At the peak of it’s power, the British Empire covered more than a quarter of the world. To rule over the natives and extract their resources, the officers of the East India Company segregated the populations into different regions and effectively tookover the local trade. Overtime these imaginary lines were accepted as national and international boundaries. But when they drew the borders, they drew the conflict within it; with bloodshed. It is no coincidence that the major hotspots of terrorism in the world today are areas of colonial tinkering. One such case is the many forgotten partition of Northeast India, which sowed the seeds of the crisis we see after the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Partition of Bengal
The Bengal Boundary Commission Award made on the eve of transfer of power in India demarcating the boundary between India and East Pakistan in 1947 by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the barrister who headed the Commission, was the culmination of a long process of cartographic maneuvers by the colonial state in India. Political scientist and policy maker Sanjoy Hazarika sums up the situation well as he points out that, “what is not often understood is that the North-East suffered the impact of not one but two partitions.”
The first was the separation of Burma in 1937 which partitioned the Nagas, Mizos, Manipuris and the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh between two independent administrations, devastating kinship relations and trade connectivities, and the second was the partition of Bengal and Assam in 1947, culminating in the Radcliffe Line of 1947.
However, most scholars engaging with the Partition of India and working in India remain silent about the fact that this Partition was also the culmination of a process that began as early as the eighteenth century. In the context of Northeast India today, it is pertinent to mention that the coming of the English East India Company rule in the Brahmaputra valley as administrators in 1826 accelerated a series of cartographic maneuvers and map-making in the region, both in the hills and the plains.
In sharp contrast to the area being at the centre of connectivity between South Asia and Southeast Asia, the region was steadily transformed to acquire the shape of international borders in the twentieth century between India and Tibet, Burma and East Pakistan.
In the early 1820s, company officers visited the Naga Hills and that became an interesting precursor of expanding colonial interest over areas that would transform into a contested borderland. Since 1834, the Patkai range watershed came to be recognized by the British as the boundary for colonial control cutting across Naga inhabited areas. Such cartographic exercises were also rampant in the Manipur frontier as the defeat of the Burmese forces by the East India Company in the First Anglo-Burmese War brought about British colonial hegemony over Manipur.
Pradip Phanjoubam, one of the scholars from Manipur points out in his texts that, “in the Manipur sector the border was officially made in 1834. After ending Ava (Burmese) occupation of Manipur and Assam in 1826 at the end of the first Anglo-Burmese War and the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo, the Chindwin river was deemed the boundary of the British protectorate Manipur, putting the Kabaw valley under Manipur.”
“But in 1834, the British persuaded the Manipuri King that a new boundary should be negotiated and Captain R. Boileau Pemberton as Boundary Commissioner drew what came to be known as the Pemberton Line along the foot of the ‘Murring Hills’ on the western edge of the Kabaw valley.”
“In 1881, this boundary was realigned by the then British political agent in Manipur, Major James Johnstone. In 1896, another British political agent in Manipur, Colonel Maxwell put 38 boundary pillars along this boundary which then came to be known as the Pemberton-Johnstone-Maxwell line” that subsequently was ratified by India and Burma as international borders in 1967.
In Tripura, the colonial interests of revenue and resource appropriation combined with demands of law and order and succession conflicts to culminate in an elaborate process of boundary demarcation which “worked with contrasting dimensions.”
Therefore in 1782, “when the Rani of Tripura asked the Tippera Collector to assist her son’s succession, the Collector obliged, and in return, secured a new boundary at the base of the hills, inducing the Raja to move his capital to Agartala. The Raja kept private landholdings in Tippera District, but in 1782, his royal authority had officially retreated to mountains east of Comilla.” The East India Company was therefore now free to constitute the district of Tippera in 1790.
But subsequent disputes between the English East India Company and the Maharaja of Tripura over khas lands located in the bordering Parganna led the English Company Government to appoint Mr. Henry Rickett to demarcate the boundary between Tripura and Tippera in 1846, who ordered a couple of surveys in 1848.
But it was only by 1854 that the boundary between the state of Hill Tripura and the British district of Tippera came to be settled after survey by arbitrators Messers Leycester and Campbell. Brick boundary pillars were erected in 1866 which were maintained by the colonial government. This boundary was not only the district boundary but also the imperial frontier line of British India.
The process of boundary demarcation cutting across the Zo territories was concluded in 1901 as the colonial state drew a boundary between the Lushai hills and the Chin hills. This boundary has persisted and has since been legitimized as the boundary between the Mizo Hills District/ Mizoram and the Chin State of Myanmar. The process of boundary demarcations was not limited to the eastern borders of Northeast India alone.
In the north, the boundary between Tibet and India in the eastern Himalayas came to be formalized with an agreement signed between the representatives of the British and Tibetan representatives in July 1914, which came to be known as the McMahon Line, named after the man who negotiated the treaty on behalf of the British government. The result of this exercise was the drawing of an 850 mile line which ran from the northern edge of Bhutan to upper Burma and “reflected the colonial concerns for a militarily defensible boundary alignment”.
The partition of Bengal and Assam in 1947, culminating in the Radcliffe Line of 1947 divided not only the Hindus and Muslims of this region on religious and ethnic lines, it also divided the smaller ethnic communities like the Khasis, Garos, Hajongs, Rabhas, Karbis Koch-Rajbongshis, the Reangs and the Chakmas, to name a few. It is interesting to note that within a few days of partition of the subcontinent, boundary disputes arose between the Khasi States and the Sylhet district of East Pakistan.
Seeds of Conflict
A boundary that was demarcated as early as 1886 was converted into an international boundary by the departing colonial government. An interesting note from a colonial officer to the Advisor to the Governor of Assam on the 3rd of July, 1947, says that “the boundary of the Khasi States and Sylhet and Khasi States and Kamrup has never been demarcated. The notifications are in many cases vague quoting such boundaries as the foot of the hills, where the hills gradually merges into the plains, it is impossible to say where the foot is.”
— GreatGameIndia (@GreatGameIndia) December 11, 2019
These cartographic alignments though initially introduced to assist the needs of colonial exploitation continue to divide people and create disputed borders both internally and internationally, shaping the politics of this region and determining India’s relations with its immediate neighbours.
Excerpts from The Many Partitions And Their Legacies In Northeast India by Binayak Dutta published in Partition Studies Quarterly.
Read more about the untold story of India’s Partition in our book India in Cognitive Dissonance. GreatGameIndia is a journal on Geopolitics and International Relations. Send in your tips and submissions by filling out this form or write to us directly at the email provided.
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