Worsening the Bodo quagmire in Assam
By declaring Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for Bodos living in the twin hill districts of Assam, the Central government has again moved in a wrong direction as the basic motive seems to be ensuring their support for the BJP in the coming Assam elections. The central government now runs the risk of being misunderstood in a highly strategic belt as the demand is quite an old one and may have been conceded half-heartedly on the eve of the polls.
The Bodos are the largest plains’ tribe of Assam. They are scattered over a wide area and merely granting them ST status means very little as it fails to touch the core problems of the community. According to the BJP’s calculations, the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), its new-found ally, can become a deciding factor in 12 of the 126 Assembly seats and can easily influence the results in 50 other seats. With the Congress showing all signs of a terrible soft underbelly, Bodo support might turn out to be vital for the BJP.
But the move is fraught with danger and is certain to stoke the Bodos’ fissiparous tendencies. Way back in 1927, they had submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission through the Kachhari Yuva Sammelan demanding an independent identity and the raising of a Kachhari regiment. In Independent India, the Central government took the first erroneous step in 1993 when the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) was established in the wake of years of violent agitations by the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU). But the BAC was given no power over law and order, security and financial matters. As a result, the ABSU lost control over the situation and the agitation passed over to a militant organisation named the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT).
The arson and mayhem continued till 2003 when the Central and Assam governments and the BLT signed another agreement creating a Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) which would be governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). Out of the BLT was born the Bodoland People’s Front which has been ruling the BTC for a long time.
The attitude of successive Central governments towards the problems in the northeast has never been different from the one which the Narendra Modi-led government has displayed this time over the Bodo problem. This remained so in regard to the BTC also. The practice of autonomy and self-rule on the basis of ethnicity came under serious question when the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Sangbijit) faction massacred innocent Adivasis on two previous occasions in spite of the BPF ruling the BTC. But the irony remains in the fact that neither are the Bodos numerically superior in the BTAD and neither is I.K. Sangbijit, once the leader of the most powerful Bodo outfit, an ethnic Bodo. He is a Karbi. It is not clear whether he still runs a faction of the NDFB. Yet his writ now runs over large swaths of the BTAD.
Trying to be smart with tribal sentiments in the northeast is a dangerous game and the central government must put a stop to infiltration from Bangladesh which is at the root of the Bodo problem. The BTAD, comprising the districts of Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Baska and Chirang, has only around 30 percent of the Bodo population and the rest 70 percent comprises Adivasis and other non-tribal communities. So, the natural fallout has been repeated violent attacks by the NDFB, the secessionist group among the Bodos, for ethnic cleansing.
Since 1993, this has become a common pattern and the long rule of the BTC by the Indian mainstream-friendly BPF has been unable to prevent this. As the BPF’s hold on the Bodo people has become tenuous and as the hardliners enjoy more credibility, the BJP’s alliance with the BPF may earn it a few more assembly seats but may not help iron out the Bodo alienation. Never before have men in New Delhi shown maturity in dealing with the Bodo problem. For more than a decade, the BPF enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Assam Congress and its sudden volte face in favour of the BJP is likely to further erode its credibility. Secondly, the Bodo militancy has expanded from its traditional bases in Kokrajhar and Udalguri and now encompasses the militarily strategic districts of Darrang and Sonitpur. There is no proof in the public domain that the Central government is worried about this.
Thirdly, by unwisely conceding the frequent use of the term Bodoland in several agreements and administrative arrangements, the centre has stoked a fire of hope among the Bodo leaders that the idea of Bodoland, independent or a state within India, is on its way to fruition.
As a result of the last-mentioned factor, ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Adivasis is under way in Bodo strongholds. There are indications that the migration of Muslims is taking place in areas like Kokrajhar and Udalguri. But the Santhals, the largest tea tribe of Assam, have geared themselves up to hit back. To this end, they have organised military wings like the Birsa Commando Force and the Sammilita Janagoshthiya Sangram Samity. Has the Narendra Modi-led NDA government paid attention to all these factors?
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are strictly personal)