Northeast dispute: CBMs on the border

Northeast dispute: CBMs on the border

Aug 18, 2021

By: Sanjoy Hazarika

(New Indian Express)

As the Taliban sweeps across the rugged mountainscape of Afghanistan in a victorious surge—its second in 20 years—and poses new, urgent security and diplomatic challenges for India and South Asia, the problems of the Northeastern states appear to have moved from the front pages and television talk shows of the metro media to the background.

The reason we speak of Afghanistan, a land with so many issues so far from the Northeast, is simple: Nothing is distant, even at a time of the pandemic. News, including fake news and disinformation, travels fast, triggering many concerns about national, regional and international security. In fact, Myanmar, the immediate large neighbour of the Northeast, itself has gone through a wrenching military coup followed by a devastating crackdown against both peaceful pro-democracy movements and violent anti-junta outbursts in which nearly 1,000 persons have died. The standoff has lasted six months and although things appear to be momentarily calm, much is happening under the surface—for example, the Norwegian telecom giant Telenor has announced its withdrawal from the country.

This is why it is critical that the Eastern part of the country remains stable and secure. All of us can remember the tumultuous decades between the 1980s and 2000s when violence, insurgency, bandhs, ethnic conflict, fear, anger at rights violations, suspicion and tragedy were bywords. Or in today’s parlance, keywords to help scour the net to learn about that time.

The Indian state was then in conflict, with uprisings making a range of demands from outright independence to more autonomy or new states. Today, looking back, there are few in their 20s, whether in those states or in other parts of India, who can imagine the times when the days would begin early and end early—government and private offices and markets would close in the afternoon, cinemas were shut and travel in some states would be permitted in daylight hours in convoys with armed police or paramilitary escorts.

Those days have gone, we would like to believe, for good. Peace on the ground has returned in states that were crippled by insurgencies. This is as much due to the pressure that the state was able to exert over decades as it is to public disillusionment and fatigue and growing aspirations among people, especially the young, for a better life unfettered by fear or stress. In addition, political reconciliations and agreements have been developed that have the support of national and state leaders.

But we must remain aware that there are those who will wish to stir the pot and create new tensions. Such efforts need to be tackled firmly.

Unresolved issues such as borders are rising anew to the fore after remaining under the surface for decades. They were earlier pushed under the carpet either as not significant or not urgent enough. It is in this light that fractious boundary disputes and territorial problems have to be seen.

There is a seamless connection between internal situations and external conditions that needs to be understood better. Unsettled conditions are quickly exploited by outside elements or groups within who are opposed to a democratic and peaceful framework. The latter depends as much on internal concord between states and communities as anything else.

It is not just whether a piece of land belongs to one state or the other, or whether a line drawn by the colonial power either 150 years ago or 80 years ago should be the one to follow. At the heart of the matter is how the problem can be resolved without creating further bad blood. It should not be a surprise that Assam’s border disputes are with the four states that were carved out of it, not with the neighbouring states that had existed since historical times and had defined borders.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has recently outlined four benchmarks that would form the basis for such a resolution. In my view, these and two others that I suggest later provide the fundamentals of confidence-building measures that can be the bedrock of a sustainable agreement.

According to Sarma, the first is the will of the people living at the border, although how that is to be ascertained is not clear. It will need a lot of work at the field level by non-partisan groups from either side as well as confidence-building, patience and persuasion. This first point is connected to another one, that of the need for states to have administrative convenience in terms of access. He gave the example of people from one state having to travel several kilometres across Assam to get to their nearest administrative office. The third is of history and the fourth is of constitutional boundaries. The challenge with the last lies especially where sides insist on historical boundaries.

The situation tends to get a bit murky on history, for there are contested histories. This is where historians, local communities and their oral histories, and civil society would need to come in as active and concerned citizens. Independent experts could also provide inputs. It has to be done stage by stage, level by level, without rushing the process. Later, government officials including revenue officers from both sides could play a role.

I would add two points here: one, that all sides would need to acknowledge that till such time there is  a mutually acceptable solution—and one that is supported by the Centre—the status quo ante should be maintained. The neutral peacekeeping force needs to be active and vigilant: The latest bout caught the CRPF on the Mizoram-Assam border apparently unawares.

In addition to official channels, back channels also need to be activated. Back track diplomacy is key and is an established process that has worked between countries and other states and stakeholders. Israel and Palestine is one example as is India and Bangladesh and even India and Pakistan. I have identified groups such as scholars and researchers, local civil society but also elders from either side who can help provide elements for a sustainable peace. This can be the basis for political initiatives leading to resolution.

A few years ago, the North East Students Organization (NESO), which has student representatives and organisations from all states of the region, was requested to partake in dialogue with Mizoram and Assam to reduce tensions. This was part of a larger process that worked. Confidence-building comes from connecting existing resources within the region and enabling better communication.

There is, of course, the legal path: The disputes between Nagaland and Assam as well as Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are before the Supreme Court. While Assam and Nagaland have agreed to stick to the legal resolution, there are efforts to take the conversation with Arunachal out of the courts.

Peace and development go hand in hand. One does not precede the other. But one cannot grow without the other. Decades ago, the people of the region turned their back on militancy, terrorism and conflict. They cannot afford fresh confrontations that will push the clock back to an unwanted time. Read More