The ongoing tension in Assam Mizoram relations following the unprecedented 26 th July armed clash between the two state police forces at Vairangte near Silchar has once again brought the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873 in the Centre of political discourse of the north east, because the Mizo claim is based on 1875 notification under this Regulation while Assam’s demand rests on the 1933 notification laying down the borders of Assam, Mizoram and Manipur. It may be recalled that ever since the agitation on the” foreign nationals issue” from the late 1970’s in Assam, Meghalaya and elsewhere in the region, the BEFR resurrected and viewed by the agitators as central to the permanent resolution of the foreigners issue.
The reported recommendation of the Centre appointed Committee in Feb 2020 to extend the Inner Line Permit system under the BEFR as a part of the measures to implement clause 6(c) of the 1985 Assam Accord to protect the distinct” social , cultural, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”, and also the decision of the Government of India to extend the ILP system to Manipur in January this year bear testimony of the importance of this law even today. Indeed BEFR is perceived as the answer to the ” foreigners” issue. However a close look at the circumstances which led the British to enact this law in1873 just a year before Assam was carved out of Bengal Presidency as a Chief Commissioner’s Province will show that the objects and reasons for making the Regulation were altogether different from what is being interpreted now, that is ” security and protection of identity of the tribal people “. This is clear from a reading of the bare Act of 1873 as its Preamble states that” that the Secretary of State for India had by a resolution in Council declared the provisions of Act 33 Chapter 3 Vict Sec 1 to be applicable to the districts of Kamrup,Darrang, Nowgong,Sibsagar, Lakhimpur,Garo hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Naga Hills and Cachar . This enabled the Lt. Governor of Bengal to propose the draft Regulation to the Governor General in Council for approval and upon receipt of the same the Regulation was promulgated in 1873 – before the aforementioned districts were carved out of Bengal to constitute the Chief Commissioner’s Province of Assam in 1874. This timing is significant as it implied that what was carved out was the Eastern frontier part of Bengal Presidency and the new Province was called Assam even when “Assam proper” comprising 5 plains Districts of Kamrup, Darrang,Nowgong, Sibsagar, and Lakhimpur Sibsagar was only a part of the composite province comprising three ” transferred districts” of Sylhet, Goalpara and Cachar from Bengal, unsettled Hill areas and Frontier tracts under tenuous control of the government.
What is most significant was the fact that the idea behind the Regulation was ” strategic” emanating from the Secretary of State for India who exercised the power of ” superintendence , direction and control” over the affairs of India and must have obtained the views of the Foreign office as it involved “Eastern Frontier” of Bengal Presidency – the British bridge head in india as historian Chris Bailey viewed it bordering Tibet, Bhutan and Burma. Bengal Presidency by then added Lower Burma and Tennaserim to its domain apart from the Ahom kingdom following the British victory in the Second Anglo Burmese war and 1826 Treaty of Yangdabo with the Burmese Monarch . The Presidency became too large and unwieldy. The success of Tea in Assam, Sylhet and Barak valley (Cachar) brought the British authority close to the hills inhabited by head hunting tribes whose contact with the Plains was limited to visiting markets mainly for buying salt. The hill tribes found the tea plantations easy and accessible targets.
This was only a part of the big picture of colonial economy’s relentless bid for expanding its ” extractive economy” founded on Tea plantations, mining, timber felling which was facilitated by a policy of expropriation of land in neighbouring countries whenever needed.
The inner line permit system under the BEFR 1873 which required every British subject to obtain a permit to enter into the areas notified and restrictions imposed on such persons was an instrument of this strategy. It was founded on a definition of Tribal areas of the ” Eastern Frontier of Bengal” as areas over which ” neither the Presidency of Bengal nor any government in the region had any effective control” which enabled the British to lay down an ” Outer line” – a shifting strategic frontier deep into the Himalayan and Patkai ranges that might change hands according to the strategic requirements. The “outer line” is not delineated as it might shift according to the situation along the border and could even be a bargaining point with neighbouring countries . In plain language it refers to the outer limits of the British power at any given time. The formation of Assam Rifles in 1832 which began as Cachar levy to counter the tribal raids on the tea plantations was a part of this policy. Thus the restrictions imposed on the British subjects in the plains such as the requirement of an ” Inner Line Permit” from the chief executive officer of the District were in tune with the strategic objective of keeping the Eastern frontier areas ” unencumbered” for use in the contested power game involving other powers like the French or the Dutch in South East Asia. Thus ” protection of tribal culture “etc could not have been a consideration because the population of Naga and Lushai Hills was meagre- only 1.02 lakhs and 82000 respectively even as per 1901 census.
