In April, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, both ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, appeared to have come to the end of a fractious 50-year dispute.

As the two states signed a Memorandum of Understanding to resolve disputes along the roughly 800 km-long border they share, Union Home Minister Amit Shah hailed the pact as a “historic moment”.

In July last year, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said that the state was “committed to resolve the border disputes with four neighbouring states” to realise Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a “united North East”.

Less than two months later, violence has caught up with the “historic” agreement.

On June 5, two persons from Assam were killed and as many injured in the Panbari-Torajan area as unidentified people from the Arunachal side shot them.

The villagers from Assam were planting saplings on the occasion of World Environment Day in the area along the disputed Assam-Arunachal Pradesh boundary when “miscreants opened fire”.

Arunachal Pradesh says the firing occurred at Torajan village in the state’s Lower Siang district. But, according to Assam authorities, the site of the incident was Panbari in Upper Assam’s Dhemaji district.

Credit: Google Maps, edited via Canva. This map is not meant to indicate any defined or agreed upon state boundaries and is only to point to the approximate location of the shooting incident and the disputed areas.

Hasty solution?

For years now, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have fought over state boundaries and the latest site of the violence is one such disputed territory.

Arunachal Pradesh was once called the North East Frontier Agency, a sparsely populated area of undivided Assam. It became a state in 1987 but its boundary dispute with Assam goes back to 1972, when it was made a Union Territory.

The disputes arose when Arunachal Pradesh refused to accept the definition of borders recommended by a 1951 committee headed by Gopinath Bordoloi, who was the Assam chief minister then.

It argued that 3,648 square kilometres were unilaterally transferred to the plain districts of Assam “after the recommendation of the Bordoloi committee”, but that this was not “done with the consent of its people”.

Arunachal Pradesh is not the only state with which Assam has border disputes. Its other neighbours – Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, all largely tribal states that were once part of the undivided state of Assam – contest parts of the inter-state borders.

One of the reasons for disputes is state borders differ from the local perception of traditional boundaries.

Since he became chief minister in 2021, Himanta Biswa Sarma has taken the lead in resolving border disputes with its neighboring states.

But, despite claims of “historic” resolutions, the results have been far from ideal.

The June 5 shooting incident is the third violent clash on Assam’s borders since Sarma became the chief minister. In 2021, five Assam Police personnel and a civilian were killed in a violent clash after months of simmering tension between Assam and Mizoram over the boundary issue.

Last November, six people had died after the Assam Police opened fire during a clash with civilians on the Assam-Meghalaya border. “Hasty solutions do not give dividends,” a former Assam director general of police told Scroll.

The dead

The June 5 shooting incident was triggered by the planting of trees by some villagers from the Assam side in the disputed border area. Villagers from the Arunachal side objected to the plantation drive, leading to the altercation and firing.

Sanjib Hajong, president of the All Assam Hajong Students’ Union, who is from Dhemaji, said that on June 5, which is World Environment Day, 10-15 people from the Panbari area had gone to plant the trees at the disputed area. Residents of Assam believe that the area is part of the state’s territory that has been encroached upon by Arunachal Pradesh residents.

“When they were planting the trees, the people from the Adi community, carrying guns, came in vehicles and opened fire at the villagers,” Hajong said. The Adi community is an indigenous group native to Arunachal Pradesh.

The two dead were identified as Boga Chutiya, a resident of the Borbila Chutiakari village, and Monitu Gogoi of Milanpur village. Five people were arrested the next day, on June 6, in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Siang district.

Hajong said that tensions over the border between residents of Assam and the Adi community had been simmering for years but altercations and skirmishes have intensified in the past three to four years.

A senior official of Assam’s Dhemaji district, who wanted to remain unidentified, told Scroll that the administration was unaware of the plantation drive in the disputed area.

“The regional committee was also not informed about the drive,” said the official, referring to the committees set up under the memorandum of understanding to deal with disputed areas. “The MoU has been signed to resolve this dispute but the boundary demarcation has not been done yet.”

