The incident comes ahead of the second phase of talks scheduled for this month-end between the two states to resolve their boundary dispute, and there are concerns its shadow will loom large over the negotiations.
What exactly is the incident, and what is the border dispute between Assam and Meghalaya? How is it likely to impact the upcoming talks? We explain.
What happened Tuesday
Six people, including an Assam Forest Guard, were killed and several others injured during an alleged clash between the Assam Police and a mob, around 3 am Tuesday in an area bordering the West Karbi Anglong district of Assam and Mukroh village in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills. The Assam Police has claimed they opened fire in self defence after a mob surrounded them when they were trying to intercept a truck allegedly smuggling timber.
Five of those killed are from Meghalaya. The incident drew a sharp reaction from Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, who termed the Assam Police’s actions “inhuman” and said the state will set up a judicial commission and a Special Investigation Team to probe the shooting until a central agency takes over.
On its part, Assam has announced a one-man inquiry commission under a retired High Court judge. The West Karbi Anglong Superintendent of Police has been “transferred”, and the Jirikinding police station officer-in-charge and Forest Protection Officer of Kheroni Forest Range have been suspended.
While Sangma in a press briefing condemned the Assam Police and forest guards for “entering Meghalaya” and resorting to “unprovoked firing”, Assam, in a statement announcing the setting up of the inquiry commission, said the incident took place in the West Karbi Anglong district, which is in Assam.
What is the border dispute?
Assam and Meghalaya have a longstanding dispute in 12 stretches of their 884-km shared border. The two states had signed a pact in March resolving the dispute in six out of 12 areas. In August, they decided to form regional committees. The second round of discussions for the remaining six phases was to commence by the end of this month..
The Assam-Meghalaya pact was seen as a major achievement, as Assam’s border disputes with other states in the Northeast have remained unresolved despite multiple rounds of talks. Now, the firing threatens to derail the upcoming talks.
During the British rule, undivided Assam included present-day Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Meghalaya was carved out in 1972, its boundaries demarcated as per the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act of 1969, but has held a different interpretation of the border since.
In 2011, the Meghalaya government had identified 12 areas of difference with Assam, spread over approximately 2,700 sq km.
As reported earlier by The Indian Express, some of these disputes stem from recommendations made by a 1951 committee headed by then Assam chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi.
For example, a 2008 research paper from the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses refers to the Bordoloi Committee’s recommendation that Blocks I and II of Jaintia Hills (Meghalaya) be transferred to the Mikir Hill (Karbi Anglong) district of Assam, besides some areas from Meghalaya’s Garo Hills to Goalpara district of Assam. The 1969 Act is based on these recommendations, which Meghalaya rejects, claiming these areas originally belong to the Khasi–Jaintia Hills. On the other hand, Assam says Meghalaya does not have the requisite documents to prove these areas historically belonged to Meghalaya.
A number of attempts had been made in the past to resolve the boundary dispute. In 1985, under then Assam chief minister Hiteswar Saikia and Meghalaya chief minister Captain W A Sangma, an official committee was constituted under the former Chief Justice of India Y V Chandrachud. However, a solution was not found.
From July 2021, Sangma and his Assam counterpart, Himanta Biswa Sarma, held several round of talks to make some headway.
Both state governments identified six out of 12 disputed areas for resolution in the first phase: three areas contested between West Khasi Hills district in Meghalaya and Kamrup in Assam, two between RiBhoi in Meghalaya and Kamrup-Metro, and one between East Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya and Cachar in Assam.
After a series of meetings and visits by teams to the disputed areas, both sides submitted reports based on five mutually agreed principles: historical perspective, ethnicity of local population, contiguity with boundary, peoples’ will and administrative convenience.
A final set of recommendations were made jointly: out of 36.79 sq km of disputed area taken up for settlement in the first phase, Assam would get full control of 18.46 sq km and Meghalaya of 18.33 sq km. In March, an MoU was signed based on these recommendations.
Officials had then said the six areas taken up did not have major differences and were easier to resolve, which is why they were picked in the first phase. “The remaining six areas are more complex and may take longer to resolve,” an Assam government official had said.