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Can the Centre Bypass Mizoram, Nagaland and Fence the India-Myanmar Border?

Resolutions passed in their state legislatures spell defiance which doesn’t bode well for Centre-State relations.

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The sudden termination of the Free Movement Regime (FMR), which allowed people on both sides of the India-Myanmar border to travel up to 16 km into each other’s territory without passport and visa, will have repercussions that no one is talking about. Moreover, fencing the hitherto unfenced border will not be a cakewalk for the Centre after the assertive and tough stand of not one but two state governments – Mizoram and Nagaland – against ending the FMR and sealing off the frontier.

Mizoram’s Chief Minister, Lalduhoma, and Nagaland’s Deputy Chief Minister, Y Patton, are openly saying that scrapping the FMR and erecting a border fence is simply “unacceptable”. Lalduhoma, in particular, has already articulated his objections directly before Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Interestingly, Lalduhoma is a former Indian Police Service officer and Jaishankar, an ex-Indian Foreign Service officer, is his 1977 batch-mate; they did the foundation course together in Mussoorie.

Two weeks ago, in a major escalation, the legislative assemblies of the two northeastern states adopted hard-hitting resolutions — cutting across party lines — against the suspension of the FMR and the decision to fence the border, bringing their differences with the Centre to a boil and setting the stage for a head-on confrontation in the coming days. Notably, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh also share a boundary with Myanmar but are in sync with the central government.

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Tempers in Mizoram and Nagaland are rising since February after Shah abruptly announced that the “Modi government, which is “committed to building impenetrable borders, has decided to construct a fence along the entire 1643-long Indo-Myanmar border”. He simultaneously declared that the Ministry of Home Affairs has scrapped the FMR to “ensure the internal security of the country and to maintain the demographic structure of India’s northeastern states bordering Myanmar”. Importantly, Shah generously invoked Modi to justify both steps.

Shah had Modi on his lips but he clearly took the cue from Manipur’s BJP Chief Minister Biren Singh who had been accusing “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar of stoking the Meitei versus Kuki-Zo conflict engulfing his state since May. The Meitei plains-people are predominantly Hindu and tribal Kuki-Zo are mainly Christians. As the Kuki-Zo indigenous community is spread on both sides of the international border, Singh accused “foreigners” of smuggling arms and narcotics into Manipur through the open border to help their ethnic cousins.

Rather than address the root causes of the unending violence which has claimed nearly 200 lives and is showing no signs of abating, Singh haughtily demanded the closure of the open border — and Shah readily obliged him by revoking the FMR and promising to fence off the frontier. The headlines that Shah’s twin announcements generated in the print, electronic and social media helped distract national attention from the mess in Manipur, which is arguably one of the biggest failures of BJP governance to date.

Mizoram and Nagaland are frothing at the mouth because Shah’s announcements, if fully implemented, will snuff out blood, family, cultural and historical ties across the India-Myanmar border which Mizos and Nagas want to preserve and strengthen at any cost. The Nagas of Nagaland live in Myanmar’s Sagaing province as well. And the Mizos of Mizoram share their bloodline with the Chins of Myanmar. Buoyed by visa-free mobility, the open border helped Mizos and Nagas living in India to crisscross what one commentator has called the “India-Myanmar transborder space”, and intermingle with their ethnic cousins for business and pleasure alike. Simply put, there are Nagas and Mizos on both sides. And they simply don’t want to be split.

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Little wonder then that the governments of Mizoram and Nagaland have put down their foot and are refusing to budge. The resolutions passed in the legislatures spell defiance which doesn’t bode well at all for Centre-State relations.

Angshuman Choudhury, an associate fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi who focuses on the politics of the northeastern region and Myanmar, told the Quint that Mizoram and Nagaland can throw a spanner in the Centre’s works if they can muster the courage to take on the BJP government.

“The Centre has already suspended the FMR. However, the Centre will need the cooperation of the governments in Mizoram and Nagaland to fence the border. Because of exclusive land use rights accorded to both these states by Article 371 of the Indian Constitution, the Modi government would need the state legislatures in Aizawl and Kohima to approve land allocation for building the fence. As both legislatures have passed resolutions against the scrapping of FMR and border fencing, they are unlikely to cooperate with the Centre.”
Angshuman Choudhury

He added that if the Modi government is unrelenting, “it will lead to new cycles of social and political discontent along the India-Myanmar border and inevitably strain relations between the Centre and the governments in Nagaland and Mizoram. In Nagaland especially, it will sour relations between the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party – a National Democratic Alliance constituent – and the BJP. And in Mizoram, it will erode whatever little ground the BJP has. New Delhi might have to pay a price for pursuing its muscular border agenda.”

The moot question is: Neither the Congress nor the BJP government, headed by Manmohan Singh and Modi respectively, could sign the Teesta River water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh in 13 long years because of West Bengal’s intransigence. The stalled Teesta treaty is a huge embarrassment for New Delhi. Now, if Mizoram and Nagaland refuse to play ball, will the Centre be able to fence the Myanmar border? Only time will tell. The two small states certainly don’t have Bengal’s clout — and Lalduhoma is no Mamata Banerjee — but who knows?

(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Manipur violence 

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