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Mainstream, VOL L, No 37, September 1, 2012

Understanding Conflict in BTAD of Assam

Sunday 2 September 2012

by Arup Kumar Deka

From the third week of July, western Assam has been witnessing violent clashes between the Bodos and non-Bodos living in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) area. The spate of violence has led to the killing of more than 73 persons; 47 lives in worst-hit Kokrajhar district, 17 in Chirang, four in Dhubri; besides five were killed in police firing. However, the numbers of people killed are increasing as the violence has not come to an end. The violence unfolded in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Chirang, Baska and Dhubri districts; miscreants set ablaze 500 villages leading to the displacement of more than four lakh population who took shelter in 273 temporary camps. The violence has had widespread repercussions among the minority communities living in other States, like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra, Tamil Nadu etc. Fearing a backlash, thousands of migrant workers from Assam and other North-Eastern States started fleeing from these States in the backdrop of rumours of impending attack on them despite repeated assurances from the authorities of the respective States of their safety and security.

The violence between the Bodos and non-Bodos living in the Bodo inhabited areas has been continuing ever since the Bodo movement started in 1987. Before discussing the causes of violence in the BTAD area, we must know the genesis of the Bodo movement in Assam, which actually inherited the violence. The Bodos, who are the largest plains tribes in Assam settled in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra river, started demanding a separate Bodo homeland on the plank of meeting their economic, social and cultural aspirations. The Bodos alleged that there has long been socio-cultural alienation, socio-economic discrimination, de-culturalisation, discriminatory de-tribalisation policies of the government to deal with them. Moreover, two other factors also influenced the Bodos’ demand for a separate homeland: first, the reorganisation of States (especially Assam) on the basis of language and ethnicity, and second, their perception of Assamese hegemony.

The reorganisation of Assam on the basis of language and ethnicity resulted in the formation of Nagaland in 1963 by adjusting the Naga Hills District and Tuensang area of NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency). In 1969, the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, announced restructuring of Assam on a federal basis, raising hopes for further changes in the political landscape in which the Bodos’ aspirations for getting a separate homeland soared. A political party formed by the Bodo leadership in 1967, known as the Plains Tribals Council of Assam (PTCA), started demanding a Union Territory, called Udayachal, for the Bodos and other plains tribes of the region.

The Bodos often claim themselves to be the original inhabitants of Assam and view the Assamese as outsiders. The Assam movement (1979-1985), which stood for preserving Assamese identity and culture, equated the territorial identity with the ethno-linguistic identity of Assamese speakers of the Brahmaputra valley but miserably failed to address the problems of other communities such as the Bodos. The Bodos objected to the clause 6 of the Assam Accord (1985), which promised safeguards to protect the cultural identity of the ‘Assamese people’. The Bodos felt that they were not part of the Assamese people and feared that the clause might give legitimacy to the imposition of Assamese language and culture on the Bodos.

They accused the Assamese people and the State Government of unleashing an anti-tribal policy to cleanse its original inhabitants. Thus, in the face of cultural repression along with economic deprivation, the Bodo community felt that their language, culture and identity can be realised through political separatism alone.
As an offshoot of the Assam movement, the Bodo movement started with the plank of protecting their very identity. The All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) along with the Bodo Sahitya Sabha (BSS) launched the Bodoland movement demanding a separate State for the Bodos in 1987. At the initial stage the movement was peaceful and democratic with the slogan ‘divide Assam fifty-fifty’, but later it turned violent. The Bodos started their violent campaign with their insurgent activities often targeting the non-Bodo population involving a number of ethnic groups, minorities and also government officials. However, to resolve the demand, the State Government along with the ABSU, on February 20, 1993 signed an accord and set up the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) for social, economic, cultural, educational advance-ment of the Bodos. The BAC accord provided a Council to be set up comprising the ‘contiguous geographical areas between the river Sankosh and Mazbat/ river Pansoi’. However, the disputes regarding the sharing of powers, and the delimitation of the boundaries, according the provisions of the BAC accord, led to the immediate rejection of the accord by the movement leaders.

