The Assam-Meghalaya Boundary Dispute Resolution – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

Two months after signing a draft resolution on January 29, Assam and Meghalaya partially resolved a 50-year-old dispute along their 884.9 km boundary on 29th March 2022. It was facilitated by the Union Home Minister who urged the States to resolve their boundary disputes by August 15, 2022, when the country celebrates 75 years of Independence. The agreement is expected to pave the way for resolving disputes in the remaining sectors of the Assam-Meghalaya boundary and similar areas of difference between Assam and three other northeastern States.

What is the background of the dispute?

Meghalaya was carved out of Assam as an autonomous State in 1972. The creation of the new State was based on the Assam Reorganization (Meghalaya) Act of 1969. However the Meghalaya government refused to accept this Act as areas of the present-day East Jaintia Hills, Ri-Bhoi and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya were transferred to the Karbi Anglong, Kamrup (metro) and Kamrup districts of Assam.

Meghalaya contested these transfers after statehood, claiming that they belonged to its tribal chieftains. Assam said the Government of Meghalaya could neither provide documents nor archival materials to prove its claim over these areas. After claims and counter-claims, the dispute was narrowed down to 12 sectors on the basis of an official claim by Meghalaya in 2011.

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What steps have been taken by Assam and Meghalaya to solve the dispute?

1983: First serious attempt to solve the boundary issue took place with the formation of a joint official committee. It suggested that the Survey of India should re-delineate the boundary with the cooperation of both the States towards settling the dispute. However there was no follow-up action.

1985: An independent panel headed by Justice Y.V. Chandrachud was formed over the issue and submitted its report in 1987. However, the report was rejected by the Meghalaya Government which considered the report to be Pro-Assam.

1991: Following more disputes and resultant violence, the two governments agreed in January 1991 to jointly demarcate the border with the help of the Survey of India. About 100 km of the border was demarcated by the end of 1991, but Meghalaya found the exercise unconstitutional and refused to cooperate.

2011:  The Meghalaya Assembly passed a resolution for central intervention and the constitution of a boundary commission. The Assam Assembly retaliated with a resolution to oppose the move. But the Centre made the two governments appoint nodal officers to discuss the boundary dispute to minimize the points of differences.

2019: The Meghalaya government petitioned the Supreme Court to direct the Centre to settle the dispute. However, the petition was dismissed by the Court. 

2021: In January 2021, Union Home Minister urged all the north-eastern States to resolve their boundary disputes by August 15, 2022, when the country celebrates 75 years of Independence.

In June 2021, the two States decided to resume talks at the CM level and adopt a “give-and-take” policy to settle the disputes once and for all. 

Of the 12 disputed sectors, six ‘less complicated’ areas — Tarabari, Gizang, Hahim, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pilingkata and Ratacherra were chosen for resolving in the first phase. Both States formed three regional committees, one each for a district affected by the disputed sectors.

Why have the States been unable to resolve the boundary disputes in decades?

Colonial Problem: The fault lines created by the British in boundary demarcation are still unaddressed. They created boundaries according to their commercial interests. In the process, sensitivities of local communities regarding land were either ignored or suppressed.

Political Milieu: There has been a proliferation of political conversations that target migrants and ‘outsiders’. This shrinks the space and scope for fluid borders and fixes the identities of people as per the region.

Economic relevance: Economic competition for land coupled with a lack of non-farm jobs across the Northeast region, is also enhancing bitterness among states.

Half Hearted attempts by the governments: The sustained tensions at border points is a result of half hearted attempts by the governments. They have deployed paramilitary forces but have not been able to truly develop the region.

What has been agreed in the settlement?

The regional committees acted based on five principles: (a) Historical facts of a disputed sector; (b) Ethnicity; (c) Administrative convenience; (d) Willingness of people; (e) Contiguity of land preferably with natural boundaries such as rivers, streams and rocks.

On 29th January 2022, the two governments had signed a draft resolution prepared on the basis of the recommendations of these regional panels. This paved the way for the March 29 closure of the six disputed sectors.

According to the partial boundary deal, Assam will get 18.51 sq. km of the 36.79 sq. km disputed area while Meghalaya will get the remaining 18.28 sq. km.

What is the significance of the Assam Meghalaya Agreement?

Future Dispute resolution: It will help in solving the dispute in the other six disputed sectors — Langpih, Borduar, Nongwah, Matamur, Deshdemoreah Block I and Block II, and Khanduli. Further, it could be a guiding light for solving Assam’s dispute with other states like Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh etc.

Reduction in Violence: Certainty over boundaries would reduce border clashes between the masses and save invaluable human lives. For instance, the July 2021 Assam and Mizoram police force clash resulted in the death of six Assamese policemen.

Development of the North East: It will help in better development of the region as peace would bring more projects and investments into the region. 

Foreign Policy Objectives: It will help actualise India’s Act East policy and also prevent an adversarial China from taking advantage of the fault lines in Northeastern region.

What are the bottlenecks?

Lack of Clarity: There is no clarity yet on the villages or uninhabited stretches that would be divided.

Discontent in masses: Some political parties and community-based groups in Meghalaya are unhappy about acceding any part of the disputed areas to Assam. Similarly there are groups in Assam who want full control over the disputed land. 

Fear of Displacement: There is apprehension among the ‘non-tribal’ people about living in ‘tribal’ Meghalaya with ‘no rights’. They fear they may have to shift their residence in the light of transfer of land.

What lies ahead?

First, the test of both the CMs would be to sell the agreement to their respective domestic constituencies, and ensure that the residents on the border villages are not alienated in the process.

Second, the two States must further leverage their political capital with the Centre and expeditiously solve the issue of the other six disputed areas.

Third, the Survey of India should be provided with all the financial, technical and human resources so as to ensure that delineation happens as per the Agreement.

Conclusion

Sectarian tribalism has been the bane of the North-eastern States, with underdevelopment acting as a catalyst in complicating knotty issues over land and other issues in the region. The Northeastern states must realize that they share a collective destiny. They should be sensitive to and accommodative of each other’s interests so that the entire region can prosper. In this regard the Agreement between Assam and Meghalaya is a positive beginning. It should pave the way for peaceful settlement of other such disputes in the region.

Source: The Hindu, The Times of India, Indian Express

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