It was really the security of tea plantations that drove the British to mount punitive expeditions in the hills inhabited by the Naga and Mizo tribes and later establishment of permanent Garrisons at Aizawl in 1888 in north Lushai hills. In Naga Hills it was the same story as the garrison at Samagutanng became the district HQ in 1866 and Wokha, a subdivision and later Kohima became district HQ in 1878. The South Lushai Hills District was formed in 1891 under the Chittagong Division of Bengal and placed under an Assistant Political officer. Demagiri, an area inhabited mainly by the Buddhist chakmas was added to it for administrative reasons. As Mizo district became a part of India the chance inclusion of Demagiri gave the Chakmas a territorial identity in India as it is now the HQ of the Regional council of Mizoram under the sixth schedule of the constitution. (It may be recalled that the Chittagong hill tracts – a district of Bengal was awarded to Pakistan even when close to 90% of the CHT population were Buddhists.)The preceding half a century saw only punitive expeditions to the hills some of which are a part of Mizo legend such as the 1871 attack by Lushais on Tea estate at Alexanderpur in Cachar, murder of its European Manager Mr. Winchester and attack on four other tea gardens which led Bengal Presidency to mount an expedition comprising two columns of the Army to the Lushai hills which laid the foundation of the British power in Lushai hills. Though sparsely populated Lushai hills which came to be known as Mizo Hills District later in Assam was a difficult area to administer as punitive expeditions had to be carried out frequently. The practice of shifting cultivation- slash and burn agriculture made the tribes shift their villages which led to inclusion of large forest areas disproportionate to the Mizo population, and the present Assam Mizoram boundary problem can be traced to the 1875 notification of border between Cachar district and Lushai hills of Bengal Presidency under the BEFR .Though it is difficult to reconstruct the grounds which led Bengal Presidency to fix the boundary providing forest land liberally for Jhum- slash and burn agriculture might have been a consideration to restrict the movement of the Mizos within the hills. Thus the claim of Mizoram that the boundary was determined in consultation with the Mizo chiefs cannot be altogether ignored because of three reasons: First, British created a Tribal Chiefs Council to assist the administrative authority and second, it recognised the hereditary chieftainship, laid down the areas under control of each chief for allotment of land for “jhum ” cultivation, and third, collection of revenue for use of land. This process which began in 1892 provided defacto recognition of the tribal right to this land and it must be noted also that Lushai Hills was transferred to Assam much later in 1898. Obviously the British authorities did not feel the need to go through any consultative process in1933 for notifying the boundaries at the trijunction of Assam Manipur and what is now Mizoram, then a district of Assam well before the grant of Provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act 1935.
There is thus little point in making it a ” border problem” as both Assam and Mizoram should appreciate that district/ provincial boundaries were laid down in the colonial period only to serve the interest of the colonial state in expanding its ” extractive economy”and use of north east as ” bridge head” to dominate Burma and even beyond. Mizo district was a part of this British game plan which was demolished by Japan during the Second World war.
In this situation the decision of the government of India to assign the task of examining the interstate border disputes in the whole of North East and especially the dispute between Assam and Mizoram from a broader strategic perspective to New Delhi based Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis to suggest a durable solution is most timely because these disputes are not just territorial but have implications for national security and our relations with neighbouring countries especially China. Hence the need for an early and lasting solution.
It’s time for Assam and Mizoram to settle this problem once for all in a spirit of give and take and work together to meet the bigger challenge, that is, to make the Act East policy work for economic integration of north east into the ASEAN economy by deft use also of “Bangladesh corridor” through trade and economic cooperation. Once completed the kaladan multi nodal transport project will position Mizoram as a vital part of the Act East initiative and it can ill afford an unstable border with Assam. Indeed territorial claim on the basis of spread of jhum cultivation has little relevance in Mizoram today with a population of 1.1 million, a service sector based economy and her prospect of emerging as the economic ” corridor” between the north east and the ASEAN.