Out of Court

Nagaland Industries Minister Khekiho Zhimomi, who also holds the Border Affairs portfolio, hit the target right on when he commented that any decision taken by a court of law in relation to the Assam-Nagaland border row would be detrimental to the interest of the people residing along the inter-State border. That the Minister did not see any positive outcome (arising out of a court settlement) and reiterating that Nagaland was seeking an amicable solution through mutual understanding therefore comes as no surprise. The logic behind this argument of Nagaland lends credence because to resolve the dispute one will have to look beyond a zero sum game formulation. It will be only fair to say that a court diktat would lead to a winner-loser situation and this will ultimately not allow the people on either side to live peacefully. The idea of a political settlement therefore has to be appreciated by both the State Governments including the NGOs and civil societies on both side of the border.

It is well known that whether it be Assam-Meghalaya, Assam-Arunachal Pradesh or the Assam-Nagaland border disputes the difficulty arises mostly out of claims and counter claims. The one point that deserves serious attention therefore is in the way boundaries in the Northeast had been drawn up keeping in mind more of the administrative convenience rather than the aspirations of those inhabiting the land (the cultural and historical realities). That Assam has border disputes with all of her Northeastern neighbors only goes to prove this point.

While the Central Government has made efforts from time to time to resolve the issue and a study conducted on the boundary dispute between Assam and Nagaland in 1976 by constituting the Shastri Commission, not much headway has been made because either one of the party involved refused to accept the findings. At the end of the day, therefore it is essentially for the concerned State Governments to resolve their differences through discussions and mutual accommodation. There is no reason why the Assam State government should not sit down for mediation and work for an alternative dispute resolution mechanism where rest assured nobody goes home a loser. 

Adding to the complication is the peace process between the Government of India and the NSCN (IM) as the latter has as its main demand the unification of contiguous Naga-inhabited areas which includes vast areas under Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. As such, the Centre will have to look at the broader issue and intervene. Rather than giving room to the judiciary to meddle in the boundary dispute, what is required is due political deliberation by the legislature, which is the proper forum to address the problem. At the end what needs to be understood is that the judiciary does not represent the mandate of the people. Parliament is the elected body and therefore it is its responsibility to resolve the boundary dispute. The government of India as such must now take a major political initiative to resolve the pending border issues among the States of the North Eastern Region. The judiciary should intervene only if any decision arrived at contravenes the letter and spirit of the constitution. 

While the question of inter-state boundary is no doubt the responsibility of the concerned State Governments, however since both Nagaland and Assam are not able to come to an agreement, the government of India can also consider the possibility of convening a Tripartite talks involving its representatives and the two contending states. The issue has to be resolved through a political mechanism and should not be left at the mercy of the legal system.