Lailapur, Vairengte: At the heart of the violent clash between the Assam and Mizoram police forces, which left six personnel dead and 50 others injured, is an 8X8 feet under-construction post that has barely made it out of its wooden skeletal framework.
Mizoram’s India Reserve Battalion (IRB) had only begun building the post on 15 July, atop a hillock on National Highway 306, which cuts through Lailapur in Assam and Vairengte in Mizoram.
But tension had been brewing here since October last year when 20 temporary bamboo huts constructed along NH 306 by Assamese villages were allegedly burnt down by those from Mizoram. It was followed by clashes between the villagers of Lailapur and Vairengte.
In response to the violence, the Mizoram Police had built two 16X32 feet posts to deploy its personnel in the disputed area. Barely 60 m from the posts, the Assam Police also built a border post.
While Mizoram claims all of its three posts fall in Vairengte, Assam believes they come under Rengti Basti, an inner-land forest reserve area within its boundaries.
The situation finally came to a head at 11 am on Monday (26 July).
Sources in the CRPF, which has two posts on either side of the disputed border, and eyewitnesses told ThePrint that around 250 people from Assam landed up at the site. They included senior Assam Police personnel, the divisional forest officer, senior functionaries, and residents from nearby villages.
Assam Police told ThePrint that they wanted to hand over a notice to the Mizoram IRB to stop the construction work. The IRB claims that the Assamese contingent was confrontational from the get-go.
The face-off quickly escalated and within the hour, heated negotiations would turn to heckling, vandalism, and tear gas shells before culminating in a military-style ambush that not only left six Assam Police personnel dead but also sent senior police officers of both forces scurrying into the nearby forest and behind sandbags at the posts.
When ThePrint visited the site Wednesday, it resembled a war zone.
The three Mizoram posts were riddled with bullet holes, while broken bricks, heavy stones, and shrapnel were strewn across the road.
A vandalised bus with ‘Mizoram’ sprayed on it blocked the highway.
There was a heavy presence of all the three different forces — Assam Police, Mizoram Police, and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) — in the area.
While there was restraint, the situation continues to remain tense.
The truce is a result of a meeting Tuesday, called by Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla to mediate between the states. It was decided that both states will withdraw their police forces and the CRPF will be deployed in the four-kilometre disputed stretch, which will function as a “no man’s land” until a permanent solution is found.
Anatomy of the violence
On the morning of the violence, sources said, Assam IG Anurag Aggarwal, Cachar SP Nimbalkar Vaibhav Chandrakant (since transferred out), and Silchar DIG Jyoti Banerjee, along with senior officials of the forest department went to the Mizoram post to “serve the notice”.
The Assam contingent wanted the Mizoram IRB personnel, who were way fewer in number, to vacate the area. They refused to budge.
Negotiations then began with the Kolasib SP Vanlalfaka Ralte of the Mizoram Police, who reached the spot soon after he was apprised of the presence of Assam personnel in the area.
The Assam Police, however, allegedly heckled and chased them away, before taking charge of the area.
Recalling the day of violence, a CRPF official who witnessed the clash said there were “bullets and stones all over and firing that went on for over an hour”.
“More than 200 people came in 25 vehicles from Assam. They questioned the Mizoram Police as to why they were constructing posts on the hillock, which is forest land,” he said.
“There was a round of negotiations but it did not work. The Assam Police advanced and chased away the 15-20 Mizoram IRB personnel who were present there,” he added.
According to the officer, in no time, the IRB personnel climbed the hillocks on the Mizoram side and called for reinforcements. They allegedly perched on the hills and began attacking from the “dominant position”. He added that though both sides opened fire at each other, it was much heavier from the Mizoram side.
A second CRPF officer, who too was present at the spot, said even “public came from both sides and started pelting bricks and stones at each other”.
“They used catapults and pellet guns too. The Assam Police was exposed as the people from Mizoram, including policemen, were attacking from atop the hillocks. The Assam Police lobbed tear gas and fired in the air,” he added. “That is when the Mizoram Police sprayed fire downwards using their automatic weapons. There were bullets all over, with senior functionaries running for cover. It went on for over an hour.”
“It was a shameful episode,” he added. “Seeing two police forces clash, open fire at each other is unheard of. This should have been resolved through dialogue.”
According to the second officer, the then Cachar SP Chandrakant, who has now been transferred out, took shelter behind sandbags but sustained a bullet injury on his thigh, while SP Ralte lay on the ground to dodge the bullets before running into the nearby forest.
SP Ralte told ThePrint he had little options but to take cover in the forest. He accused the Assam police of opening fire and escalating the situation, something they have denied.
“The Assam Police fired the first round. Why would my force, knowing that I was sitting right here, open fire? They would not put my life in danger,” he said. “But after Assam Police shot first, retaliatory fire began and everyone ran for shelter. I myself had to lie on the ground to dodge bullets. I then ran down to the forest. Since I was down and my men were on the hill, I was not in a controlling position. Had I fallen in the firing line, I would have been killed too.”
