In the beginning, there was fire. In the end, blood. Monday’s clash between police forces of Assam and Mizoram in border town Vairengte is a dark turn in the boundary dispute between the two Northeast states.
But what is new in this long-drawn chapter is how the Mizos have come together to counter what they perceive is a ‘bias’ towards Assam in the way the dispute story has been told.
Mizoram’s public is especially active on social media now. For a state where English is barely a second language, Hindi a distant third and which remains largely off the radar of national media, the past few days have seen a steep uptick in posts drafted for non-Mizo readers. Major national media houses are tagged in an attempt to explain Mizoram’s side of the story.
How Mizos did it
Villagers and farmers on the boundary region remain concerned if and when they may have visitors from the other side: one erroneous social media post about truckloads of Assam Police officers heading towards Mizoram was viral for two days.
On Tuesday, the hashtags ‘#AssamShotFirst’ and #AssamShotFirstMizoram went viral on Twitter, with even ruling and opposition leaders, including five-term chief minister Lal Thanhawla, using them to express solidarity.
Mizoram-Assam boundary incident, sad indeed. It was a countermeasure that involves defending the land of our forefathers, an act against the degree of force being used upon us. I salute Vairengte villagers and our policemen who protect the lands bestowed on us.#assamshotfirst pic.twitter.com/MGvImFc19J
— Lal Thanhawla (@LThanhawla) July 27, 2021
Videos shot from either side of Monday’s clash emerged with subtitles under the hashtag, as did maps showing the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) buffer being breached by the contingent of Assam Police.
By Wednesday, ‘#ShameOnAssam’ was one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter, as memes depicting national and regional media’s biases against Mizoram in their coverage began to pour in on social media.
— Emree Pachuau (@emreepachuau) July 28, 2021
Users also shared a screenshot of two images combined together – one of an Assam MP using a Mizo man’s photo to say civilians were armed and present at the boundary and another of a post by the man in the first photo threatening legal action and explaining that the image was several years old and that he was at home under lockdown in Aizawl on Monday.
Dear @drrajdeeproy, please answer :
Why did you lie in public by displaying an innocent photo taken on the 5th Dec ‘20 as civilian carrying sophisticated weapons during 26th July ‘21 incident?
It is sad to see such things while we try to maintain peace and harmony. pic.twitter.com/mVvsaUWxxU
— Robert Romawia Royte (@robertroyte) July 28, 2021
Others were cartoons about media bias; still others were videos from Monday seemingly showing Assam Police firing the first shots while another carried clips from media articles.
Assam shot first – PROOF No. 1#assamshotfirst #boycotthimantabiswa #AssamMizoramBorder @ndtv @republic @TimesNow @timesofindia @the_hindu @DeccanChronicle @ZonetCableTV @VanglainiDaily pic.twitter.com/LXIbjd0Cbg
— Mizoram (@mizoram_) July 27, 2021
Some memes bore pictures from last year’s chain of events, one of which contrasted the image of blockade with stranded truck-drivers being fed by local organisations.
— bokubaby (@tlau_ruth) July 28, 2021
Meanwhile, influential and respected community groups have issued messages of solidarity, strongly advising against any kind of communal tension.
In all this, Mizoram government officials remain perplexed how its giant neighbour has changed with the change of guard – Himanta Biswa Sarma becoming the new chief minister after the BJP’s victory in the assembly election fought under the chief ministership of Sarbananda Sonowal.
Build-up to the clash
The dispute over boundary between Assam and Mizoram is an old one, with Mizoram accepting the 1875 demarcation and Assam sticking to the one set in 1933. The stand of the Mizoram government and everyone else in the state is that the 1875 demarcation was agreed upon with the consent of Mizo representatives, while the one in 1933 was arbitrary.
But arguments about demarcations and whether Mizos were consulted aside, the current tensions are more localised and have to do with the people, the land they cultivate, and the perception that Assam is resorting to force through its sheer numbers and unilateral action.
On 9 October 2020, a month-long stand-off in the inter-state boundary started after an FIR was filed by the Sub-Divisional Officer (Civil), Kawrthah Sub-Division. The FIR said that around 1pm, “a large contingent” of armed police and forest staff led by the Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police of Karimganj, Assam, and District Forest Officer entered the farms of two residents in Mizoram’s Thinghlun village and, an hour later, one hut was burnt and crops in their farmlands damaged.
Videos of the burning hut and a hapless man trying to douse the flames circulated quickly on social media and were headline news that evening and the following day. Over the next few days, there were news reports about the blockades of the national and inter-state highways, more clashes between villagers on either side, bomb blasts, high-level meetings and deployment of central paramilitary forces to act as a buffer between the police forces of the two states. Tensions had reduced by 11 November.
But Mizoram officials soon began to sense that the neighbouring state was becoming less amenable to talks. The boundary issue flared up again when Assam officials and armed police officers entered a farm in Chuhvel in Mizoram’s Mamit district.
And just like the previous year, incidents at various flashpoints along the 164 km inter-state boundary involving five districts began to occur: burnt huts, Assam officials coming past the CRPF buffer near Vairengte, farms being visited by armed contingents from the other side, police from either state engaged in a push-and-shove on ridgelines cultivated by Mizo farmers, road construction through farms, and explosions now and then.
On 12 July Mizoram home minister Lalchamliana held a press conference where he said his government “will not be the first to release its grip on the arrow.” The statement proved to be prophetic.
Incidents that still flummox Mizoram officials began to take place after a meeting of Northeast chief ministers chaired by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Shillong last weekend. Assam’s chief minister, chief secretary and the DGP drive through Cachar district escorted by the Assam Police, the latter two even spending a night at Silchar.
Then, just hours after the Chief Secretary and DGP crossed Cachar district and entered Mizoram, a contingent of about 200 armed Assam Police personnel led by an IGP along with civilians (the convoy of vehicles even included an ambulance) drove past the CRPF buffer. As videos from the scene show, push came to shove when the Mizoram Police officers were forcibly removed from their camp. In a stand-off that lasted several hours, pandemonium ensued with the arrival of a hapless, injured couple in a heavily dented car followed by lathi-charge, tear-gas, stun-grenades and finally, gunfire.
No recent event has united Mizos as much as Monday’s clash and the incidents leading up to it. The clash, which lasted all afternoon, was streamed live by villagers on social media platforms and the exchange of gunfire, civilians fleeing amid sounds of automatic rifles and bullets whizzing past, were watched by tens of thousands of people on their smartphones. With everything recorded and available for the people to watch and share, it’s clear that Mizos will only become more invested in the boundary dispute with more people becoming aware than ever before.
Adam Saprinsanga is the editor of The Frontier Despatch, a weekly published from Aizawl, Mizoram. He tweets @AdamSaprinsanga. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)