Protracted Manipur-Nagaland border disputes

Ngangom Junior Luwang *

Since childhood, I keep on hearing about protracted Manipur-Nagaland border disputes news reports, expert opinions, political sabre rattling some well-founded, some unfounded, many exaggerated and most politically colored. Tungjoy village, Kezhakeno village, Dzukuo valley etc. have been flash-points for decades, but a long-term solution seems to be eluding us.

History suggests that political or government interference, high level meetings between warring states, press releases etc. have limited effect of cooling down frayed tempers for temporary intervals or at best, maintaining status quo. The only seemingly permanent solution is appointment of Commissions but unfortunately, findings of such Government appointed Commissions are not binding on the states.

Such findings are only recommendatory in nature and usually political compulsions weigh more on Governments than the findings of such Commissions. Examples in hand are the Centre-appointed Sundaram Commission (1971) and the Shastri Commission (1985) for determining the Assam-Nagaland border. Assam accepted the Sundaram Commission Report but Nagaland did not and even the Shastri Commission (1985) too could not settle the dispute.

For reasons explained above, I am of the firm opinion that a Judgement of a competent Court of law will be the only permanent, binding and long term solution to the ongoing Manipur-Nagaland boundary disputes. A Judgment, determining the Constitutional Manipur-Nagaland boundary will certainly give good reasons for Governments to be bound by a legal position decreed by no less than the Supreme Court, irrespective of political ramifications.

When CNG was made mandatory for Delhi's 10,000 strong bus fleet in February, 2002, the then Delhi Government had no option but to go by the Court's order, even though Sheila Dikshit had huge political stakes. That being a Court order, Delhites seemingly understood the legal compulsions and Sheila Dikshit did storm back to power and remained till 2013.

To cut a long story short, Manipur or Nagaland can well very file an Original Suit under Article 131 of the Indian Constitution before the Supreme Court of India, inter alia, for determination of the Manipur-Nagaland Constitutional boundary. If Assam could file Original Suit No. 1/1989 against State of Arunachal Pradesh (State of Assam Vs. Union of India & Ors.) and Original Suit No.2/1988 against State of Nagaland (State of Assam Vs. Union of India & Ors.) before the Supreme Court of India to determine the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh Constitutional boundary and Assam-Nagaland Constitutional boundary respectively, I see no good reason for Manipur or Nagaland not to do so.

Disclaimer I was representing State of Assam in both the above Suits before the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court appointed Local Commission (presided by Justice Variava) during 2004 to 2010, but I wish to present an objective perspective without diluting the Client-Attorney confidentiality and without doing injustice to the facts involved.

Both the Suits are now in "evidence" stages and witnesses produced by the States are being examined in the Supreme Court

A Supreme Court proceeding being a legal proceeding, what is most important is what is going to be asked for. Is Manipur or Nagaland or both going to ask, inter alia, for directions to the Central Government for appointment of a Commission or for identification of the Constitutional Boundary between the two States by the Supreme Court itself?. As mentioned earlier, a government appointed Commission would be waste of time and will only prolong and politicize the pending issues and hence, the most appropriate step should be to ask for a Constitutional boundary identification by the Supreme Court itself. For non-lawyers, the First Schedule of the Indian Constitution defines each state and each Union Territory.

For example, Entry 16 of the First Schedule defines Nagaland as consisting of "territories specified in Sub-Section (1) of Section 3 of the State of Nagaland Act, 1962" and Entry 19 of the same Schedule defines Manipur as "territory which immediately before the commencement of this Constitution was being administered as if it were a Chief Commissioner's Province under the name of Manipur."

Presuming that either Manipur or Nagaland or both ask for a Constitutional boundary identification and demarcation, the next question is whether such a Constitution boundary has to be decided from pillar to pillar, post to post based
(i) only on the Indian Constitution and applicable laws or
(ii) whether historical facts would also be considered or
(iii) whether only historical facts would be taken into account. Being a Court of law, the Supreme Court is most likely not to agree to the third
(iii) possibility and hence, the option would be either of the first two [(i) or (ii)].

In Suit No.1/1989 and Suit No.2/1988, Assam is asking for a Constitutional boundary determined as per the Constitution and applicable laws, while Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh are insisting on boundaries determined as per the Constitution as well as historical facts.

Indeed, I do not find much difference between the official position of Government of Nagaland and that of NSCN (IM) on the issue of a bigger Nagaland. Should Manipur (Nagaland's position assumed to be the "historical" line) decide to initiate legal proceedings on the lines suggested above, it needs to be clear as to whether Manipur would be demanding a boundary based on only the Indian Constitution and applicable laws or a boundary determined as per the Indian Constitution, applicable laws as well as historical facts.

As regards Suit No.1/1988 and Suit No.2/1989, the Hon'ble Supreme Court is yet to decide whether the Assam-Nagaland border and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border are to be determined as per the Indian Constitution and applicable laws or based on relevant historical facts also (Constitution and applicable laws apart). This issue will be presumably decided during the final argument stage and/or adjudicated in the final Judgement passed.

I do not see any point waiting for an elusive solution to the vexed boundary dispute(s) through political dialogues, government appointed Commissions etc. It is time for Manipur and Nagaland to identify and demarcate their boundaries as per a Judgement passed by the Supreme Court and respect such a determination as binding and enforceable.

Though the Suits by Assam have been pending since 1988 and 1989, a similar action by either Manipur or Nagaland can be expected to take lesser time since a precedent has been already set by Assam's Suit No.1/1988 and Suit No.2/1989. It is time for Action, not Waiting!

* Ngangom Junior Luwang wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Senior Partner, Kochhar & Co
This article was posted on March 12 , 2018.

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