Kwatha Khunou village in Manipur feels betrayed as India cedes vast swathes of land to Myanmar in shoddy border survey

Kwatha Khunou is a hamlet along the Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur’s Tegnoupal district, 16 kilometres before reaching the border-trading town of Moreh. Living in the remote, border area would have been much difficult if it wasn’t for their neighbouring Myanmarese village, Kondong, just 5-minute bike ride away.

It is the nearest stop for their daily requirement. If they had to look elsewhere, it is the Namphalong border market, across the border, accessible within 15 minutes ride from Kondong. For going to Imphal, the state capital or even to Moreh, Kwatha Khunou villagers prefer to travel to Namphalong and then cross over to Moreh by foot and then take a bus or taxi to Imphal or anywhere else.

 Border post 81 between India and Myanmar in Manipur. Image courtesy Sunzu Bachaspatimayum

Border post 81 between India and Myanmar in Manipur. Image courtesy Sunzu Bachaspatimayum

While Kwatha Khunou shares friendly as well as matrimonial ties with Kondong, the villagers on both sides are possessive of their traditional boundaries and mutual respect prevail to make sure there is no encroachment on either side. An example of good neighbourly relations between the Indian and Myanmarese villages is how Kwatha shares water from Namjellok, a stream flowing within its boundary, with Kondong.

Kwatha Khonou fears all of these are about to change with India pursuing an appeasement policy toward Myanmar and allowing construction of border pillars much into Indian territories, totally disregarding age-old traditional boundaries.

Kwatha Khunou village headman, Manihar Meitei complained about the method of conducting border surveys and alignment by Survey of India. "Officials of Survey of India whenever they come for surveys they never consult us. Instead, they prefer to bring along Myanmarese military and do their work," said Manihar.

This methodology has prompted the villagers to question, "Why they never consult their own people who are in fact the real sentinel of the border?" To prove their point, villagers asked, "Won’t the authority come to us to inquire when, suppose, a border pillar is uprooted? So why aren’t we taken into confidence? Aren’t we on the same side?"

While they had been suppressing their resentment for long, recently they flagged a possible encroachment, causing a huge outcry in the state. Ironically, the Government of India, as well as the state government, has stated that there is no border dispute with Myanmar.

If not the rest of the country, this stand of the government has shocked the people of Manipur, particularly the villagers of Kwatha Khunou. They are beginning to doubt India’s willingness to guard its border and sees partiality in the way India deals with its border issues. In Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh or Sikkim, India is steadfastly protecting its territory but not in Manipur.

Manipur has witnessed encroachment on its borders by Myanmarese military personnel on several occasions with India on most occasions looking the other way. They did the same even when Myanmarese military marched into Indian territories and vandalised Indian villagers and even burnt down timber sawmills. The latest in Kwatha Khunou is most peculiar.

The district commissioner of Tegnoupal who was sent to the border village to sign an ‘all is well’ report, following construction of subsidiary border pillars consequential of a bilateral agreement signed between India and Myanmar to address border ambiguities in the Manipur sector as original border pillars stood at least 3 km apart from each other, made a U-turn and claimed an original border pillar, border pillar no. 81, which stood at Kwatha Khunou, was moved 3 km into Indian territory.

It was a shocker for the people of Manipur and called for rectification erupted throughout the state. Several civil bodies and opposition political parties accused the state government of remaining silent even as Manipur’s land was being given away in exchange for friendship.

Following media reports of the protest, the external affairs ministry through its spokesperson rejected the district commissioner’s claim and said the media reports on the issue were completely baseless and unsubstantiated. The official statement while confirming construction of subsidiary pillars said, "This sector of the international boundary is settled and there is no confusion as to its alignment."

Despite Government of India’s official statement, Kwatha Khunou villagers stuck to their version and said that the current position of border pillar no. 81 is encroaching into Indian territory. Manihar explained that a cluster of rocks served as a marker to remind villagers that one was nearing Myanmarese territory but never as the actual spot for the border pillar no. 81. The exact spot for the border pillar no. 81 is around 3 kilometres off from where it is installed now and this would amount to giving away 3 sq km of Indian territory to Myanmar.

While cordiality is undisturbed between Kwatha Khunou and Kondong even after construction of the subsidiary pillars, Kwatha Khunou fears border fencing will follow the subsidiary pillars and that would ultimately cause the loss of their paddy fields, land and homes. "An important shrine, the Namjellok stream, large tracts agricultural land will go to the other side if border fencing is carried out based on the new location of the BP no. 81," said Manihar.

The latest outcry, emitting from its border, is once again reminding the people of Manipur the bitter experience of 1953 when then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, without consulting them, gifted away about 11,000 sq km of Manipur’s land to Myanmar when its prime minister, U Nu, visited Delhi. Interestingly, the Kwatha Khunou is adjacent to Kabow valley that Nehru gave away to Myanmar in 1953.

The latest border controversy merits investigation and settlement to convince India’s seriousness about its borders in Manipur. Delay in confidence-building measures will further alienate the villagers of Kwatha Khunou who are now beginning to voice their desire to embrace the other side if their own refuse to take care of them.

India shares more than 1,008 miles of porous borders with Myanmar where a lot of cross-border activities take place, including illicit drug trafficking, arms and gold struggling and insurgency. It is a fact that Myanmar provides refuge to the proscribed armed outfits operating in the North East. Taking advantage of the porous border and a friendly Myanmarese military who will look the other way as long as they receive their ‘tax’, the armed outfits conduct their violent activities by crossing in and sipping out with considerable ease, causing security concerns on the Indian side. Indian initiative of checking these activities by border fencing have not succeeded as the fencing exercise that started in 2013 came to a halt following disputes between the two neighbours. The recent joint border survey and signing of the bilateral agreement that paved the way for the construction of the subsidiary pillars would possibly be an attempt to resume the border fencing exercise.

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Updated Date: Aug 23, 2018 12:55:16 IST

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