Infrastructure

From hot borders to peace and development belts

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In prescient remarks in 2013, the late editor and scholar, BG Verghese, spoke of his vision of converting “hot” inter-state borders to zones of production and peace. In the light of current border tensions in Northeast India, I think his ideas assume greater relevance and are worth quoting.

“I have long proposed that the disputed border strips between … should be converted from unproductive, criminalised no-man lands to Trusteeship Territories managed by the … states, with the Union Government as a key partner for a period of 50 years. These could become hubs for the development of infrastructure, training centres, and industrial zones…Investors would flock to these trusteeship zones. Everybody would gain and up to a million new jobs might be created within a decade.”

The states that he was referring to here were Arunachal Pradesh and Assam but the ideas could perhaps be applied to the borders with all four states that Assam has confrontations with, going back decades. I remember arguing with him over the practicality of this idea, for it appealed to nobler human qualities, which remain in short supply, and ignored narrow realpolitik calculations, which were in abundant supply.

But Verghese’s idea is relevant for three reasons. One, he took into account colonial legacies and the labyrinth of decades of post-Independence mistrust and cross-border mismanagement that have grown. These are now exemplified, and aggravated, by a mixture of aggression and defence, jingoism and abrasive posturing, made worse by noisy news channels and toxic social media outbursts, as well politicians bending to pressures and pandering to their exclusive constituents.

Two, most efforts — either through the tried-and-tested method of central or state government committees or inter-state boundary commissions, or dialogue at state levels through the elected or bureaucratic leadership or even through Supreme Court appointed mediators — have not worked.

Three, another factor, which even Verghese’s well-meaning approach had not factored in but can be extended to include, is the engagement of local communities living on the border. They are both most vulnerable to such crackling tensions and also could benefit from the resolution of problems.

There are three strands that run through inter-state border disputes in the Northeast. Assam has boundary problems with Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya, though not necessarily in that order or scale.

The first is a colonial and historic narrative, designed and developed by those who ruled South Asia for close to 200 years and left it in a hurry and a mess. Borders were drawn arbitrarily and built on certain rules and regulations, which is what state governments, communities and pundits refer to even today, over a century after the regulations were passed and maps issued.

In that manner, strictly speaking, where is blame to be assigned? After all, in a political situation, one has to find a blameworthy target — and it lies in the colonial construct. Indeed, we are all prisoners of a history that we neither built nor wrote. Those who are impatient with long negotiations need to remember that these are old problems which cannot be resolved by sleight of hand or in a rush; that could create more problems.

The second sub-theme is that at some point or other, barring Arunachal Pradesh, the other states listed were part of Assam, either as districts or combination of districts (the Khasi and Jaintia hills and Garo hills districts ultimately became Meghalaya).

Arunachal Pradesh was centrally-administered as the Balipara frontier tract in the west, the Sadiya frontier tract in the east, and the Abor and Mishmi hills and the Tirap frontier tract in the south. Later, those tracts were merged into the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which first became a Union Territory and then a state on its own accord in 1987 (much to China’s anger as it considers this disputed territory). Administered by the ministry of external affairs until 1965, the then NEFA was subsequently handled by the ministry of home affairs through the Governor of Assam.

Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh are governed even today by the Eastern Bengal Regulation Act of 1873 which restricted the entry and stay of outsiders in designated areas. The Raj sought to prevent “British subjects” (Indians) from trading within these regions. In 1950, the Indian government replaced “British subjects” with “Citizen of India”; these inner line permits (ILPs) are issued by the state government and can be accessed online and are required by “outsiders” to visit these three states. There has been a demand in Meghalaya and Manipur also for ILP.

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution was specially designed for tribal communities in Meghalaya, Nagaland, parts of Assam and Tripura to ensure non-alienation of land and other rights.

However, there is no bar on residents of the hill states settling in most places in Assam or other parts of India, doing business or buying land. So a question that is being asked is, if ILPs are to continue, should the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys in Assam also not insist on a level-playing field? This could create a huge logjam, economically, culturally and politically.

A third sub-theme lies in the need to bring the most vulnerable in these situations into the conversation. These are the affected people, for in discussions on borders, ethnic communities (whether old or new) also need agency and voice. Their kinship ties and customs stretch over centuries, and not just borders. Indeed, there is the little known story of peace-building on a sensitive section of the Assam-Nagaland border through the role of a Peace Coordination Committee (Assam-Nagaland), headed by respected village elders from both sides.

Here perhaps lies a possible model for negotiating disputes without touching protected areas such as reserve forests — by bringing together elders of all genders from both sides into the peace process. In addition, with their agreement of such groups and of state governments, and the Centre playing the role of an honest broker, create designated growth belts which benefit all sides, providing livelihoods and employment, generating economies which has been devastated by the pandemic and building a fresh fraternity. These may be called designated joint economic development zones.

National leaders have pointed out that the complexity of the region needs responses which are rooted in and finely attuned to those intricacies. Why not constitute a high-level commission of elders, comprising all genders, to review this specific problem of border disputes and move it forward?

It would short-circuit lengthy courtroom battles and help sustain a peaceful Northeast.

The importance of good internal communications, trade and infrastructure cannot be sufficiently emphasised. Without peace that enables free flow of transport, people and goods, how will the Act East Policy which seeks trade and relations across international borders work? Internal stability and peace are preconditions to international investments and collaboration of other national governments. Such an important, visionary and rightfully ambitious policy cannot be held hostage to internal divisions.

Some 25 years ago, the Shukla Commission identified the stumbling blocks to the growth of the region as deficits in infrastructure, governance, communications and trust. To me, the trust deficit is as important as the sum of all the others. It is time to bridge it.

Sanjoy Hazarika is an author and commentator, especially on issues of the Northeast

The views expressed are personal

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