A border is never fixed. It connects our past and the present, hills with plains, shows us an end and a beginning, and is always emergent. When we cross political borders, our identities and nationalities are marked differently and accorded different kinds of access options to cross, exit, or remain in a place. Borders have changed now. From the pre-colonial to the post-colonial, it is always leaking, condensing, moving, stagnating, and re-territorialising.
Excluded and Partially Excluded
My home in Assam is less than 2 km from the Arunachal Pradesh border, and hence I have witnessed a lot of border issues involving multiple things, but often minor. Historically, more serious affairs involved commodities such as ginger, opium, elephants, timber, or insurgency. These were common affairs, which, after a few days of tussle, would eventually be resolved and forgotten. An economic blockade was the first thing people on the side of Assam would angrily suggest when someone on the other side in Arunachal was at fault. Never did it become an affair of guns and egos of Chief Ministers confronting each other at the border or on social media and the press. Perhaps things have changed now.
At the risk of sounding monotonous, we must accept that the border conflicts Assam has with Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh can be traced back to not just colonial, but also pre-colonial times. What the two Chief Ministers of Assam and Mizoram did, initially, was escalate the current issue. History knows that they are by no means the main architect of the conflict. Misrecognising one event to the entirety of the border (which is always a contested space) conflict would be giving too much agency to the two politicians and would also mean missing the forest for the trees.
In colonial registers, the people living in “frontier” areas of the Northeast were collectively called “hill tribes”. The areas where these people lived were termed by the colonial bureaucracy as “excluded” and “partially excluded” areas. The Government of India (Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas) Order, 1936, paved the way for a more concrete demarcation of these areas. The “Excluded” areas (earlier also known as “backward tracks”) are those that are directly under the administration of the Governor and the elected Ministry had no administrative power over those territories. The “Partially Excluded” areas, on the other hand, had elected representatives and the Ministry was given the responsibility of administering these areas. Even before the states in the Northeast were formed, we see a dominant way of marking the territory by the British through such cartographic practices.
Historian Surya Kumar Bhuyan’s observation about how the Ahom administration and the British maintained similar policies towards the “hill people”, where he did not shy away from calling them “savages”, tells us about the impression people had of these places and “hill tribes”. Citing colonial official Alexander Mackenzie, Bhuyan writes the following in his book Anglo-Assamese Relations 1771-1826:
“The policy of the Ahom rulers towards these tribes was one of conciliation, backed by the display of force when it could be employed effectively … the policy of the Ahoms was essentially the same as the policy of their British successors, as embodied in the ever-reiterated command to frontier officers and commandants: ‘Conciliate these savages if you can. Be persistent in demanding surrender of murderers, but endeavour so to approach the tribes, that a basis may be opened for friendly intercourse in the future.’”
Two things become clear with the above statement — the colonial outlook towards tribes, and also, the Assamese mind towards the “savage”, i.e., its own backwardness, so to say. Bhuyan shows his savage mind about “hill tribes” in the following manner:
“The reforming zeal of the Vaishnava preachers extended only to the inhabitants of the Duars and did not reach the hill tribes in the hinterland, with the result that the latter remained unhumanised, and consequently unamendable to rules of docile citizenship. The isolation of the hillmen from the formative influences of the religions of the plains accounts for the continuance of the border tribes in their own code of life brought to being by their environments and the influences of their primitive instincts.”
The problems of assimilation of the “hill tribes” became a point of contention in the Constituent Assembly debates as well when we saw Rev J.J.M. Nichols Roy from Meghalaya mounting a powerful defence of tribal life and culture. Even here, the primary opposition to granting of autonomy to tribals was raised by caste Assamese leaders such as Rohini Kumar Choudhury, who pushed heavily for assimilation of tribes into the Assamese culture and echoed the voice of Bhuyan of the tribes being “primitive”, “unhumanised”, and “unamendable”.
In sum, historically, Assam has been a big brother in the region.
Even as this dispute between Assam and Mizoram was ongoing, the concern raised by elected representatives from Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya shows how the border conflict is complex and carries much more than what meets the eye at the border today.
The Chief ministers of Assam and Mizoram were also asked different questions regarding the shooting that took place at the border. However, one thing is certain — people living in such contented borders are a minority. And we know the way minorities give us a measure of the pulse and emotions of the majority, state, and governments.
