India Border Clash Turns Deadly

Hari Kumar and 

Two Indian states have been arguing since the 1980s over where exactly the line falls on a 193-square-mile strip of land dividing them. On Monday, guns and hand grenades came out.

Gunfire and grenades exploded along a stretch of dense tropical forest in India’s northeast on Monday in a standoff involving hundreds of police and civilians over a long-disputed state border crossing.

At least five police officers from the state of Assam were killed and dozens of officers and civilians were injured in the melee, which took place in the small village of Vairengte in the Kolasib district of the far northeastern state of Mizoram.

Mizoram and Assam officials quickly blamed each other for the bloodshed.

The flare-up over the disputed territory was the first involving casualties in decades, experts said, and raised broader questions about India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P.

The clash occurred two days after Amit Shah, India’s powerful home minister, and a member of the party, held a meeting with state leaders meant to resolve the border dispute there and some elsewhere in India’s northeast.

Though Assam is led by the B.J.P. and Mizoram by a regional party in coalition with the B.J.P., the talks with Mr. Shah appeared not to defuse tensions, as the fighting Monday made all too clear.

Leaders of the Congress party, the main opposition to the B.J.P., pointed to the government’s failure to negotiate a peaceful solution as evidence of its ineffectiveness.

Even observers outside the political fray said two state police forces shooting at one another raised serious issues.

“This should have been sorted out much before by the home ministry, but somehow it has not happened — and this is the repercussion,” said Bhagat Oinam, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Boundary disputes between Mizoram and Assam are not new. The two sides have argued where exactly the line falls on a 193-square-mile strip of land since the 1980s, when Mizoram and three other Indian states were carved out of Assam, a sprawling state that borders Bhutan and Bangladesh.

The states were created in accords drawn with the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in an attempt to broker a solution to years of rebel insurgency by groups seeking independence from India.

Several of Assam’s borders with other states are also disputed.

The episode began Monday morning, when police officers from Assam state seized a newly constructed Mizoram police post, according to Mizoram officials. The Assam police said that the post was illegal because it fell within Assam’s borders, and that troops had taken it over in protest.

After the Assam police seized the Mizoram police post, officials from both sides tried to ease tensions.

But by Monday afternoon, hundreds of people, many Indigenous Mizo, from villages on the outskirts of the Singla Forest Reserve had joined the standoff, throwing stones and firing guns. At the same time, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of Assam, and Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram, traded barbs on social media, tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office and Mr. Shah.

“Assam police used cane charging and tear gas smoke,” Vanlalfaka Ralte, the Kolasib district police chief, said.

“Assam side started firing on the Mizoram side,” Mr. Ralte said, “Then my troops replied.”

The Assam police had a different account. They said after they seized the post, Mizo civilians attacked them.

Afterward, Assam police officials said, Mizoram police opened fire on Assam police and civilians using automatic weapons including light machine guns, which are used in military combat.

That account was repeated by Sushmita Dev, a member of the Congress party and a former member of Parliament from Assam.

“It is the civilians of Mizoram who came out of the forest with weapons like slings,” Ms. Dev said. “They created tensions. Behind civilians there were Mizoram police on standby. They say that this is public outrage about land.”

Whatever preceded the violence, the Assam police were said to have borne the brunt of it.

The episode left five of them dead and perhaps 50 injured, including a district-level officer from Assam’s Cachar district. On the Mizoram side, two police officers and seven local residents were injured, according to Mr. Ralte.

The Central Reserve Police Force, controlled by the Indian government in New Delhi, was deployed to the area, where an uneasy peace had been restored on Tuesday.

Last year, residents of Assam and Mizoram clashed twice in the space of a week over disputed territory, resulting in at least eight people injured and several homes and shops burned to the ground.

In one episode, a Mizoram betel nut plantation was set on fire. In another, people from Assam pelted the Mizoram police and residents with stones.

“In turn, Mizoram residents mobilized and went after them,” H. Lalthangliana, a Mizoram district-level official, told reporters.

The conflict began reheating earlier this month, when a crude bomb blasted a civilian shelter in Mizoram, according to Ms. Dev.

“Where is the law and order?” she asked. “Nobody is listening to anybody.”

Source: The New York Times