image sourceDally Ezrela image captionThe border clashes left seven people dead and more than 60 injured

Violent border clashes between India's north-eastern states of Assam and Mizoram last week left several dead and many more injured. Subir Bhaumik travelled to the region to find out how a long-running border dispute was affecting the lives of locals.

The highway connecting Mizoram, a hilly state of 1.3 million people, to the rest of India is unusually quiet these days.

Wedged between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Mizoram is linked to the Indian mainland through neighbouring Assam.

Tensions with Assam escalated on 26 July after clashes erupted between police on either side of a contentious border point. The two sides fired at each other, leaving seven dead and 60 people injured. Six of those killed were policemen from Assam.

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Mizoram officials alleged that 200 policemen from Assam, led by a senior officer, overran one of their police outposts at the border town of Vairengte. The evicted policemen, barely 20 of them, were joined by reinforcements, according to locals – and they retaliated after taking position in the hills overlooking the camp.

Local Mizos also burnt down buses that had carried the Assam policemen to the border and clashed with villagers from Assam backing up their force.

"For a while, it was like a war between two countries," said Pu Gilbert, a villager in Vairengte.

The regional Mizo National Front (MNF) rules Mizoram and is part of Northeast Democratic Alliance led by India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party. Neighbouring Assam is also ruled by a BJP government. But that didn't prevent leaders on both sides from accusing each other of provoking the violence.

The two states have filed murder cases against senior officials on the other side. Assam even advised locals against travelling to Mizoram.

image sourceDally Ezrela image captionMizo villagers attacked buses carrying policemen from Assam

"I have to defend my territory and people. I cannot take their aggression lying down. We have a right to self defence," said H Laltlangliana, a senior official of Vairengte.

Mizoram said it is now facing an "economic blockade" with Assam preventing vehicles to travel to Mizoram.

Mizoram depends on supplies from Assam, a much bigger state that is home to some 30 million people. Battling a raging Covid-19 pandemic, the state said it's also running out of medicines, oxygen cylinders and testing kits.

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"Assam police is stopping trucks bound for Mizoram, and their villagers have uprooted the only rail link to the state," Mizoram Health Minister Robert Lalthangliana said.

"Even two armies fighting a war allow medical supplies and injured people to go through battle lines. This blockade by Assam is inhuman."

Assam has denied any such blockade. A senior official, who preferred to remain unnamed, told the BBC that truckers are not carrying supplies as they were worried about the violence on the border.

image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionAssam shares a 165 km-long border with Mizoram

Under colonial rule, Lushai Hills, as Mizoram was then known, was part of Assam. It was carved out as a centrally administered territory in 1972 and later upgraded to a full-fledged state following an agreement between Delhi and the separatist MNF, which waged a 20-year-long guerrilla campaign against India.

Assam and Mizoram share a 165km-long border.

At the root of the dispute is a 1,318 sq km ( 509 square miles) area of hills and forests that Mizoram claims as its own. This is on the basis of a 1875 British law. But Assam insists this area is part of its "constitutional boundary".

Since June this year, Mizo villagers living in this disputed area have complained that Assam police, backed by hundreds of villagers, are moving forward to push them out.

Lalthanpuii, a Mizo villager, said she left behind her entire crop of areca nuts after Assam police and villagers stormed her settlement on 10 July.

"They attacked our village, and pushed us out. They took away our areca nuts. Later they drained the water in our ponds and took away all our fish," Ms Lathanpuii said.

A small river flowing through the area separates the police camps of Mizoram and Assam, with federal forces deployed between them to maintain peace.

image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionMizoram was carved out of Assam in 1972

A local palm oil processing project is in doldrums because Mizo farmers are pulling back from the plantation amid spiralling border tensions.

In the neighbouring mountains on I-Tlang, Mizo farmers complain that Assam police have been destroying their crops from early June.

Assam has similar border disputes with Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, all of which were also carved out of Assam for fulfilling ethnic tribal aspirations. A firefight between Assam and Nagaland police at Merapani, a town in Nagaland, in 1985 left 41 people, including Assam policemen, dead.

A panel in Mizoram backed by all political parties has asked Delhi to institute a commission to demarcate the border to the satisfaction of both states.

"But the history of such initiatives in India's northeast has not been encouraging," Mizoram home minister Pu Lalchamliana said.

"Only a spirit of give and take can help resolve this issue."

Subir Bhaumik is an independent journalist and author based in Kolkata.

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