Where everyone is a minority

Bodoland’s demography is one reason why trouble will fester rather than abate: it has nothing to do with illegal migration. It has everything to do with the fact of how a minority of the population controls the lives and destinies of the others

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

Published - May 07, 2014 12:45 am IST

The grim and bloody incidents in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), that narrow wedge of land in western Assam where everyone is a minority — or rather a non- majority since their numbers don’t have it — have been aggravated by the verbal violence of our politicians, the blame game and the total incapacity of the State government to deal with existing conditions.

For the second time in less than two years, thousands of Muslims and smaller numbers of Bodos are fleeing their homes, frightened by their complete vulnerability to gun-wielding terrorists, the nightmare of seeing loved ones, ranging from infants to elders, butchered in front of them and, perhaps worse still, the fearful knowledge that the government can’t protect them.

Today, the capacity of the Congress-led government in Assam to ensure the protection of minorities is being gravely questioned. For in every major communal clash or bout of violence in the Bodo areas — 1993, 2008, 2012 and now — a Congress Party government has ruled Dispur.

Complex play of factors

The State government’s seeming failure may be a tipping point for the last round of the Lok Sabha election elsewhere in the country. Ironically, the greatest violence in the country during an otherwise seemingly flawless massive election exercise has been, ironically, in the home area of one of the country’s Election Commissioners, H.S. Brahma, who is incidentally a Bodo.

There is a larger failure here too, of “us,” of civil society, researchers and scholars, the media, despite the courageous and silent role of dedicated activists and groups which have tried for years to reduce the tension between Bodos, Muslims and other ethnic groups in western Assam.

While the State government has directly blamed the shadowy Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland for the massacres, there is, as always, a complex play of factors here.

One is the fact that the militants were under tremendous pressure from security forces since they killed an Additional Superintendent of Police in Sonitpur district. The police went after them with a vengeance, taking down several cadres; one police official believes it is this pressure that forced the faction to hit vulnerable targets, to take the heat off, get time to regroup while also stoking communal fears and exposing the shortcomings of the State government.

In addition, a statement by a prominent Bodo leader, Pramila Rani Brahma of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), complicated matters and triggered outrage even from the Congress, the BPF’s coalition partner at the State level. She said (without revealing the basis of her information) that since Muslims had voted against the party’s Lok Sabha candidate, he was unlikely to do well. This has led to calls for her arrest.

Yet, the trail of blood goes back, unlike many other events and challenges in the region — barely 20 years. Before 1993, there had been few clashes involving Muslims and Bodos. Later, an armed group, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), attacked Santhals as well as Muslims. For their own safety, they were placed in relief camps, which again came under attack. Accounts say that not less than 50 were killed in those incidents.

In 2002, there were a series of attacks; in one, non-Bodo passengers were pulled out of a bus and shot. Soon after this, the BLT decided to come to the negotiating table.

The BPF is the party in power in the BTC, which rules the “Bodo” districts. But there’s a major flaw in the system — the BPF doesn’t have control over law and order: the State government has jurisdiction of the police. This is because the BTC was formed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which enables small tribes in four States of the north-east to run their own affairs in the manner of an expanded Panchayati Raj system, instead of being completely dependent on the whims of the State government.

The Sixth Schedule aims to protect tribal rights from encroachment by larger non-tribe groups and is in place in parts of Assam, all of Meghalaya, Mizoram and a part of Tripura.

In 2003, the Schedule was extended to the western Assam plains to create the BTC as part of an agreement between the Centre, the State government and the BLT. The BLT was virtually given an amnesty and morphed into a legal, “democratic” political entity: after some changes, the Bodoland People’s Front was born. The idea was an effort to resolve a bloody armed movement that had taken a toll of hundreds of lives. But to do so, without taking into consideration the overall realities of the region, was a recipe for disaster.

Another major outbreak occurred in 2008 in which both Bodos and non-Bodos including Muslims were rendered homeless and placed in camps. In 2008 again, bomb blasts across the State killed over 100 persons including 80 in Guwahati, the commercial and political heart of Assam; these were attributed to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, led by Ranjan Daimary, which sought independence from India.

Fallout of manufactured consent

The worst outbreak of violence, in 2012, when over 100 died and about 4.5 lakh were displaced in rioting and killings, was described as the most extensive internal displacement since Partition. A majority of victims and homeless were Muslim; the involvement of the BPF turned up in the arrest of one of its council members, who was accused by witnesses of leading the attacks.

The area’s demography is one reason why trouble will fester rather than abate: it has nothing to do with illegal migration, Bangladeshis, etc. It has everything to do with the fact of how a minority of the population (the Bodos are some 30 per cent of the BTC area) controls the lives and destinies of the others. From an armed group, the BLT became a political party within a larger political process, with access to Central and State funds, power, land and resources. A number of its leaders were once wanted for their role in alleged killings and explosions; when they rose to office, their acolytes benefited. Their opponents, even the moderates within the Bodo community, suffered intimidation, pressure and worse.

An opposition movement has grown that sought to protect the rights of the other groups which do not comprise just the Muslims — there are Assamese and Bengali Hindus, Koch Rajbongshis and Adivasis. Together they make up nearly 70 per cent of the population. Any system that does not guarantee some basic rights to them and protect their interests is bound to fail.

The core of the problems in the north-east, be it in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam or elsewhere, lies in the mobilisation of identity over land, territory and natural resources. Many of the disputes between States, communities and even villages can be traced to this. The same is true of the Bodo areas, where Bodo lands have been encroached and settled upon by others.

There are two issues here: If key problems are to be tackled, then all sides need to sit down together to work out the ways that land and resources can be shared without creating further ill-will. The State government and the BTC have failed to do so. They have failed because they have looked for quick-fix solutions without going deep enough and far enough to meet people’s grievances. The fallout that we see today is that of manufactured consent.

If it isn’t, then Delhi should be worried because this volatile region is in danger again of falling back to the times of earlier troubles. At the State and local levels, governments and policy makers need to involve people working in the field and community representatives in search of answers.

Playing politics

There is a second critical point: if such processes are to gain momentum, then there must be a relentless campaign against terrorist groups. What has filled many with frustration and anger, within the north-east and outside, is the way governments proclaim that they will tackle ethnic and communal violence with a “firm hand”; yet, once the bloodshed is over, the displaced go home and the issues vanish from the headlines, it’s back to business as usual with the criminals, extortionists and their partners in politics and the bureaucracy.

Recent history shows how those involved in the violence are “negotiated” with, in State after State. Settlements reward the perpetrators with even more powers, cocooned by security provided by the State. This is described as part of the democratic process.

I doubt if this will wash any longer: too much blood has been spilt these past years.

In this situation, tossing out the mantra of “Bangladeshi” immigrants as being at the heart of the problem would be extremely ill-advised. Nothing could be further from the truth, so insidiously easy to push, so dangerous to stoke. The Bharatiya Janata Party needs to understand these issues in greater depth before asserting positions which could have devastating consequences on a fragile landscape.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Centre for North East Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.)

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