Border Fencing: A Pandora’s Box & Bitter Pill

By- Nirendra Dev

Border Fencing: A Pandora’s Box & Bitter Pill

Love your neighbour as yourself but do not take down the fence, goes the saying. Protecting India’s border in the North East specially in Myanmar is one such tough huddle. It becomes nightmarish when we get to also understand that governance itself throws up certain inherent and paradoxical situations.

On January 20, 2024, during his visit to Shillong and Guwahati, India’s powerful Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the borders with Myanmar will be put on high alert by effective foolproof sealing. Subsequently in February, he announced scrapping of the Free Movement Regime (FMR).

A pact inked in 1950 allowed ‘free movement’ between people of Myanmar and Nagas and Mizos in India because the people in both sides share ethnic bonds. The system underwent several changes over the years, and in 2004, India decided to limit free movement to just 16 kilometers. It came to be called the FMR. In 2018, the two countries signed an Agreement on Land Border Crossing to “facilitate regulation and harmonization” of already existing free movement rights for people ordinarily residing in the border areas of both countries. 

But after Shah’s announcements, these efforts seem to have come to naught. Its impact will be on common people in the four North Eastern states- Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. For instance, Longwa village of Nagaland shares a 215-kilometer border with Myanmar’s Sagaing Region. The village falling under Mon district has an estimated population of 7,500 people who have virtually enjoyed “dual citizenship” all these years. Now, it stands threatened. Standing at the gate of his house in Longwa village; Phawang told this magazine:”

As you can see by yourselves, my right hand is in Myanmar and the left in India. Now the government of India’s decision to put on border fencing will divide my house. It will even divide my kitchen”. He is not in isolation. Scores of others including women and youth share his pessimism. Naga inhabitants say even their agricultural land is in the Myanmar area where they go during farming. “All these issues ought to be discussed and understood well,” says the Village chief traditionally called Gaon Burrah (GB) of Longwa, Wangnei Konyak.

Officials say the FMR stands scrapped from the Indian side, and the Myanmar administration has not done anything such. That effectively means, an Indian citizen can go across the border but cannot come. Officials also say the salutary impact will be an immense shortfall in supply of arms, drug peddling and smuggling of some essentials besides movement of armed cadres. “If demonetisation in 2016 broke the backbone of insurgency in the North East; this step is likely to put the menace of armed movements into hospital,” a senior security official told his journalist in Kohima.

While chief ministers of two provinces Nagaland - Neiphiu Rio and Mizoram - Laldudoma are opposing fencing, two BJP chief Ministers N Biren Singh of Manipur and Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh are keenly supporting the fencing. In fact, the Manipur Chief minister, Biren Singh is said to have proposed the move for fencing which the union government in Delhi readily agreed. Manipur witnessed large scale violent clashes between Hindu Meities and Chritistian Kukis and Zo tribes. The violence though under control, is still continuing. The Kukis, the Zos and smaller communities such as Pateis share ethnic bonds with the Mizo people in Mizoram.

In 2023, governance suffered in Manipur and there were violent clashes. “Infiltration on a huge scale has impacted Manipur. You are coming as a journalist from Delhi and may not see things on ground. But Manipur 2023 was also a lesson strategically. Border Fencing may not be the best way... but as of now it is a Pragmatic way,” says the official. According to an announcement made by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the central government will establish a fence along India’s 1624 km that runs through the four states. The plan “to fence the India- Myanmar border” and scrap the Free Movement Regime (FMR) was made public by Amit Shah.

The fact that Shah is a close confidante of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, gives the impression that the centre will go ‘full steam’ to implement and enforce the border fencing. Of course, border fencing between Assam and Tripura in India and Bangladesh has been very successful. But Nagaland or Mizoram are always separate provinces with tough terrains with hills, sand beds and rivers and hence scepticism on fencing haunts people. 

Can it be successful? Doubts persist. “The decision to do away with the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and erect border fencing is not only impractical and dehumanizing to the communities living on both sides of the border but, such an approach may only diminish the prospects for peace and wellbeing in the restive region,” the leaders of various indigenous people’s organisations in the north east stated in a letter sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs said the FMR was scrapped to ensure the internal security of the country and to maintain the “demographic structure” in the northeastern states. At the height of the ethnic violence in Manipur last year, Shah blamed the influx of Kukis and other Myanmar citizens from Myanmar. This was creating “insecurity among the Meiteis,” the Home Minister told parliament on Aug 9, 2023. New Delhi is concerned that the problem might just grow bigger. The Nagas have been demanding a “Greater Nagalim,” a homeland for Naga people spread across contiguous Naga areas, both in India and Myanmar. Similarly, a demand for “Greater Mizo land” was raised by Mizo leaders in the 1980s.

Manipur, which is ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has 41.39 percent Hindus while Christians, mostly tribal people, are 41.29 percent, according to the 2011 census. Tribal Christians form a majority in Mizoram and Nagaland, while they are in sizable numbers in Arunachal Pradesh. Their shared faith, ethnic and kinship ties, especially with the people from Myanmar’s Chin state, prompt the tribal Christians to welcome refugees with open arms.

Mizoram state alone has some 30,000 Myanmar refugees sheltered in camps with the state government allocating funds for them in open defiance of the federal government’s ban. Similarly, around 6,000 refugees from Myanmar have taken shelter in Manipur state, authorities confirmed in December 2023.

Coup of 2021 was real trigger

The Union budget has once again dashed expectations of a “green bonus” for the Himalayan states for their significant ecological contribution to the nation. But the interim budget presented by the finance minister outlined a series of measures aimed at achieving net zero emission by 2070. However, it lacked specific provisions for conservation efforts in the Himalaya region.

Green Bonus is a concept that recognizes and rewards the states or regions that have made significant contributions to the preservation and conservation of the environment. It is given ass later, little progress has been made.

“The central government seems to underestimate the vulnerability of mountainous areas, particularly the Himalayas, and coastal regions to climate change. The mountain urgently requires extensive reforestation initiates, as well as the restoration of mountain springs and streams that sustain larger rivers. These are critical issues that demand attention across the Himalayan region. If we neglect them, it will result in environmental degradation, hardships for local communities, and forced migration,” said environmentalist Ravi Chopra.

Anoop Nautiyal, founder of the Social Development for Communities (SDC) Foundation, said “Advocacy for the green bonus and addressing the development disparities among states requires clear articulation and evidence-based arguments. It is imperative for the preservation of the Himalayas. “The foundation recently hosted Uttarakhand’s first “Climate Change and Health Talks and RoundTable Dialogues.”

Source: Himalayan News Chronicle