Ralte said that during negotiations, he “sternly” told the Assam Police IG and SP that they must vacate the place or face serious repercussions, “but they did not listen”.
“While I was talking to the officials, men of Assam Police started evacuating our personnel. They started heckling the Mizo force and dragged them out, while we showed utmost restraint,” he claimed. “When the residents of the adjoining Mizo villages saw what Assam Police was doing, they too were agitated.”
He added that the situation quickly went out of control. “While I was still trying to negotiate, Assam Police reinforced and the civilians on their side started pelting stones. The Mizos retaliated,” Ralte said. “To disperse the crowd, the Assam Police then lobbed tear gas shells on Mizo Police and locals, which further frayed tempers, and the situation became uncontrollable after that.”
Assam Police SP Vaibhav Chandrakant told ThePrint that his force only used “non-lethal” ways to control the mob.
“We did not open fire. Why would we use bullets on our countrymen? We only used tear gas once Mizoram Police took the dominant position and launched an attack at us,” he said. “If we opened fire first, how come none of the Mizoram policemen were injured? We on the other hand lost six of our men.”
SP Chandrakant maintained that all the Assam contingent wanted to do was serve the notice. “We went there to serve them the notice and ask them to stop the encroachment by building these posts and the roads inside the forest,” he said. “We told them that there is a fear among the people of Assam about Mizoram Police encroaching on land here and that they must stop, else agitations from residents would start.”
“While the discussion was on, the people from Mizoram side got angry and started pelting stones. We controlled and restrained our people from retaliating. I got hit, a PSO got hit and our vehicles were ransacked,” he added. “I even appealed to the people on the other side to stop, but they did not. Even the civilians on the other side had guns with them and they did not hesitate in opening fire.”
Once the clash ended, the Mizoram Police came down from the hillocks and reoccupied the posts.
The disputed area
The three Mizoram Police posts came up after the violence in October. Before that, the last Mizoram border post was 100 m further inside.
Assam maintains that the new posts have encroached on its territory.
“The issue here was of encroachment done by Mizoram IRB on the land of inner-land reserve forest, which is illegal,” the new Cachar SP Ramandeep Kaur said. “They not only constructed two posts and were making another one on that land, but were also building a road going from the forest to maintain the supply chain for those posts. No habitation, built-up structures can be there on that land.”
“It was on the request of the divisional commissioner and the divisional forest officer that the police were called to help clear the structures,” Kaur said.
To act as a buffer between the two police forces, the BSF had been deployed at the site by Mizoram and the Sashastra Seema Bal by Assam.
The CRPF took over from the SSB on the Assam side in March this year, and from the BSF on the Mizo side on 6 June 2021. As such, two CRPF posts are sandwiched by the Assam border outpost and the three Mizoram posts.
Ralte also said that senior officials of both forces had an informal oral agreement, under which the “status quo will be maintained”.
“According to our agreement, if any state police have to cross over to the other state — whether to Mizoram or Assam — the CRPF has to be informed,” he said. “The Assam Police did not do that. They just landed here with 250 people, armed with tents, construction material, ambulances, to take over the post, surpassing the CRPF. Their intention was to evacuate us and start building their own post. This is nothing but an intrusion.”
SP Vaibhav, however, said that it was Mizoram that flouted the status quo on at least five instances.
“They have violated the agreement, making these advances at different borders more than five times. Just this month near the Kulichera area, they blasted two schools,” he alleged. “They came far ahead of the CRPF camps and then we had to push them back. Now, they have started constructing roads and these posts in the forest area that falls under Rengti Basti, which is in Assam. Isn’t all this a violation of the agreement and of the status quo?”
“If they keep encroaching on our land, then we have no option but to intervene,” he added.
CRPF caught in the cross-fire
Although the CRPF is posted in the area, its officers told ThePrint that they have not been given the mandate to intervene in matters between the two state police forces.
CRPF sources said they were pressed into action only after the situation went out of hand and they received formal orders from the Ministry of Home Affairs.
“We do not have the mandate to intervene between two state police forces. When things started going out of hand, we apprised our seniors, who then raised the issue with the authorities,” a third officer said. “We intervened only after formal orders came from MHA, our nodal authority, asking us to do so.”
Sources said the CRPF DIG of Barak Valley, Shahnawaz Khan, got inside a bulletproof bunker and waved the white flag, requesting both forces to retreat.
The third officer said they did attempt to control the mob violence before it got out of hand. “We called for Quick Reaction Teams to control the mob on both sides and started making announcements, requesting both forces to retreat,” the officer said.
“A rescue operation also began and all the injured personnel were rushed to hospital,” he added. “The injured SP, who was lying in a pool of blood behind a sandbag, was also evacuated.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)