Tensions along the Assam-Mizoram, brewing for weeks, have come to a boil after a resident of Assam allegedly died in the custody of the Mizoram police sometime after Sunday evening. On Monday, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal dashed off a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah about the “abduction by miscreants” and subsequent death of Intazul Laskar, who lived in a town along the Assam-Mizoram border in Cachar district.

The Mizoram police claim Laskar was a “drug peddler” who was apprehended by members of the Young Mizo Association, a powerful pressure group from the state. “When he was caught, he tried running and unfortunately fell into a gorge,” said Vanlalfaka Ralte, the police chief of Kolasib, where the incident allegedly took place. “He was handed over to the excise and narcotics department, who took him to the hospital, where he died the next day.”

Ralte’s counterpart from across the border, Cachar police superintendent Bhanwar Lal Meena, said Laskar was “innocent”. “He had no such record of drug dealing,” said Meena. “His medical report suggests that he was beaten up. We are investigating what exactly happened.”

On Tuesday, the Assam government said it wanted the National Investigation Agency to probe Laskar’s death.

A long running border dispute

The alleged “abduction” that led to Laskar’s death follows almost a month of simmering tensions over a long-running border dispute between the two states.

Mizoram was carved out of Assam in 1972, when it became a separate Union Territory. In 1987, it became a full-fledged state. The three South Assam districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj share a 164.6 kilometre-long border with Mizoram’s Kolasib, Mamit and Aizawl districts.

At several points, the boundary between the two states is contested. Assam and Mizoram have often sparred over it, sometimes violently. Several rounds of dialogue, at various levels, since 1994 have failed to resolve the disagreement.

Border dispute and ethnic tensions

Frictions between the two states returned in the first week of October when the Assam government carried out an “eviction drive” along a contested part of the border, running between Assam’s Karimganj district and Mizoram’s Mamit district. A farm house and crops were reportedly burned down.

The Mizoram government responded by deploying forces in what Assam claims is its territory. The Mizos, for their part, insisted that they were only “defending their land”.

Even as things seemed to be cooling down on that stretch of the border, violent clashes erupted in another disputed area, this time further east at the Cachar-Kolasib section of the boundary, on October 17.

Both sides blame the other for the violence, which left several people injured. By then, the border dispute had also assumed an ethnic tinge: Mizo civil society groups alleged that those behind the violence from Assam were, in fact, “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh trying to take over Mizo land.

A blockade and a blast

While the violence subsided soon, a new problem emerged. Trucks ferrying essential supplies to Mizoram were allegedly not allowed to pass by Assam residents blocking highways connecting the two states starting October 18. Mizo groups reportedly responded by organising their own blockade, preventing truckers from going to Assam.

A senior ministry of home affairs official rushed to the area and felicitated talks between the two states. A breakthrough was said to have been achieved and the trucks started plying again after four days of blockade on October 22.

But hours later, peace was again shattered. A Bengali-medium school, situated in disputed territory, was bombed in the dead of the night on October 22. The Assam police have said they suspected it was the handiwork of Mizoram residents trying to “terrorise local residents”.

The Mizoram police said they were still investigating the matter. “No arrests have taken place so far,” said Ralte.

Hardening stances

On October 29, after a week of relative calm, trucks moving from Assam to Mizoram were stalled again, reportedly because the latter refused to withdraw its forces from what was considered disputed territory.

While the Mizoram government claimed that Cachar residents were preventing truckers from going to Mizoram, Assam officials said the truckers had taken a voluntary decision. “The truckers are mostly locals from Assam and they don’t want to go to Mizoram because they are scared and they fear they will be attacked,” said Meena.

Whatever the case, the main highway to Mizoram has remained cut off for over a week now, forcing the state to get fuel and cooking gas via Manipur, through a longer and more circuitous route.

An immediate resolution remains unlikely, with Assam sticking to its stand on the border row. “Assam will not budge an inch of its territory. We know our borders and we will not give up our constitutional boundary,” the state’s chief secretary, Jishnu Baruah, told reporters on Tuesday.