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In India, state border dispute leaves 18 dead, displaces 10,000

Rivalry between two Indian states, Assam and Nagaland, flares as armed tribal groups clash

ASSAM, India — At the disputed border between the Indian states of Nagaland and Assam, a local skirmish over a plot of land was all it took to reignite tensions. Now 18 people are dead and 10,000 are without homes as thousands remain in unsanitary relief camps hoping for a long-term solution to the border crisis.

The bloodshed occurred in Golaghat, an area of Assam state in northeastern India. The violence involves the Tea and Tai Ahom tribes who live in Rongajan village in Assam and those from the Lotha Naga tribe in a cluster of villages on the Nagaland side.

Armed men from Nagaland shot one man from Assam and torched about 200 houses in seven villages on Aug. 12. Nine people died in the following ethnic clash between tribal groups.

More than 10,000 people from Golaghat fled to nearby Umrighat and are now housed in crowded relief camps there. Most of them belong to the Tea and Tai Ahom tribes.

For a week after, protesters from local tribal and student organizations from Golaghat blocked National Highway 39, the only road connecting the two states. They shouted slogans against the attackers from Nagaland, and blamed the Assam police for not doing enough to protect the victims. The police were deployed to calm the protesters, but ended up clashing with them.

When a 1,000-strong group of protesters marched to a police station in Golaghat town, the police beat them with batons and lobbed tear gas shells at them. “Their intention was to set the police station on fire. We had to take action,” said Siladitya Chetia, Golaghat’s police chief.

Police said they started shooting only after the mob charged with bamboo sticks, pelted officers with stones and burned police cars. Protesting student groups accuse the police and paramilitary of dragging people out of their homes and beating them.

Three protesters were killed, one of them run over by a police vehicle. Six were severely injured. One policeman has since been suspended, and an indefinite curfew has been imposed in the area. More paramilitary troops have now been called in to keep the calm.

We can’t go back home, because Naga insurgents harass us. How long are we supposed to live with this uncertainty?

Rajiv Das

The Assam-Nagaland border has been disputed for over 50 years, since Nagaland was formed as a separate state in 1963 after a movement to politically unite the Naga tribes in their ancestral land. Assam and Nagaland now share a 300-mile border. The Assam government says Nagaland has been encroaching upon over 255 square miles within Assam, of which 162 miles lie in Golaghat.

Nagaland, on the other hand, says these areas historically belonged to the Naga tribes, and the British annexed them into the Assam administrative districts while dividing what was once the Naga Hills. The disputed stretch is called the Disturbed Area Belt.

A commission set up by the India’s Supreme Court declared that the current borders should remain, but after Nagaland appealed against that decision, a judgment is now pending on the dispute. Paramilitary forces have been posted on the border to maintain security.

Although Golaghat lies inside the current boundaries of Assam, the borders of that area have been long disputed. Two major incidents in 1979 and 1985 in Golaghat and Merapani left close to 100 dead, and more than 25,000 displaced. Because the area has several ethnic-based armed groups, personal enmities often explode into district-wide violence.

Central government officials have traced the origins of the recent violence to a fall-out in July between an Assam tribal member, Salamon Sama, and a Naga man, Ekonthubg Lotha. Sama had entered into an agreement with Lotha to farm on a plot of land on the Disputed Area Belt and share the produce between them, but the agreement turned sour when Sama refused to let Lotha construct a thatched house on the land.

Injured protesters receive treatment at a hospital in Golaghat, India on Aug. 20, 2014.
Press Trust of India / AP

The conflict escalated when two tribal boys from Rongajan went missing and members of the Adivasi National Liberation Army, a tribal insurgent group in Golaghat, attacked and chased away Lotha and other Nagas from the plot of land.

The Lotha Nagas retaliated by recruiting an armed Naga insurgent group, which was then accused of kidnapping three Assam tribal members. On Aug. 12, when the Naga fighters allegedly shot dead an Assam tribal member and burned homes in Rongajan, ethnic clashes began.Student associations in Golaghat blocked the highway for days after, demanding the release of their tribal members that they said were abducted by the Nagas. The protesters stopped traffic, effectively enforcing an economic blockade.

On Aug. 18, When Tarun Gogoi, Assam’s three-time chief minister, visited the relief camps, protesters threw rocks at his convoy and demanded that he take immediate action against the Naga attackers.

People from Golaghat are frustrated with what they feel is a dispute without end. “My father saw people die in these fights, and now I see the same,” says Rajiv Das, a camp inhabitant who, with his wife and two toddlers, shares a room with four other families.

Thousands of villagers like him suffer poorly equipped relief camps. “There’s not enough food and water for us in the camps, but we can’t go back home because Naga insurgents harass us. How long are we supposed to live with this uncertainty?” asks Das.

As the industrial town of Golaghat slowly returns to normalcy after the curfew, the Nagaland and Assam chief ministers have announced they will set up “a joint mechanism for regular coordination between the states to prevent the recurrence of violence.” They did not elaborate on the terms of such a mechanism.

As tensions continue to mount, more troops and tighter security are considered a short-term measure. The hope is that regular meetings between representatives from both sides of the border will help state, central and tribal leaders identify a middle-ground that could settle the long-running dispute.

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