in towns along the border.
Of course, the complexities are often cynically flattened by local political parties who rely on enflaming the conflict. Soon after the initial clashes last year, Assamese politicians and ministers arrived in Lailapur. The press, both local and national, flocked to them in front of a police barricade. The Organizational Secretary of the Assamese political party Veer Lachit Sena (VLS), Srinkhal Chaliha told the media, “We will not tolerate any threat. The Assamese people will give an appropriate reply!”
Locals and groups most impacted by the clashes observed the spectacle. They crowded on both sides of the narrow highway that leads to Lailapur and ends at the Assam Police barricade, located 5 kilometres away from the actual border. Several witnesses shook their heads in disappointment over what they perceived to be the Assam government's cowardice: to many, not giving statements at the border itself, or not strongly condemning repeated acts of aggression from the Mizo side of the border—where many local civilians are believed to have been seen by the Assam State Police officers—seen equipped with light machine guns (LMGs) provided to them by alleged extremist groups backing the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) government. It is important to note that Mizoram is the only state among the seven sister states of Northeast India that has yet to turn saffron, or be in alliance in any way whatsoever, with the right-wing BJP (despite short-lived alliances with the BJP and MNF part of the BJP-led coalition at the Centre, in Mizoram the party has historically allied itself with Congress). The strong response expected from the Assamese government to counter repeated jibes from the Mizos, however, never materialized.
Ronju, a local businessman, explained: "One call from the Mizo Church and MZP (Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a powerful student organization with a long and antagonistic history with the Centre and a shared relationship with the ruling MNF), and you will find village after Mizo village come together in solidarity, bearing arms like LMGs (lightweight machine guns) that too! There's nothing like that here in Assam. We're too divided." He added that he was proud of having driven through the perilous Mizo terrain all the way to Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, several times.
Ronju, who is a seemanto-bashi or a border resident, holds similar views as many of the locals standing along the highway leading to the barricades. They expect the Assamese government to take a strong stance in the face of perceived Mizo homogeneity and solidarity, as well as support from the Church. The juxtaposition of Mizo identity and Assamese nationalism is reflected in geographical landmarks along the border: the last Indian symbol on the Assamese side is a temple and on the Mizo side, a Church.
Many locals on the Assamese side of the border as well as the second in command of the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force, India's largest Central Armed Police Force) battalion posted in Fainum, Assam, talk about Mizos as if they were a warrior tribe. They believe that Mizos kill on a whim; accentuate their cultural differences, food preferences and eating habits; and speak Mizo instead of Hindi or English. Such sentiments strengthen the perception that there are fundamental differences between the two communities, despite their obvious closeness either in proximity, occupation, or familial ties.
"They believe they are Mizos first. For them, the [Indian] nation is secondary. Someone needs to sit down and reason with them," says S. Debnath, Barak Valley resident and former member of the Forum for the Protection of Non-Mizos.
Debnath believes Mizos feel like this because of particular state practices:
“There's the case of the Inner Line Permit mandatory for anyone wishing to enter Mizoram, which makes them [the Mizos] feel like they have a sovereign right to their land. They allow the Burmese in when it comes to the business of Burmese supari, but not people like us who are from other states of India."
Mizoram also enjoys other affordances that allow Mizos to take autonomous decisions, like the Inner Line Permit (ILP), which evidently frustrates the residents of the Hindu-majority Barak Valley of Assam. Debnath, like several others, does not consider metrics such as Mizoram's literacy rate, population size, and economic growth that are used to explain their sovereign status—most of which comes from tribal autonomy guaranteed over the Lushai Hills, provided for in Schedule Six of the Indian Constitution.
Mizoram has one of the country's highest literacy rates. Its Oriental High School is among the first convent schools established by the British in Silchar, an economic hub in the contested Barak Valley of Assam. The school also has residential quarters for their mostly Mizo staff and teachers who form a large part of the closely-knit Mizo community in Assam. Since the Mizo Church is reluctant to involve itself in the local politics of the region, the staff and teachers at Oriental High School have been asked not to share their political opinions and to stay entirely professional.
Rati Bora, another seemanto-bashi, has two sons who work on farms on either side of the border. Her son who works on the Mizo side earns more than his brother, presumably because Mizoram’s economy is one of the fastest growing in the country. On July 26, 2021, Rati Bora heard the shots fired by policemen on both sides of the border and feared for her life. Her sons begged her to evacuate. She left home with her family members and elderly parents and headed for her sister’s house in the neighboring town of Silchar.
The incident was terrifying for border residents like Rati at that time. Now, however, the local tea shops opened by a few families dwelling right beside the police check post in Dholakhal are flourishing, she says.
We watched as four local boys from the Cachar district of Assam struggled to set up an electric pole. The pole would serve as a post for the state police that would be stationed there at night for a few weeks. Later as the boys crossed the police barricade to eat their lunch of bhaat (rice) at their homes, we watched as onlookers stared at them with suspicion. Young men from bordering villages must always keep their aadhar ID cards on themselves, and even guests visiting their homes must carry their identification documents.