The Minorities in Assam and Mizoram
The power equation between Assam and Mizoram may be skewed in the favor of the former. However, when it comes to the minorities within their own locales, there is serious work both sides must do. Both are guilty of continuously ill-treating their own minorities.
Both Mizo and Assamese nationalities have their own internal minorities, and their respective projects of nationalism are not devoid of a desire to dominate and tame its minorities, even if it means the use of violence.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam is a sufficient example of how its minorities are treated. People who migrated from erstwhile East Bengal are pejoratively called “Bangladeshis” and are the political target of the NRC. During the COVID-19 outbreak, Muslims became the “carriers” of the virus, polluting and infecting the Assamese. They form the first type of minority and are the most vulnerable ones. Leaders such as Ambikagiri Raichoudhury deemed them to be one of the enemies of the Assamese. In his speech at the Assam Sahitya Sabha president in 1950, he declared that the Communists, Pakistani, and Bengali are the primary enemy of the Assamese.
At once, the construction of a concrete political enemy and the beginning of absolute minoritisation becomes obvious. It is as if his words bore a consequence in the future, which they did, as today, the “Bangladeshis” find themselves demonised, targeted, and profiled in everyday life. When the idea of a ‘Miya’ museum was floated, they were showed the “barbed wire” and told that it was unnecessary and that they have nothing but illegal things and illegal bodies to showcase.
The second kind of minority in Assam is, of course, its rich tribal constituents, who are often brushed aside as the “backward” of the Assamese. They are presented as ornamental decoration to show the plurality of Assam only in times of need.
Even today, it is not unusual to call the tribal in Assam ‘jangali’ (uncivilised forest dwellers) or make a mockery of the fact that the Assamese can learn nothing from a tribal Education Minister (the current education portfolio of Assam is with Dr. Ranoj Pegu, who belongs to the Mising tribe).
In cases of violence, often, the tribal identity is overplayed if the perpetrator is a “tribal”, but when the perpetrator is the caste Assamese, we see a definitive underplaying of the identity. The media in Assam is the main culprit in such concrete bias we see towards its minorities. The Adivasis in Assam form the most ignored and denied set of minorities. Tea gardens are designated as a permanent abode for them. So much so that when a proposal was raised of education of Adivasis in their mother tongue Sadri, Hiren Gohain had a knee-jerk reaction.
In Mizoram too, we find that its minorities, the Chakmas (8.8% of the total population of Mizoram) and Brus are treated as second-class citizens. Mizos are the dominant majority in the state. Civil and religious organisations in the state, such as the Young Mizo Association (YMA), the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), or the Presbyterian Church are composed of and function for the Mizos. There are repeated cases of names of people from minority groups being deleted from electoral rolls, cancellation of trade licenses, withdrawal of healthcare, or refusal of counseling of students in higher education who qualify state-level exams.
About 30,000 Brus were chased out of Mizoram or had to flee in 1997 to Tripura and Assam due to the atrocities committed by the Mizo civil society bodies such as the YMA and the MZP. An Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) report notes that in 1992, more than 380 Chakma houses were burnt down by organised mobs, led by organisations such as MZP and YMA at Marpara, Hnahva, and Aivapui villages in Mizoram. The Mizoram government has also used state and national projects like the International Border Fencing Project and Wildlife Sanctuaries and Parks to push out the minority Chakmas living in those areas.
This is all to bring to focus the fact that if one looks at the profile of the victims, a disturbing and clear pattern emerges. Victims during the anti-colonial struggle in Assam and in her post-colonial history belong primarily to the Miya Muslim, ST-SC-OBC, and left activist groups. Why is there such a convergence of the identity of the victims?
Furthermore, why is it that the people who benefited from such martyrdom of the minorities in Assam are predominantly the caste Assamese middle class? Who are the victims of the Assam-Mizoram border conflict? Why are minorities the majority when it comes to the victim count? Why are such numbers pushed under the carpet? Is this a mere coincidence or is this a dark design of the majority in society and the state to use the minority as a shield to advance their benefits and sovereignty? It is the tears of the minority that are usurped to claim high grounds and put on naked displays of power.
(Suraj Gogoi is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)