Bodo accord and rifts

Why have the terms offered by the Centre not gone down well with several tribal groups in Assam?

February 23, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The story so far: The Ministry of Home Affairs, Assam government and Bodo groups including the All Bodo Students’ Union and militant outfits signed an agreement on January 27 , New Delhi’s third attempt at conflict resolution after the 1993 and 2003 accords . The new deal offers more hope than the earlier accords; some of the most potent factions of the National Democratic Front of Boroland that had stayed away from earlier agreements are now on board. More significantly, the stakeholders have agreed that the updated political arrangements would remain confined to the realm of wider autonomy within the State of Assam, giving statehood and Union Territory demands a final burial.

Is all well with the peace accord?

The third peace accord with the Bodos threatens to intensify the sociopolitical contestation among groups in the State not just in the expanded area, which will be renamed as Bodoland Territorial Region, but also regions where the so-called Scheduled Hill Tribes reside in large numbers. While greater contiguity of Bodo-populated areas would aid more efficient governance in the Sixth Schedule administrative unit, it has deepened insecurity among other groups such as Koch Rajbongshis, Adivasis and Muslims in the existing Bodoland Territorial Area Districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. The local Kokrajhar MP, a non-Bodo, has appealed to the government to ensure that a Bodo solution does not engender a non-Bodo problem. The Bodoland Peoples Front, which has dominated the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) since inception in 2003 , is also not pleased with newer claimants to power in the council elections due soon. BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary, himself a former Bodo Liberation Tigers militant, has threatened to reject the accord and refused to use BTR as part of the new vocabulary. There are also rumblings elsewhere. The agreement stipulates that Bodos living in the hill areas outside the BTAD will be conferred Scheduled Tribe (Hills) status, something that has not gone down well with tribes such as the Karbis.

Why are the hill tribes up in arms?

In Assam, there are as many as 14 recognised plains tribe communities, 15 hill tribe communities and 16 Scheduled Caste communities. The plains tribes are Barmans in Cachar, Bodos, Deoris, Hojais, Kacharis, Sonowals, Lalungs, Mechs, Misings, Rabhas, Dimasas, Singphos, Khamtis and Garos. The ST (Hills) status is primarily reserved for tribes residing in the two autonomous hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, where the Karbis and Dimasas are the most dominant in their respective areas. At present, while 16 seats are reserved for STs in the 126-member Assam Assembly, two are reserved for existing tribes in the 14 Lok Sabha seats of the State. Students’ bodies of the hill districts, chiefly the Karbi Students’ Association and the Dimasa Students’ Union, have risen in unison against the Centre’s assurance of granting ST (Hills) status to the Bodos living in the hill areas. Militant group Karbi Longri and North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), which signed a ceasefire with the Centre in 2009, has also opposed the move saying it would adversely impact the “identity of the Karbis”. While political configurations at the State level will not be largely altered because of the measure in the five Assembly seats of the hill districts, elections to the local autonomous tribal councils in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, which also enjoy Sixth Schedule protections, could witness realignments. The Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, which has 26 seats, is due for elections in 2022. The Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council has 30 seats. The Karbis comprise over 46% of the population in the KAAC area and the Dimasas around 35% in the DHADC.

Will it have a ripple effect?

Other insurgent groups at the talks table with the Centre, including the KLNLF, have taken note of the Bodo pact and are likely to push for similarly generous terms. The pot is likely to be stirred further in Assam if the plan to accord ST status to six communities from the State — Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Sootea, Moran, Matak and 36 different Adivasi groups clubbed together as ‘Tea Tribes’ — gets the final nod. The communities are estimated to make up almost 27% of Assam’s population. The impending Naga peace accord, in the works in its latest iteration since 2015, could also spur a demand for territorial and administrative rights in the Naga territories of Manipur even as the dominant Meiteis of the valley push their own agenda of inclusion in the ST category.

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