Five Assam police personnel fell to bullets on July 27 as a festering border dispute with neighbouring Mizoram took a bloody turn. Both states have contesting versions of the day’s events and accuse each other of opening fire first.

While the death of five policemen in an inter-state dispute is in itself egregious, the episode is astounding for a host of other reasons.

First, the Mizo National Front, the party which is in government in Mizoram, is part of the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power in both Assam and at the Centre.

Barely 48 hours before the hostilities, Union home minister Amit Shah had discussed the border dispute with the chief ministers of the two states in a meeting in Shillong. In the meeting, Shah reportedly advised the two chief ministers to solve the matter in the “spirit” of the North Eastern Democratic Alliance, a coalition of anti-Congress parties formed in the North East in 2016. The MNF is part of this coalition that the BJP spearheads, with Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as its convenor.

Significantly, it was Sarma, an ex-Congressman, who had played a key role in getting the regional parties to band together against his former party, a year after he had crossed over to the BJP.

First move by Assam police

While the circumstances of Monday’s bloody skirmish remain contested, the events leading up to it are fairly unambiguous. On Monday morning, a team of Assam police officials led by an Inspector General went to the disputed site. According to the Assam government, the idea was to “diffuse the situation and resolve matters”. The Mizos, for their part, insist it was an aggressive move wherein the Assam police “overran a duty post” manned by Mizo forces.

Either way, what is clear is that it was the Assam police that made the first move that day – reconciliatory or confrontational would be contingent on whom one asks. Retired police officials say given the gravity of the border situation – the Union home minister had personally intervened days ago – it is certain that the orders would have come directly from the chief minister’s office.

Belligerence by the chief minister

Notwithstanding the extraordinarily violent outcome, it was a perplexing move to make, observers say. After all, the two chief ministers had sat across the desk discussing the matter with the Union home minister himself as the interlocutor barely days back. “Solving a border dispute is a process,” said Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times. “Committees are being formed, maps have to be studied... Why do you escalate things, and it is clear Assam did that.”

Even leaders of the BJP seem to have been taken in by surprise. “We, too, are surprised since this could be seen as undermining the authority of Amit Shah ji,” said a senior leader of the party from the region.

Sarma has continued to employ a provocative stance in the aftermath of the tragedy. On Tuesday, he said Assam would not “spare even an inch of its land to Mizoram’’, announcing plans to “deploy three commando battalions in Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts bordering Mizoram to keep the border situation under control”.

Incidentally, it was not just the Assam-Mizoram border that saw action on Monday. The Meghalaya police has alleged the Assam police also tried to remove electricity poles at a disputed site along the two states’ border. This comes three days after Sarma and his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad Sangma met in Shillong to discuss the border dispute between the two states.

Big brother to bully?

What makes these seemingly confrontational gestures stranger is that Sarma only stands to lose clout in the region. His leverage among local parties in the smaller tribal-majority states in the North East played a key role in cementing his position and facilitating his sharp rise within the BJP.

But now, as the chief minister of Assam, Sarma’s approach in matters related to border disputes, a BJP politician from the state conceded, are being seen as high-handed by tribal politicians in the North East, even those whose parties are affiliated to the BJP. “Assam has a history of acting big brother, now it is being a bully too,” said the politician.

Indeed, this is not the first instance in the last few weeks that Sarma’s actions have made tribal politicians in the neighbouring states uncomfortable. Assam’s new cow protection bill introduced by Sarma, which prohibits interstate transport of cattle meant for slaughter not just to and from the state but also through it without proper certificates, has had many of them worried given Assam’s central location in the region.

Living up to many images

What explains these seemingly ungainly moves by a politician often branded as the North East’s “Chanakya”, after ancient India’s most wily political thinker?

Just like his colleagues, political commentators are also struggling to make sense of the recent events. But the larger consensus among observers of politics in the region seems to be that Sarma’s actions were geared towards strengthening his position in Assam.

“The public sentiment is against the Mizos, so for him it’s a pragmatic thing to do,” said Uddipan Dutta of the Gauhati University’s department of social science.

As political commentary has often underlined, Sarma has long-aspired to be the chief minister of Assam. Everything else was only a step towards it.

Mukhim had a somewhat similar thesis. “He thinks he is the undisputed leader of Assam – which means that he will get for Assam what is due to Assam in his interpretation.”

Then, there was also the image of being the most powerful politician in the North East to live up to, said the veteran journalist. “The chief ministers met with some hope that there was going to be some give and take,” she said. “But he is not even waiting for deliberations to take place.”

As a BJP leader from a tribal-majority state in the region put it, “Maybe it is nothing but just perverse ambition.”

Still, others said what transpired on Monday fit perfectly with the “masculine” image that the newly appointed chief minister has tried to project, granting the Assam police “full operational freedom” to take the “toughest of actions”, seen as a euphemism for extra-judicial encounters.

The Assam government “tried to find a police solution” to the border disputes, too, said Joydeep Biswas, a Silchar-based political commentator. “It has clearly backfired.”