Land of perpetual discord
On 23 July, a murderous mob attacked Bangaldoba Part II, a village of Bodo tribals, reducing it to charred rubble.
About 50 kms away in neighbouring Chirang district, about 3,000 people from three villages have taken sanctuary in a madrasa in Chatipur village. They fled on 25 July, when about 100 men with automatic firearms attacked their villages, Chatipur, Bortola Part I and Bortola Part II.
Kokrajhar and Chirang are part of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts [BTAD], an autonomous area for the Bodo tribals created in western Assam under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The region is a tinderbox that needs only a spark to implode. The past two decades have seen at least four bloody and violent confrontations between the Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslims, considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
This time, the riot which erupted in mid-July, had claimed 65 lives and displaced at least 4,00,000 people.
The genesis of the violence in ethnically-sensitive western Assam, BTAD in particular, lies in a series of historical blunders, right from the colonial period to bad policy decisions in recent times, favouring a particular community.
In the 19th and early 20th century, policies of the British administration on land utilisation and settlement of people brought from outside Assam to work in tea plantations and farmlands led to massive demographic changes in the region. But more recently, social scientists point out, giving territorial autonomy to the minority Bodo community with scant regard for the majority, which includes Muslims, Adivasis, Koch Rajbongshis and Assamese, seems to have been the main reason for the violent discords that erupt time and again.
Since the 1960s, there has been a demand for a separate state of Bodoland after regulations failed to protect the Bodo from land alienation.
The demand for a separate state gained wide currency only in the late 1980s, when the All Bodo Students Union [ABSU] took up the issue and paralysed western Assam for almost half a decade. ‘Divide Assam 50-50,’ was their slogan.
In 1993, the protests led to a bipartite agreement between ABSU and the Assam government, which paved the way for the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council, a self-governing body. Villages with over 50 per cent Bodo population were to be ruled by the council. To create a contiguous territory, even villages with less than 50 per cent Bodo population could be added to the council area. However, its territory was not precisely demarcated, leaving room for confusion. Lack of financial powers to the council and constant interference by the state government on subjects that the council was to handle meant that the accord never got implemented.
By 1994, the political setup, ABSU, which hoped to rule Bodoland revived the demand for a separate statehood. Two separatist outfits, the militant Bodo Liberation Tigers [BLT] and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland [NDFB], also came into being and joined the struggle.
In February 2003, a second pact was signed between the Union government, the government of Assam and BLT. The pact paved the way for Bodo Territorial Council [BTC] and its administrative area, the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts. On 6 December 2003, BLT formally surrendered arms so that it could form BTC. The 2003 Accord, instead of laying the foundation for peace, may have created more trouble in western Assam The main objective of the treaty, as mentioned in section 2, states that creation of BTAD is ‘to fulfil economic, educational and linguistic aspiration and preservation of land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodo’. This implies that the only agenda of BTC was to benefit the Bodo who are not the majority of the population in the autonomous area.
BTAD was also created in an arbitrary way. The criteria were similar to the 1993 Accord. All villages with an ST population of over 50 per cent were to be part of BTAD to create a contiguous area. To create this mini state within a state, the borders of close to a dozen existing districts were redrawn and two new districts were created. To do so, the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution was amended. This goes against the spirit of the Constitution. The Sixth Schedule envisages protection of tribal land by forming autonomous districts where tribals are in majority. In the case of BTAD, the map of the state had to be redrawn to create an area from several districts. Even then the population that it sought to protect does not form a majority.
Now, there is a strong perception among the Bodo leadership that land in BTAD is slowly being encroached by illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangaldesh.
The 1991 Census shows between 1971 and 1991, the population of Chirang increased by 103.33 per cent while in Baksa the growth was close to 74 per cent. The population growth in Kokrajhar and Udalguri was 62 and 43 per cent. But the population growth seems to have stabilised since. According to the 2011 census, BTAD now has a lower growth rate than the state average of 16.93 per cent.
Bodo tribals also complain that the 2003 Accord does not adequately protect their land.
It allows anyone owning land prior to 2003 to buy, sell, transfer and inherit. Derhasat Basumatary, executive member of BTC, says illegal migrants have managed to buy land and also encroach on government land because it is hard to ascertain who was living here before 2003. But Muslim communities allege that the land price has been kept abysmally low because the authorities do not allow them to sell land to people other than the Bodo.
For long, farmers in Assam follow a practice, called adhi in Assamese or Bodo dialect, according to which landed farmers lease their agricultural land to farm workers who cultivate in exchange for half the produce. Sometimes Bodo families also invite Muslim families to stay on their fields as tenants and cultivate the land.
Little socio-economic study has been done in BTAD. Even the government of India’s socio-economic caste census of this area is not complete. The only study that gives an indication of the socio-economic pattern in this area is the sample survey by OKICDC. Of the 300 families surveyed, 11.2 per cent of Muslim families were landless. Compared to this, 6.1 per cent Hindus and eight per cent Christians were landless. But when it came to ownership of agricultural land, a solid chunk of 45.3 per cent of Muslim families owned no land compared to 34.1 per cent Hindu families and 31.8 per cent Christian households. The average agricultural landholding in the state is 36 per cent.
It is a misconception that illegal immigrants have taken away the land of the Bodo tribals. Government policies during the colonial period and after Independence have led to land alienation among the Bodo. But trying to rewrite history with violence will not be to anybody’s advantage. Without the skilled Bengali Muslim farmers, the Bodo’s harvest will dwindle. Abdul Sattar’s loss also means a loss for
On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine