Any of the North-eastern states have been carved out of Assam, with which state Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have simmering border tensions. While Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have been, and are at the receiving end of the Assam police in border skirmishes, the people of Nagaland along the borders of Merapani and Golaghat have defended their territory with a belligerence that is unprecedented. They are dismissive of the Assam police’s attempts to cramp their style. In fact, it is interesting to note that the Nagas have been able to inflict casualties on the neighbouring state on several occasions but the latest border flare-up has resulted in a huge toll for Assam.
The chief ministers of Assam and Nagaland, Tarun Gogoi and TR Zeliang, were summoned to Delhi by the Union home ministry to discuss the matter. Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju has been told to sort things out between the two states. Now this is an interesting development. Gogoi is a senior Congress leader and was a Union cabinet minister at one time. That he should be summoned to the national capital and be told to speak to a junior minister could not have been music to his ears. Of late, Gogoi has been at the receiving end of public criticism after the inability of the state police to control mob violence, thereby leading to three unnecessary deaths.
Gogoi has not been on top of thing for some time now. Dissidence within the Congress and the government had gained ground and a leading cabinet minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, resigned in protest after the parliamentary elections when the Congress did poorly. The party high command, however, does not have the grit for any change of leadership in Assam at this juncture, since Gogoi is an old faithful while his bete noire, Biswa Sarma, is a young Turk whom the high command has not learnt to trust.
In any case, the Congress at this juncture is too burdened by its own existential dilemma. It has neither the time nor the inclination to mess up with Congress chief ministers. But this is precisely the problem with Assam. Gogoi is no longer the most popular leader who has the confidence of the public. The election of seven BJP members of Parliament out of 14 was a verdict against the Congress and the Gogoi government and its litany of failings. Barring the voters of Kaliabor, who opted for Gogoi’s son, Gaurav, the large majority of people have no more patience for a government that has evidently failed to provide governance.
Like every other politician in the party, Gogoi, too, is promoting dynastic politics. Gaurav Gogoi, a foreign returned heir to the Assam throne, had contested the parliamentary elections and won the seat despite the general poor performance of the Congress. He is very active on social media and, following his Facebook posts, one can gather that he is not exactly popular among his peers. They are seeking accountability from the father-son duo. They are fed up with the alibis trotted out by the chief minister each time there are incidents of killing and communal violence in Assam. The border skirmish with Nagaland is just one of the many problems Taun Gogoi is facing and it seems like he is a tired man who is fire-fighting on several fronts without trusted lieutenants who can take flak for the government. Add to this the fact that Biswa Sarma could be using his clout to create problems for Gogoi on different fronts.
And while Assam is in a state of near anarchy with the government looking like a lame duck (not taking the blame for what has happened in the state but blaming the Modi government at the Centre for not stepping in with Central forces to control the recent rioting), the Congress is also looking at largescale dissidence in the next assembly elections, due in 2016. Just as the party high command is in denial about most things and has refused to take steps to address the reasons for its recent rout, Gogoi, too, lives in a state of denial about most things happening in Assam and the failure of his government machinery. When he appears on local television channels he is utterly dismissive about the rising tide of public anger against his government and says that other states also have similar problems so Assam does not fall into a special category as far as such problems are concerned. What he has failed to appreciate is that people elect a particular government because they expect it to deliver on a few key areas of their lives such as water and sanitation, safety and security, good communication networks to their villages, agricultural support, etc. These have evaded Assam in the three tenures of the Congress-ruled government and people want change — if only to see whether other parties can deliver. As for the border clashes between Assam and its neighbours, the problem can no longer be allowed to fester. In fact, proper research might throw up interesting evidence about the link between the claims for a greater Nagaland — the long standing demand of the NSCN(IM) and the belligerence of the Naga people settled along the Assam-Nagaland borders. Now that the Modi government has taken over at the Centre, most states want to draw his attention to their long standing grouses.
There is a tendency to push the border talks to chief secretary-level officials of the states in conflict. This has not proved to be too effective, going by the Assam-Meghalaya model that has remained intransigent. Other methods and strategies are needed at this point in time. There have been suggestions from experts in the Central government that disputed areas should be turned into special economic zones, health hubs or educational centres that would benefit people from both sides of the border. This suggestion has not received traction. Perhaps it is time for the Union ministry of home affairs to step in and come up with tangible action plans to avoid future inter-state boundary skirmishes that take a toll on human lives.
People living along the borders often suffer the most neglect since development evades them most of the time. If we look at the Assam-Meghalaya border for instance, people on both sides tend to gravitate towards the state that offers them more options in terms of communication, security and recognition. Meghalaya has not been able to develop roads to take governance to the last mile. The Assam government, on the other hand, has been quite active along the border. It’s a different matter that Assam has settled people of Nepali origin in the Langpih areas and they have taken up very aggressive posturing.
A new format needs to be developed and border disputes can no longer be resolved by old methods. There is need for a new line of thinking. I doubt, however, that the Gogoi government has the time and energy for that. It is fighting too many battles on several fronts and the aggression will only intensify with the onset of the next assembly elections.
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