Assam-Mizoram Border Row: Videos To Twitter Spats, Why Himanta Raised the Pitch
Despite being convenor of the North East Development Alliance, why did Himanta Biswa Sarma fight with an ally?
"Not an inch of Assam will be conceded," said Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, as he announced the state's decision to move the Supreme Court in connection with the border dispute with Mizoram.
The Assam-Mizoram border dispute isn't a new one. Neither is the clash on 26 July - that caused the death of five Assam police personnel and injuries to several others - the first such clash connected to Assam's border dispute with its neighbouring states. The worst clashes have taken place on the Assam-Nagaland border in 1968, 1979 and 1985, killing over 100 people.
However, Sarma's decision to raise the pitch by tweeting out videos related to the clash and engaging in a war of tweets with his Mizoram counterpart Zoramthanga, has raised several questions:
Doesn't this confrontation go against the CM's position as the head of the North East Democratic Alliance?
Is Sarma trying to escalate the crisis?
How is this connected to Sarma's own maneuvers in Assam?
BUT FIRST, WHAT DID HIMANTA BISWA SARMA TWEET EXACTLY?
The first video shared by Sarma - of Mizoram police personnel and locals allegedly celebrating - generated a great deal of outrage in Assam with many Twitter uses from the state calling for a blockade of Mizoram.
In the second video, Sarma seems to be trying to elaborate on his earlier allegation that the Mizoram Police used Light Machine Guns against Assam Police personnel.
While the veracity of the videos hasn't been questioned, Opposition leaders criticised Sarma for his twitter spat with Mizoram CM Zoramthanga.
Congress' deputy leader in the Lok Sabha Gaurav Gogoi tweeted, "Instead of indulging in a childish Twitter duel with his NEDA counterpart, the Chief Minister of Assam should admit that the recent trip of Home Minister Amit Shah to Northeast India was a complete failure and merely a photo-op."
Gogoi was responding to Sarma and Zoramthanga's charges and counter-charges on Twitter earlier.
WHY IS THE NEDA CONVENOR FIGHTING WITH AN ALLY?
Sarma isn't just the chief minister of Assam, he has also been the convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance since its formation in 2016.
Zoramthanga's party Mizo National Front happens to be a member of the NEDA. Therefore Sarma is actually sparring with an alliance partner.
No doubt, this reflects poorly of the co-ordination within the alliance.
It is particularly embarrassing for Sarma as in 2018, he had claimed to have a good equation with the MNF and claimed victory when the party defeated the Congress in the Assembly elections that year.
During the elections, he had claimed to be "in touch" with "friends in the MNF" regarding a coalition government.
So if Sarma could have a good equation with MNF when it comes to forming a government, why couldn't he use that goodwill to settle the border dispute between the two states or at least prevent the escalation of a crisis?
In Mizoram, the BJP's relations with the MNF are presently in a bad shape. Last year, CM Zoramthanga had said that the BJP "isn't a good party" and that the MNF was ideologically opposed to it.
The Centre also had a run-in with Mizo organisations regarding the setting up of polling booths for Bru voters outside Mizoram during the 2018 elections.
IS HIMANTA EVEN TRYING TO ESCALATE THE CRISIS?
The fact that a CM is tweeting out videos that could increase tensions between two states, does beg the question whether de-escalation is his priority at all.
While Assam's border dispute with neighbouring states is an old one and the product of clumsy drawing of boundaries by first the British administration and then the Indian state.
But what is striking in Sarma's approach is his raising the pitch in these disputes. And the tensions aren't rising just with Mizoram.
On 26 July, the Assam Police claimed that it had foiled an attempt by Meghalaya to raise an electricity police in the Khanapara area of Guwahati.
The southern part of Guwahati is located right next to the border with Meghalaya and such disputes aren't uncommon. But it is significant that this happened on the same day as the clash on the Assam-Mizoram border.
In May, Congress MLA from Mariani Rupjyoti Kurmi was attacked by alleged encroachers from Nagaland. Kurmi submitted a petition to Sarma soon after the incident. Less than a month later, the Congress MLA joined the BJP at a ceremony in Sarma's presence.
These incidents point to a pattern. While it is debatable who between Assam and its neighbours is casting the first stone in these skirmishes, it is clear that they come at a time when Sarma is consolidating power after becoming the CM of Assam.
SARMA'S CONSOLIDATION OF POWER
Himanta Biswa Sarma has worked as a minister for 14 years under Congress' Tarun Gogoi and 5 years under BJP's Sarbananda Sonowal.
However, his most formative influence was former Congress chief minister Hiteswar Saikia, who was at the helm during the peak of the Assam agitation during the 1980s and early 1990s.
It was during that period when Saikia identified Sarma, then part of the All Assam Students' Union that was spearheading the agitation.
Saikia made Sarma cross over as he recognised his political potential especially in countering his political threats.
Saikia was recognised as a hardworking, 24-hour politician, a hard-nosed pragmatic not really driven by ideology - not very different from how Sarma is seen today.
Often termed Machiavellian by his critics, Saikia is alleged to have deployed every trick in the book, used every possible fissure to break the Assam agitation and weaken his rivals.
Unlike most Assamese nationalists who see Saikia as a villain, Sarma considers himself as a protégé of the former CM.
"Other than tirelessly working for welfare of Assam as CM, Sri Hiteshwar Saikia elegantly crafted & nurtured a new breed of politicians to carry forward his legacy of clean & development-oriented politics. What a privilege, I became one of his protégés," Sarma had tweeted on Saikia's birth anniversary in October 2019.
Sarma's consolidation of power since becoming CM needs to be viewed in this light. Former CM Sonowal has been shunted to Delhi as a minister, the Assam cabinet bears Himanta's stamp and he has also managed to secure the defection of a few Congress leaders such as Kurmi.
Sarma was considered relatively weak in Upper Assam is Sonowal's area of influence. But since assuming power, he's started poaching Congress leaders from the area, leaving very little opposition to him there.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
A lot would depend on the extent to which Sarma enjoys the backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and the RSS top brass.
If the Centre wants a de-escalation, then Sarma won't be left with much option but to back down.
But if they have given him a free hand, then this could have far-reaching consequences for the Northeast.
As things stand today, the NDA is in power in all seven states in the region. The BJP is heading the government in four - Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Tripura. But in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, the BJP's growth has been restricted due to the distrust of the majority Christian population. Hence the BJP has had to rely on allies like the National People's Party in Meghalaya, NDF and NDPP in Nagaland and MNF in Mizoram.
The BJP knows it can't grow beyond a point in these states. Therefore, its strategy would be to encourage competition between regional parties within these states, so that it can perpetually be in the kingmaker's position.
An elephant in the room is the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Centre and RSS want it implemented at all costs and Sarma is their best bet to get it done.
Sarma has been the most enthusiastic votary of CAA in the Northeast and has promised to rehabilitate Bangladeshi Hindus.
This is viewed as a threat by indigenous organisations.
There are even reports that the violence from the Mizoram side was provoked by rumours that the Assam police was trying to settle Bangladeshis in their territory.
The tussle for land in the Northeast isn't going to end. What is to be seen is how Sarma handles this in the months to come.
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