On February 27, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, Mizoram’s most powerful student organisation, built a wooden rest house somewhere in the Inner Line Permit Reserved Forest, large parts of which run along the Assam-Mizoram border. The spartan structure was meant to serve as a resting place for farmers who worked in the many paddy fields in the area.

Later that evening, however, a joint team of the Assam police and the state’s Forest Department demolished the structure, contending that it was built on Assam’s territory and the construction amounted to encroachment.

It has led to an escalation of tensions in the area over the last few days, with Mizo activists and journalists accusing the Assam administration of high-handedness and use of excessive force. On March 10, videos of the violence started doing the rounds. They featured Emmy C Lawbi, a journalist with the Guwahati-based news channel, News18 Assam-North East, with injuries on her back and neck.

A border dispute

The three South Assam districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj share a 64.6 km-long border with Mizoram’s Kolasib, Mamit and Aizawl districts. Mizoram was part of Assam till 1972, when it became a separate Union Territory. In 1987, it became a full-fledged state.

While the two states have sparred over the border in the past, the stand-offs have been relatively non-violent and low-key compared to Assam’s skirmishes with its other neighbours – Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh – on the same matter.

But the construction and subsequent demolition of the rest house, built somewhere along the Hailakandi-Kolasib stretch of the border, may change that for the worse.

(Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Accusations of police brutality

The demolition of the structure by the Assam police was seen as a personal affront by the Mizo Zirlai Pawl’s central leadership in state capital Aizawl, which passed a resolution to rebuild it at the same spot. The date chosen was March 8. Anticipating trouble, a team of journalists from Aizawl arrived in the area that day. Among them was Zohmingmawia, a reporter with local daily Aizawl Post.

There was trouble, and soon. According to Zohmingmawia, as Mizo Zirlai Pawl activists unloaded food they had brought for the day from the bus that ferried them to the spot, Assam police officials turned aggressive. “One policeman blew a whistle and they suddenly charged at us,” he alleged. “We had press accreditation cards, so we thought they will at least spare us. But they beat us all over the place.”

Zohmingmawia said there had been no warning, and the assault was unprovoked. “There was no scuffle,” he said. “An Assam police officer said, ‘Run’, so I ran to save my life.”

The Mizo Zirlai Pawl retreated that day, but returned on Saturday, March 10, when things reportedly turned even uglier.

According to Lawbi, Assam police personnel attacked her that day. Recounting what she called a “horrible experience”, Lawbi said she reached the spot at around 11 am on Saturday. Lawbi said there were three other journalists along with her, all from Mizoram. “There was a scuffle of sorts, some pushing and jostling,” she recalled. “Then suddenly some police officer said, ‘Fire’, and they opened fire.”

Lawbi said that led to a commotion with people running helter-skelter, and Assam police officials started indiscriminately beating people with batons. “I kept saying I am a journalist and that I am here to cover the story, but they just would not listen, they kept beating us,” she said. “The Assam police really should take press freedom more seriously. They were more in number, they really didn’t need to use violence.”

At least 20 people were reportedly injured on Saturday.

Lawbi said she has injuries on her shoulder and back. She said: “I know it is part of my job, but after Thursday’s [March 8] incident, when we registered a complaint with the police, I thought they would at least not go after journalists again.”

The Assam police and Mizo Zirlai Pawl activists face-off. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Assam police history

The Assam police, however, contest these accusations. Hailakandi Superintendent of Police Mohneesh Mishra said his men “followed all legal process and exercised maximum restraint”. He dismissed the allegation that excessive force was used as “unnecessary propagandising”. “You can say a lie hundred times, but it doesn’t make it the truth,” he said. Mishra said that only rubber bullets were used to disperse the crowd. “We have full evidence,” he said.

Asked about the alleged assault on journalists, Mishra said “it was not [a] targeted lathicharge” and was only meant to “disperse the assembly”. “Assam police has full respect for everyone but not for hooligans,” said the officer.

This is not the first time the Assam police have been accused of being high-handed while dealing with crowds. In the last three years, there have been several incidents in which people have alleged that the Assam police have resorted to excessive force without provocation.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 16 people were killed in police firing in Assam in 2016, the most in any state after Haryana, which had seen widespread violence that year in the wake of the agitation by the Jat community for reservations in government jobs and higher education. In 2015, at least 12 civilians were killed in police firing or baton charges in Assam, the highest in India that year by a fair margin.

Mizoram’s fault, says Assam

Officers representing Assam insist that the blame for the current impasse lay solely with the Mizo Zirlai Pawl and the Mizoram administration. Hailakandi Deputy Commissioner Adil Khan said that the moment the dispute came to the surface, he called upon his counterpart in Mizoram’s Kolasib district to “solve it on the basis of documents and legitimate means”. “The government of Assam also wrote to the Mizoram government, requesting that the matter may be discussed in a proper forum that there should not be any such attempts at encroachment,” said the bureaucrat. “Still a lot of people came, we tried to stop them, but they were adamant, so they had to be sent back.”

Khan said he had imposed prohibitory orders – barring the assembly of more than four people – in the area on March 8 sensing there may be a “law and order problem”, and it was incumbent on the Kolasib administration to restrict people from assembling there. He said, “It was the responsibility of that district administration to make sure that prohibitory orders were complied with to avoid a law and order situation, but they failed.”

Khan claimed that the disputed land, according to Survey of India maps, belonged to Assam. His counterpart in Kolasib, R Zarzosanga, however, stated that “there is no agreement on the matter”.

Mizo Zirlai Pawl: building a house

Meanwhile, though the Mizoram state government has appealed to the Mizo Zirlai Pawl to abandon its plans to reconstruct the rest house, the group remains set on it. Its general secretary Lalnunmawia Pautu said it would reconstruct the building as the forest belonged to the Mizo people. “Since we were not a state till 1988 and we did not have a Forest Department, the Assam Forest Department was given control of it, but they never returned it.”

He added, “Our first chief minister, Ch Chhunga, his wife donated the plot of land to us and the owner has the right to construct.”

Mizo Zirlai Pawl activists with lumber to rebuild the shelter. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).