Dhemaji district collector Ankur Bharali hands over ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of the victims. Credit: @ranojpeguassam/Twitter.

The dispute and the agreement

The dispute between the two North Eastern states involves 123 villages, spread across 12 districts of Arunachal Pradesh and eight districts of Assam.

Last year, both states signed the Namsai Declaration agreeing to bring down the number of disputed villages from 123 to 86. The states also resolved to mediate the boundary row by forming 12 committees, each headed by a cabinet minister, that will visit disputed areas, take feedback from residents and submit reports to their respective governments. This process has been completed and the suggestions made by these committees have been accepted by the two states in the memorandum of understanding.

According to the memorandum of understanding, the two states have also resolved disputes over 71 villages. Of these villages, one village from Arunachal Pradesh will be included in Assam. Ten villages will continue to be in Assam and 60 villages from Assam will be included in Arunachal Pradesh.

For 49 of 123 villages, the boundaries will be finalised by the regional committees in the next six months. According to the memorandum signed between both states, Panbari-Torajan area is one such disputed terrain.

“This is an old disputed area which is claimed by both Arunachal Pradesh and Assam,” said Gyanendra Dev Tripathi, Assam’s principal secretary to the Border Protection and Development Department.

“It is in the process of being settled within six months’ time,” said Tripathi, which means the dispute could be resolved by October since the memorandum was signed in April.

According to the memorandum of understanding, the boundaries have to be decided by the two regional committees, he said. “Efforts from both sides are on to demarcate the boundaries.”

Different versions

Reacting to the deaths, Assam Chief Minister Sarma had said that the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh has not yet been demarcated properly in many areas in Dhemaji.

“Usually, the neighbouring state does not attack us,” he said. “But some people of neighbouring states get involved in such activities on account of their greed to occupy land.” Sarma said there will be a police investigation following which “appropriate action” will be taken.

Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu, however, denied that the shooting was related to the border issue between the two states. Khandu said the conflict occurred because of a land dispute between two people.

“The border issue in 123 villages, as per the local commission report, by and large has been resolved,” said Khandu. “Only demarcation has to be done in some pockets.” Officials from Arunachal Pradesh also contested Assam’s version.

According to Lower Siang deputy commissioner, Marto Riba, the matter has been settled as per the memorandum and the area where the shooting took place is part of Arunachal Pradesh as of now.

Riba said that according to the memorandum, Torajan Adi village will be included in Arunachal Pradesh with an additional 209 bighas (28 ha) agricultural land.

“The central government has already instructed the Survey of India to conduct the survey for the settled villages,” said Riba. “[The] Survey of India will visit the area and draw the final line as per the acceptance lines signed by villagers from both sides.” Riba said the villagers had agreed to the acceptance lines, which are like borders.

Riba alleged that there are some groups with vested interests that have escalated the situation. “As per preliminary reports, the border-related tension was created by a group of people who are not from the border villages,” said Riba. “These are from a third party who is not interested in resolving the issue.” It was not clear who Riba was referring to.

Protest in Assam

In Dhemaji district, roads leading to Arunachal Pradesh were blocked after the shooting. On the day of the killings, the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, an influential youth group, protested in Dhemaji district. The protestors burnt an effigy of Khandu.

In Assam, the Opposition criticised the BJP-led government for not protecting the residents in the state’s border areas. Assam Congress chief Bhupen Kumar Bora compared the volatile interstate border to the India-Pakistan border and claimed that Assam’s relationship with every neighbouring state had “worsened”.

“The situation had never come to this level…” said Bora. “If the border issue is resolved, then the boundary has been decided and if our people planted the trees inside our territory, how come they came to shoot us?”

Raijor Dal President and legislator Akhil Gogoi said Sarma had declared that the Assam-Arunachal boundary dispute had ended, but there was no peace even after giving away Assam’s land.