The performativity of nationalism takes on a certain intensity for residents of this region. Locals like Ronju and Rati are intimately familiar with this performance, and with an eye to the cross-border trade, tend to hold a more nuanced view of the changing economy of Silchar. “[Despite the suspicion and discrimination], at least now seemanto-bashis from Lailapur and Sighua villages are getting some recognition,” says Rati. “Previously girls wouldn't ever want to get married to boys from here, like my two sons. Now at least there's a chance. It's not so remote anymore… there are so many SUVs and Boleros zipping by,” she says, referring to the many politicians she had seen in her area.
Taking us away from the blame game at play in this region is the plight of the injured policemen of the Assam State Police, a few still waiting for doctors to remove pellets shot from the handmade guns of Mizo locals. Stuck in a rut because of delayed discharge papers and an inaccessible, unresponsive healthcare system, the policemen have issued multiple statements on maintaining peace and order in the region that are very similar to those of their politicians. Some policemen wrap the pellets removed from their bodies in delicate tissue paper and keep them in their pockets as a token of pride. Some of them eagerly share videos they recorded on their smartphones or shared by villagers on the Mizo side of the border.
Until a time comes when the region’s employment issues are solved instead of vague assurances that the help mandated by the Employment Guarantee Act; until a time comes when roads are developed, middlemen are erased, the indigenous industry is promoted excluding the existing large tea and oil businesses; until a time comes when Assam helps itself and not its vote-banks, it will not be able to hide behind the central government’s exclusionary tactics of us and them. Like the rest of India, the northeast too may well fall into the trap of not asking the right questions to those in power, especially at a time the Indian economy is reeling from the shortages of resources in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
It comes down to the possibility of the Assamese being able to reclaim everything considered “illegal” about the Burmese areca nut trade. This involves cracking down on people like Ronju, their very own, who act like oil in these cracks. It is not enough to just roll the areca nut by placing it below your tongue, it is to recognize that cultures when living in proximity, obviously are bound to inform and resemble each other. We saw many a xorai or a casket-like plate in almost every Assamese household we went to, and were offered the traditional areca nut and paan, or betel nut palm. Such an act is a symbol of “welcoming outsiders,” they told us.
This contrasts starkly with an occasion in one of our interviews with Debnath where he lowered the volume on the television upon hearing a TV anchor complaining about protests organized by Mizo student organizations against the draconian Indian Citizenship Act: the same legislation designed to kick out “outsiders” from Indian soil. For the Mizos, it is Bangladeshis who are the outsiders and indeed they often consider even the moniker of “Bangladeshi” disparaging. Meanwhile, for Debnath, it is the Mizos who are more of an “other,” more so than those who agree to live illegally in India.
The dynamics between the Mizos, the Bangladeshis, the mainland Assamese, and the active construction of the “other” is at the heart of this story and the continuing clashes. To fully understand what’s going on at Lailapur, it is important to understand that this polarized strand of history is deeply etched in the memory of the Mizos of this generation.
At the same time, it is undoubtedly true that there are two competing narratives—one told by the natives and the other by government officials. The first tells a tale of the oral ethnocultural history of the tribe linked to the land and forests: the narrative of many Mizos and organizations like the MZP. The second is the “official” history of state formation: the Assamese state narrative, if not that of India writ large. ▢
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
No Man's Land: The disputed region near Singhua saw violent clashes between the forces of Mizoram and Assam leading to the death of 6 Assam policeman on duty on the 26th of July 2021 in Singua, Assam, India. Courtesy of Abhishek Basu.
Betel Nut Trade
Hachek Bial Kuhva Chingtu Pawl
Northeast Democratic Alliance
Inner Line Permit
Veer Lachit Sena
Ethnically Divided Politics
Mizo Zirlai Pawl
Mizo National Front
English as Class Signifier
Central Reserve Police Force
Forum for the Protection of Non-Mizos
Employment Guarantee Act
Mizo student organizations
Indian Citizenship Act
JOYONA MEDHI is currently working as an Academic Associate in IIMC, New Delhi, India. With a background in media sociology, she looks for every opportunity to go long-form especially with her writing, interviewing and research. She's also conducted in-depth interviews along the Indo-Bangladesh border as a Direction Associate for the documentary Borderlands. For her proposed PhD project. She's looking to develop a more sensitive and nuanced language around the way we see photographs, photographers and the photographic process today. Her reportage and writings on art have been published in magazines like The Firstpost, Quint, Smashboard, Zenger News, Burn Magazine and Art and Deal.
ABHISHEK BASU, originally from Tatanagar in Jharkhand, is a freelance art/documentary photographer, who works for various publishing houses on experimental story telling techniques, book design, curation and multimedia. His quarterly tabloid initiative, Provoke Papers, focuses on
migration and labour relations. It takes root in a series titled How green was my mountain, which is his 4-year-long documentation of the coal mines of Jharkhand's Jharia district, 60 kms. from his hometown. Taking to Abbas’s advice, “buy a pair of shoes and fall in love with it”, Abhishek’s subjects span the wide variety of where life and his understanding of it have taken him. If there had to be a universal thread/subtext to his works it would be his exploration of the starkness of the human condition attempting to make you see it for what it is. His work has been published in magazines like Himal Southasian, The Wire, Burn Magazine, The Firstpost and Quint.