Interstate border disputes emerge, recur in India

16 Indian states contesting 10 territorial claims remain unresolved despite central government, court interventions

ANKARA (AA) – While India’s territorial issues with many of its neighbors, including Myanmar, Bhutan, China, Pakistan and Nepal, often draw global attention, the border disputes between various states within the country of late have also led to violent clashes.

Recently, the escalating tensions between two northeastern states – Assam and Mizoram – consumed the lives of six Assam police personnel. Several others were wounded in clashes between the police force of two states.

Witnesses reported that the armed policemen used firearms and provided a spectacle of a warlike situation on July 26.

Although guns have now fallen silent after the intervention of Home Minister Amit Shah, who spoke to chief ministers of the two states, the policemen have made bunkers and have fortified their positions.

“The two posts, barely 50 meters (164 feet) apart and separated by a nullah (stream) and it is Line of Control (LoC) like situation – police personnel eyeball to eyeball with automatic weapons pointing right at each other,” reported Praveen Jain and Ananya Bhardwaj, journalists associated with ThePrint online newspaper, who visited the area on Aug. 4.

At the time of independence in 1947, India consisted of 571 disjointed princely states and provinces directly governed by the British. The States Reorganization Commission (SRC) constituted in 1953 after nearly two years of study, merged them into 14 states and six union territories (UTs).

Currently, they have grown into 28 states and eight UTs, making a total of 36 entities.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Abdul Gafoor Noorani, a senior Indian constitutional expert, said the draftsmen of India’s constitution had erred grievously in ignoring the problem of interstate disputes, especially interstate boundaries.

“The constitution makes no provision for a swift and binding decision of such disputes. Article 262 is on the adjudication of disputes relating to waters of inter-state rivers or river valleys. There is no comparable provision on disputes on land,” he said.

Origin in British demarcation

Assam and Mizoram share 499-square-kilometer (193 square-mile) of land under dispute, which has origins when the British first demarcated the border of southern Assam’s Barak Valley and the Lushai Hills, which was also then a district of Assam.

A further demarcation was done in 1933 when some areas were handed over to Assam. Mizoram claims that the clan chiefs in their region were not consulted on the demarcation. They are also angry that this demarcation has deprived them of flatlands needed for cultivation and urban development.

There is a linguistic angle as well because Assam’s Barak Valley is overwhelmingly Bengali-speaking. It also saw an influx of Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh at the time of the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

Apart from the Assam-Mizoram border dispute, Indian states are locked in 10 similar territorial claims that have led to clashes in the past. Out of them, four disputes are in the northeastern part of the country.

The border dispute between Assam and Meghalaya also leads to frequent clashes between civil contractors, electricity companies, and telephone line operators. The dispute began when Meghalaya was carved out from Assam’s Khasi Hill district in 1972.

Assam and Nagaland are also at loggerheads over a village called Merapani. The Nagaland government has refused to accept the 1963 border with Assam. The dispute witnessed major flare ups in 1979 and 1985 when more than 100 people died along with scores of policemen. The area is surrounded by tea gardens.

The Supreme Court of India had appointed senior advocates Sriram Panchoo and Niranjan Bhat to mediate between the two states in August 2010. The mediators held meetings and submitted their reports, but it was not accepted by both Assam and Nagaland governments.

The state of Assam is locked in a dispute with Arunachal Pradesh as well. There is a suit pending in the apex court since 1980 on the issue.

Arunachal Pradesh argues that the plain area was transferred to Assam without the consent of its people. It claims that its rights were recognized by the British. The Assam government, however, argues that the boundary is constitutional and cannot be altered.

Disputes persist

According to Pushpita Das, research fellow and coordinator of the Internal Security Centre at India’s premier thinktank Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the interstate border disputes in the northeast of India have persisted for a long time.

“Several attempts at resolving these disputes have been unsuccessful indicating the collective failure of union and state governments. After every major incident, the government or the Supreme Court have appointed commissions, which recommended ways to resolve the issue. However, since these recommendations were not binding upon the states, one or the other state government rejected the reports if its claim was not favored,” she said.

Apart from the disputes in the northeast, the Ladakh region, which was carved out from Jammu and Kashmir two years ago has inherited a dispute with nearby Himachal Pradesh’s Lahul and Spiti districts. The long-pending dispute at Sarchu falls along the strategic Leh-Manali highway.

Situated at a height of 14,070 feet (4,289 meters) and a favorite place of trekkers, the Himachal Pradesh government in the past had objected to the Jammu and Kashmir government putting a police post at Sarchu.

Also, the nearby states of Punjab and Haryana fought bitterly in the 1980s over the control of the capital Chandigarh.

To calm tempers, the central government in 1986 had consented to hand over the city to Punjab. But Haryana refused to cooperate and demanded that it should first receive 54 Hindi-speaking villages from Punjab in exchange and a canal to bring Punjab river waters to Haryana farmlands.

Leading to skirmishes

On the eastern side, there is a territorial dispute between Odisha and West Bengal which often leads to a skirmish between people living at the border. A decade ago, Odisha and West Bengal were also at loggerheads over an island called Kanika Sands in the Bay of Bengal, with both governments laying claim to the island.

While the Shipping Ministry ruled in favor of Odisha in 2013 and extended the port limit of Paradip Port Trust (PPT) to cover Kanika Sands, West Bengal has refused to accept the verdict.

In southern India, the dispute between Maharashtra and Karnataka often takes political overtones. This is one of the high-profile legally challenging border disputes in the country. At the center of the dispute is whether Belgaum district should belong to Karnataka or Maharashtra.

Currently, in Karnataka, the Belgaum district has a large population of Marathi-speaking population. There have been multiple commissions on the issue and multiple court cases.

In 2006, Karnataka chose to hold its assembly for the first time outside Bangalore in Belgaum’s district headquarter of Belagavi to assert control. The latest clash between the Marathi people and Karnataka authorities was over the removal of a board saying “Maharashtra Rajya” (Maharashtra State) on July 29, 2014.

A dispute between Gujarat and Rajasthan in western India, which had remained dormant over the past 40 years, is also rearing its head once again. The dispute relates to Mangadh Hill, located on the border of the two states. Gujarat claims half of the hill, while Rajasthan claims the entire hill is theirs.

Locals believe that hundreds of tribal people were killed in the hills in 1911 while protesting against the British rule. Their relatives gather there every year in January to observe the day. Recently, when the Gujarat government started constructing a road to reach the hill, it was objected to by Rajasthan.

Institutional mechanisms ignored

Deep down in the south is also a dispute between Karnataka and Kerala states. In 1956, the Reorganization Committee had given the district of Kasaragod, comprising mainly of Kannada- speaking people, to Kerala.

In 1967, a committee headed by Justice Meher Chand Mahajan, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, had recommended that a part of the district be given to Karnataka. But there has been no action on the recommendation.

Noorani said that the States Reorganization Act, 1956, which established the new linguistic states, also set up an institutional mechanism to settle disputes. It had set five zonal councils, each comprising the chief and two other ministers of each of the constituent states, and a central minister as chairman.

“One finds both the center and the states ignoring the councils and resorting to ad hoc bodies or the party machinery as in Assam, which could not but affect the prestige of the zonal councils. The stark fact is that these infant institutions were never really given a chance,” he said.

Government’s stand

Responding to a question in parliament, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai said the central government consistently tried to resolve the interstate disputes with the cooperation of the states.

“The approach of the central government has consistently been that inter-state disputes can be resolved only with the cooperation of the states. The central government acts only as a facilitator for amicable settlement of the dispute in the spirit of mutual understanding,” Rai said.


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