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Innocents in the cross-fire: The Assam-Meghalaya dispute

28 Nov,2022 07:13 PM, by: Pooja Dasgupta
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In the Northeastern part of India, several weeks and months were invested in immaculate planning for the much-awaited Cherry Blossom festival in Shillong, Meghalaya. Artists were lined up, trips were planned and small businesses who usually rely on crowd pulling festivals such as these were eagerly waiting for the vibrant festival to kick start.

 

However, the last week of November leading up to the festival took a different turn of events, squishing every possibility of the delightful celebration of cherry blossoms in the capital city of Meghalaya. On 22nd November, in a village bordering the West Karbi Anglong district of Assam and West Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, six people were killed in a firing incident during a heated clash between a group of Assam forest guards and a mob. The incident took place at a time when the forest guards were attempting to intercept a truck allegedly loaded with smuggled timber from the nearby woods. The commotion drew attention from the locals and soon enough a mob gathered in the area blocking their path. Assam Police claim to have opened fire in self-defence, which led to the death of five people from Meghalaya and one forest guard from Assam.

 

According to the Assam Govt, the incident took place in the West Karbi Anglong district of Assam, whereas the Meghalaya Govt. condemned the act by pointing out that the incident happened in the Mukroh village in Meghalaya; thereby accusing Assam Police of initiating ‘unprovoked firing’ after ‘entering Meghalaya’. Both state Govts have set out their respective enquiry into the matter and have sought probe by a central body.

 

On ground, it translated into all official events getting cancelled until further notice by Meghalaya Govt, and Assam Govt put a halt on vehicles from Assam travelling to Meghayala as a precautionary measure. Furthermore, internet has been shut down in seven districts of Meghalaya, which is still in place to stop misuse of social media platforms in instigating chaos and unlawful acts.

 

The resolution of the remaining six sites of the 12 border disputes between Assam & Meghalaya takes a backseat.

If the unfortunate event didn’t take place, then we could have most likely seen the Assam and Meghalaya Govt to proceed toward the second phase of resolving the remaining six disputed sites of the 12 identified areas between the two states at around this point of time. The first phase saw a resolution of the first six disputed areas with lesser complexities. However, the complexities involved in the remaining six disputed areas were much higher, as it involved areas like Karbi Anglong and Langpih that had already seen violent clashes erupting in the past.

 

This brings us to the current scenario where the untoward firing incident has caused unrest in the state of Meghalaya, where Assam citizens currently residing in the state for employment / study or other purposes are facing a potential threat at the moment. It may also be noted that the firing incident took place in the area bordering West Karbi Anglong district in Assam; touted as a complicated area in the ongoing border dispute resolutions.

 

If the incident could have been avoided, and the dispute resolution were to go through as planned, both Assam and Meghalaya Govts could have established a landmark example for the long standing border disputes happening in other parts of Northeast India as well. The success in these disputed areas could have put a stop to future violent clashes and would have given rise to untapped economic development resulting in employment and welfare of the people in the border areas. Infact, the resolution of the disputed border areas are so crucial that it begs the question: Was the firing incident of November 22 deliberate? Why did the violent clash erupt just in time before the second phase of the Assam-Meghalaya border dispute resolution? Who could have benefitted from it?

 

These are questions to which we do not have answers to. But the aftermath of the unfortunate incident is a complete halt of tourism activity in Meghalaya, loss of livelihood for people relying on tourism in Meghalaya, and a possible turn of violent turmoil in both the states fuelled by outrage over the incident.

 

No insight into the illegal timber smuggling that was the apparent reason for the incident to fire up in the first place

Among all the media updates that have come to light in the aftermath of the firing incident, we have struggled to find any report on the truck that was in the process of being intercepted by Assam Forest guards for being allegedly loaded with smuggled timber. It is a little surprising to see no further reporting on the core subject that seemed to have caused the whole scenario. To make matters worse, timber smuggling is a long-standing menace in Northeast India, where several media reports have previously referred to the people involved in the illegal operations as ‘timber mafia’. These individuals have also been found to be armed with weapons in recent cases of timber smuggling in Northeast India and reported killings have also occurred. Forest officials are reported to have colluded with these individuals to continue their exploits.

 

In the above context, it is crucial for both the Govts to dig deeper into the ongoing scenario of timber smuggling. If left unchecked, these operations will continue to multiply and will result in a similar fate for innocent lives in the future.

 

It is also imperative to identify and officially acknowledge all possible root causes that are creating hindrances in border disputes. Unless these issues aren’t tackled properly, dispute resolutions will continue to be on paper with innocents getting caught in the crossfire on the ground.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Critical Script or its editor.

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