The violent rivalry between Bodo political outfits and gradually emerging non-Bodo political conglomerations is a reflection of the agenda of elite ethnic dominance

With the gunning down of 44 Muslim villagers, including many children, in a matter of 36 hours between May 1 and 2, the Bodoland debacle has now grown into a bigger issue for policymakers, marked by a continuing failure to contain its descent into an ever deeper abyss of violence. The Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) has emerged as one of the most volatile flashpoints of violence in the country with deadly clashes breaking out repeatedly over a mobilisation of identity, territory and resources being linked to claims on political power. The reason for the enduring political failure to prevent the violence lies in the very political-bureaucratic predispositions with which the government has been addressing the complex ethnic and security challenges in the region. With intensified inter-group competition over resources and the subsequent rise of the “son of the soil” doctrine, the escapist measure of the state in “allowing” selective elite dominance in Bodoland was only bound to explode into periodic violence sooner than later.

Behind a political quagmire

The Bodos, who constitute the largest tribal community out of a total of 34 tribal communities in Assam, have been fighting for greater political autonomy since the early decades following independence; this gathered momentum with the organisation of the Plain Tribals Council of Assam (PTCA) in the 1960s and then matured with the demand for a separate State by the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) in 1987. According to the 2001 Census, the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population of Assam was 12.41 per cent out of which Bodos are about 40 per cent. But within the BTAD, an area of 27,100 square kilometres (or 35 per cent of Assam), the Bodos constitute less than 30 per cent with no other ethnic group (Assamese speakers, Bengali Muslims, Bengali Hindus, Koch-Rajbongshis) having an absolute majority. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was formed as a special territorial privilege under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution as in the Memorandum of Settlement of February 2003 between the Government of India, the Government of Assam and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). The BTC has 12 electorate members with a reserved Scheduled Tribe seat in the Lok Sabha.

The BTC accord is an official recognition of Bodo political aspirations and promises to “fulfil economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos” — a special status that the Bodo nationalists claim as their historical due and which others term as a gross violation of equality and democratic rights of the nearly 70 per cent non-Bodo population of the area. This debate needs to come under the lens of history.

In the interest of early colonialism, new reservation policies were introduced to restrain “native” access to valuable forests and to stimulate the clearance of fertile “wastelands” for the setting up of tea estates resulting in an increasingly restrictive regime of “boundaries” that curtailed livelihood options. This colonial enterprise for revenue maximising, also accompanied by schemes like “grow more food,” radically altered western Assam’s demography as a large influx of poor peasants and labourers from Chota Nagpur, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Nepal and Maimansing was engineered in the interest of the colonial economy. Forest reservation policies as well as cross-border migration continued heavily in the first decades of independence. One estimate in the mid-1980s had the tribal population in northwest Assam surrounded by a wealthy forest zone of 3,539.95 sq.km — in formal-judicial terms, more than 80 per cent was inaccessible to them. This entrapment is not only of the community from the resources but is also an entrapment of one community from the other. The fear of all political minorities in Bodoland is a replication of the way the Bodo community was once entrapped (and in many ways continues to be so) which might influence the newly empowered Bodo political elites to create a system that would entrap them. Feelings of relative deprivation through an entrenched minority entrapment could spark off new insurgencies in the BTC/BTAD territory.

In this context, what is significant is growing political assertions by sections of Muslims under banners like The All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU) and ‘Sankhyalagu Aikhya Mancha’ (Minorities United Front). ABMSU has even demanded proportionate employment policies for community numbers and reservation for minority students in medical and engineering colleges in the area. It has also asked political parties to reserve at least three seats for the minorities in those constituencies where they are in an absolute majority.

In a sense, the BTC accord justifies that every community with perceived historical roots in a particular place has a right to delineate that “imagined place” and to protect it from perceived “outsiders.” Riots in the Bodoland area have highlighted increasing valorisation of the “son of the soil” doctrine, a doctrine that is the result of powerfully territorialised (ethnic) identities and the enduring but highly selective reaffirmation of “natural” geo-cultural links between ethnic groups and territory. In such an atmosphere, people of Bangladeshi/East Bengal migrant descent bear the brunt of the anger as they are often seen as fake autochthones acting as Indian citizens/locals.

A safety valve that failed

Bodoland is an example where institutions like the autonomous council (as in the Sixth Schedule) have become de-facto tools of political management used to defuse possible dissent against the state. The government invests in group leaders by distributing substantial financial and coercive resources, allowing some form of local autocracy to consolidate power which is aimed at minimising threats to “national security” and “anti-state” violence, even while creating the conditions for the rise of localised violence and corruption. In fact the choice to negotiate with the BLT in 2003 bilaterally and a significant tolerance of BLT ceasefire violations all seem to have been intended to allow the BLT to consolidate local power. Even the interim body created to oversee the first elections to the BTC was headed by former militants. However, observations about the exercise of special political autonomy often show that it has perpetuated local oligarchies and created new elites, often weakening the links between people and political power.

The violent rivalry between Bodo political outfits and gradually emerging non-Bodo political conglomerations is a reflection of this agenda of elite ethnic dominance. It is the proactive defiance and political mobilisation of Muslims against the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) candidate that had invited the assassin’s bullets. The independent candidate, Naba Saraniya, supported by the Sanmilita Janagostiya Aikkyamancha (SJA), an amalgamation of 20 “non-Bodo” ethnic and linguistic groups based in BTAD, have put up a strong fight against the BPF candidate, Chandan Brahma, while the “Bodo votes” are divided.

Need for radical measures

The first step would be to sweep the region clean by seizing the significant amount of illegal weapons. A more protracted step would be to consider a modification of the BTC agreement. The arrangements now not only give the elites from one ethnic group disproportionate power over the others, but also provide further incentive and a rationale to/for this domination. The alleged involvement of a number of forest guards under the BTC administration along with suspected militants from anti-talks National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB-Songbijit) in the recent killings indicates a flocking of forces under a political agenda of elite dominance.

The BTC accord needs be reworked to expand the democratic ambit of its mandate by making it more accommodative with a greater share and proportionate representation to different communities residing in BTAD. Otherwise, a redrawing of BTAD boundaries by removing areas with a substantial non-Bodo majority seems to be a sensitive but an unavoidable option. It is time the government gears itself up for effective and responsible measures before there is another bloodbath in the region.

(Kaustubh Deka, recently a Public Policy Scholar at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU, Delhi.)

More In: Lead | Opinion