The non-implementation of the accord led to the fresh demand for a separate Bodoland often taking a violent turn when an insurgents’ group emerged, directly involved in support of the same. The Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) came into being; while the former strove for a separate Bodoland, the latter fought for a sovereign Bodoland. These two groups systema-tically orchestrated extortion, killings, collecting illegal tax etc. especially from the non-Bodos living in the lower Assam districts. However, the State and Central governments selectively engaged in peace talks with the BLT and a new peace accord was signed on February 10, 2003. The accord created the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) under the modified provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and tried to meet the deficiencies of the earlier BAC accord. Meanwhile, the government didn’t negotiate with the NDFB while signing the BTC accord and thus the group’s demand for a sovereign Bodoland continued to persist. However, a section of the NDFB, that split from its parent body, is now holding peace parleys with the Central Government.

However, after the creation of the BTC, the religious minority communities’ rights over land were discouraged. The BTC accord ensured political and constitutional rights to the Bodos but it did not address the aspirations of the non-Bodos living in the BTAD area. The non-Bodos complained that their rights were curtailed in Bodoland. Many of the non-Bodo majority areas were included in the BTC to give it territorial contiguity. The disproportionate allocation of seats in the BTC also became a problem. Out of a total of 46 seats, 30 seats are reserved for the tribals, five for the non-tribals, five for members of all communities, and the remaining six candidates are to be nominated by the Governor of Assam.

Since 1990 in the Bodo inhabited areas, hundreds of people were killed and lakhs displaced. The first such notable ethnic violence occurred in 1993 involving the Bodos and non-Bodo communities and resulted in the death of 50 people. A well-planned massacre of the Adivasis occurred in 1996 and 1998 by the militants in the Bodo dominated areas, particularly in Kokrajhar district, led to the killing of 300 Santhals and about 2.8 lakh people were displaced. In 2008, a conflict occurred between the Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslim populace that led to the killing of more than 100 people of both the communities and also 1.5 lakh people were displaced. The ongoing clashes have so far claimed more than 73 lives from both the communities. The immediate causes of violence vary according to the situation. The violence of May 1996, that continued till 1998 between the Adivasis and Bodos, started with the killing of three Bodo girls, allegedly by the Santhals. The recent clashes between the Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims, sparked off with the killing of two ABMSU members by unidentified gunmen at Anthihara in Kokrajhar on July 16, 2012, is only one more event in this long list.

There are several reasons for the growth of violence in the BTAD area (since 1990 till date). First, a tendency has developed on the part of the Bodos to make ‘Bodoland for Bodos’ through a process of ethnic cleansing. After the 1990s the Bodo movement was mainly under the control of the leadership of extremist groups which were resorting to ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the non-Bodo groups. The Bodo agitators realised that for a ‘homogenous Bodoland’ the demographic picture of the proposed Bodoland must be altered in their favour; otherwise the prospect of formation of a separate Bodoland was bleak. They, therefore; targeted and attacked the non-Bodos, especially the Bengali Muslims, Assamese and Santhals. The provision of the BTC accord, which stipulated the enlistment of the villages with fifty per cent or above Bodo population, led a section of the Bodos to target the Muslims and Adivasi villages, where the Bodo-majority could not be proved. The underlying motive was to create a homogenous Bodo inhabited area.

Secondly, the Bodos were always apprehensive of losing their land and identity in the hands of the growing immigrant Muslim population in the BTAD. They fear that at one point of time in future their lands and identity would be lost to the gradually encroaching migrant Muslims. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) viewed that the pressure on land is one of the main reasons for the recent ethnic disturbance in the BTAD area. Meanwhile, a porous border with nearby Bangladesh and a large, growing population of Bengali Muslims in the area has escalated tensions.

Thirdly, the constant fear and insecurity developed among the non-Bodo population contributed to triggering this conflict. It is uncomfortable but true that the non-Bodo people have to live in fear. A part of the hard-earned money of the non-Bodo populace has to be given to the militant groups like BLT, NDFB (both factions) and the non-militant Bodo organi-sations. A large numbers of non-Bodos have had to flee from the BTAD area for their safety and security, leaving behind their properties.

The conflict that is occurring in the BTAD and other parts of Assam is basically the result of the erroneous policies and inefficient administration. Despite decades of experience in dealing with insurgencies and ethnic-communal strife, the government miserably failed to tackle such a situation. The government would perhaps have to come up with a long-term programme to deal with this kind of violence lest it turns worse in future.

The author is a Research Scholar at the South Asian Studies Division, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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