Peace has returned to Assam, Mizoram: Himanta Biswa Sarma

"My ministers visited Aizawl and after that meeting, we issued a joint press release whose operative part was that no state will deploy their police forces at the border and they will try to resolve all disputes peacefully. Second, both states have decided that CRPF will be at the border till we come to certain solutions," the Assam chief minister said.
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (File photo) PREMIUM
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. (File photo)
Published on Aug 11, 2021 06:22 AM IST
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BySunetra Choudhury, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma speaks to Hindustan Times about the border dispute with Mizoram and the efforts that were made to ease tensions.

Is the peace arrangement you have with Mizoram lasting?

My ministers visited Aizawl and after that meeting, we issued a joint press release whose operative part was that no state will deploy their police forces at the border and they will try to resolve all the disputes peacefully. Second, both states have decided that CRPF will be at the border till we come to certain solutions. With these two statements, I think peace has returned and vehicular movement has resumed. You cannot keep on fighting with your sister state and I hope peace will be lasting.

You met the home minister and the Prime Minister. What did they say about handling the situation?

A) First of all, the home minister was involved from day one. When clashes broke out, it was he who advised me to hand over that police post to CRPF. On that day, he called both of us 4-5 times, so we handed over the disputed post’s force in our possession to CRPF. Initially, the post was with the Mizoram police, then the post was reclaimed by us because we consider it our territory. Then, on the home minister’s advice, we handed the post back to the CM and then Mizo police also entered in that police post. The home minister said “chhor do” (leave it) because, after all, CRPF is there. He started playing that critical role from day one. Finally, he was talking to both of us through those 6-7 days and daily 2-3 times, advising and counselling us, understanding our points of view and finally, it was he who drafted the joint press release. So, it was home minister Amit Shah who hand-held the entire event.

As far as the PM is concerned, I talked to him over the phone. He said “the country is pained when I see people of two states fighting, especially in the North-East”. The PM has taken so many initiatives to keep N-E away from the underdeveloped tag. So, it was out of respect to him that both state governments have decided to respect his sentiment and signed the peace statement.

Could you explain the issue to us?

The issue is very, very complex. For Assam, the 1932 boundary, which was ratified by an Act of Parliament, has become the constitutional boundary. Mizoram nurtured a sense of historical injustice. When the state was carved out in 1985, these were dense forests and people of both states weren’t going to these border areas. At that point in time, you could have defined which parts were south, north, etc. You didn’t do that and referred to a geographical territory which is vague, and same with Nagaland and Meghalaya. These are injustices done to the region as a whole. But there are sensitivities and if you transfer that territory, where will the people go? If you transfer them to Nagaland or Arunachal, they are tribal states where non-tribal cannot have land. So, for our people, this is a battle for everything. These are very intense conflicts and even when Kiren Rijiju was home minister (MoS) in 2014, he visited the Assam-Nagaland border where 13 people died. So, it keeps happening every 4-5 years. On 26th July, I had to settle with three states; there was conflict with Mizoram, there was a problem at the Meghalaya border, there was a problem at Arunachal Pradesh and, at the same time, also with Nagaland. In all four states, at the same time, police were eyeball-to-eyeball.

You say it is a legacy problem, but you have now been in government for two tenures in Assam. You can’t blame everything on the last 70 years?

You cannot solve it. Habitation has come and Mizoram and Nagaland have protection against Article 370. So there are various issues involved there and if you try to solve it, there will be eruption. Today, we are trying to solve the problem in Meghalaya, and every day, there are disturbances. There was a chance when you carved out the state, but you missed that bus. In India, so far, no interstate dispute has been resolved except a small portion of land in Belgaum. It's not easy. It may be easy to advise but not easy to execute.

The way you describe it, it sounds almost as fractious as the situation in the Valley.

Ours is not comparable as people are not against India. It is a conflict between two states, both loyal to India and both look at Centre for mediation. The Supreme Court has tried to resolve it, but it could not be done. Home minister Amit Shah in Shillong advised us, that when India enters into the 75th year of Independence, you need to resolve at least some dispute to show work between some states through formal or informal negotiation. Something had taken proper shape but while the process was on, the unfortunate clash happened. Between July 26 and 28, I handled with colleagues like Conrad to not make it an issue right now.

So, with three states, you managed to handle the situation but one remained (Mizoram)?

Even that one has gradually come down.

You spoke to Arunachal CM Pema Khandu, Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma, but not to Mizoram CM Zoramthanga?

On July 26, I called him 8 times. He kept saying we will call back. I also kept reverting so if you look at my call logs of that day, you will see our interactions. When firing was going on, we were both just talking on the phone. I told him “look, my men have died”. Zoramthanga said “so sorry, how could it happen?” So when these things were going on from 11am to 5pm, we called each other 8 or more times.

So the impression of you interacting only on social media is wrong?

No, we were on the phone – the home Minister, Zoramthanga and I. We were all on the line at different times. The home minister called me to say: “Himanta, dekho, aage mat jaane do (Don't let them advance)”. Then I told Zoramthanga: “Firing ho gayi hai, abhi rukwana zaroori hai (firing has happened, we should stop them now)”. I called my DGP: “Bhai rukwao (make them stop)”. Between us, there was communication even when firing was on. We were talking and not through Twitter. Even after that, every day we talk.

How does the police force of a particular state turn against another with machine guns?

When there was conflict in 1989 between Assam and Nagaland, we lost many lives but we never saw those dead bodies. So these are very, very intense disputes. Today, we are fortunate we could resolve it in six days.

How did they have machine guns though?

It is called LMG (light machine guns) and they have it on both sides at the border in the North-East and between borders of two states.

One of the new ministers who is from the BJP announced in Meghalaya that if they were voted to power there, they would bring in inner line permit in the state (ILP). Is that the party line?

There are demands in Meghalaya, and the BJP has also made that demand. When the home minister visited Shillong, a memorandum was submitted and so the Centre and state will discuss. There are demands in Assam, too, but there is also opposition there. We feel that if we have ILP there, then our process of industrialisation will be stalled and tourism will be affected.

As CM, you have taken quite a strident position vis-à-vis Hindutva. Do you think that Mizoram backlash is linked to that?

I don't think that any policy I take for Assam will have any impact in other states. We banned transportation of cattle but we inserted a provision that other states can take cattle with a transit pass. Whatever we do in Assam, we take care of the sensitivity of other states. If there is any misgiving, I think it is unfounded.

Finally, I know that you also had a meeting with national security adviser Ajit Doval. Can you tell us what that was about?

In Assam, lower and middle regions are free of militants. If we resolve the ULFA issue, then Assam will see final lasting peace. I have appealed to them to extend their unilateral ceasefire by another three months. Meanwhile, I am speaking to the Centre about what we can offer. Paresh Barua has been in that organisation since 1982 and is now 65 years old. He fought for a cause his whole life and so bringing him back is not very simple. I believe that somehow, if I could ensure some agreement, some peace between Centre and ULFA, then Assam will go to a different level. My friends are talking to Barua and I am attempting for this. Whether it will become a reality, I don’t know. His stated line is that he won’t discuss anything but sovereignty, and I have told him that we can discuss everything except that. Having said that, both sides should agree for some discussion and a common ground is Assam. This won't happen immediately but people are talking to him.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021