By Monjib Mochahari
Journal of Tribal Intellectual Collective India, ISSN 2321 5437, Vol. 2, Issue 2, No.4, October 2014, pp. 76 to 96, http://www.daltrijournals.org/JTICI/V2I2No4.php
Bodoland has been on a theatre of statehood agitation since the mid 1980s. Its political trajectory has been a tumultuous one. Numerous political tactics have been utilised by the successive revolutionaries to liberate the Bodo nation from what is widely perceived as political entrapment of the socio-cultural, linguistic and political hegemony of the ruling elites in Assam. The movement has been equally resisted and confronted both by the state and the non-state actors who are not comfortable with the idea of a separate “Bodo homeland.” In this paper, I take a closer look at the Bodo struggle which is deeply connected to struggle for rightful recognition as a community, territory/homeland, Constitutional rights and partly a contestation against the hegemony of the ruling elites who socio-economic policies benefits only a tiny section of the upper strata. It also examines the responses of the state government and members of the civil society who are opposed to the territorial aspirations of the Bodos.
Keywords: Bodos, state, hegemony, ideology, politics, women, resistance
The Bodo movement for a separate homeland in Northeast India has been exceedingly contested both in mainstream academic discourse and political deliberations. Ironically, most of the observers perceive Bodo unrest as a „secessionist‟ movement and a challenge against the modernizing and unifying state. While a section of academicians contest the historicity and existence of the Bodo tribe, empirical evidence to the contrary, though the ruins of the Kachari kings still exists in different parts of North-eastern region. To Baruah (2012), the demand is animated by the memory of ancient Bodo kingdoms, and of the distant past when Bodo culture may have flourished uncontaminated by Assamese culture (Nath, 2003).On the other hand, Vandekerckhove and Suykens (2008) take a contrasting view on the contentious Bodo issue. According to them, the liberation of Bodoland is an attempt to escape from tribal entrapment that could lead to entrapment of other communities in the area. Unfortunately such debates fail to interpret the subtleties of the ethnic struggle and abdication of state responsibility while attending to the genuine grievances of the Bodos. It does not either illustrate India‟s absolute inability to accommodate democratic political aspiration of the Bodos who remained outside the ambit of Constitutional protection till the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in February 2003. It is quite ironical that the ethnic aspiration has not been treated as a positive assertion of a tribal community who remained socio-economically and politically marginalised in free and democratic India for several decades.
What one can usually interpret from such conflicting narratives is that there is a total disconnect between the ground reality and what is often discussed and debated upon in academic and politics. In fact, the Bodos have been denied the right to self-rule and provisions of the Constitutions that were of utmost urgency for survivable of the community on the line of the tribe groups inhabiting the hills in Northeast India, who enjoyed protection under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The advent of democratic politics in free India failed to bring much respite to the socio-economic plights of plains tribes of Assam and belied the hopes of the tribal communities (Sharma, 2007). The new administrative arrangements or evolution of new power centres in the hands of the Assamese ruling elites worsened the interests of the ethnic groups in the plain areas in Assam. Historically, the fall of the Kachari Kingdom after the arrival of Ahoms in the twelve century, was considered a tragic point Bodo history, that led to the gradual disintegration of Bodo-Kachari identity followed by spread of Hinduism, its gradual merger with the Hindu structure and a consequent lost of identity.
The arrival of British colonial forces after the Yandaboo Treaty in 1826 in Northeast India also added a new twist to the already diminishing and marginalised Kachari kingdom. The territories of King Erakdao and General Tularam were annexed in 1832 and 1854 respectively by the policy of the Doctrine of Lapse and the rest was taken over from Jaolia Dewan in 1867 by the Treaty of Buxa. The Indian annexation of Koch Bihar and Tripura in 1949 respectively was the last nail on the coffin of their sovereignty and territory. Sonowal (2013: 20) argued that “after annexation of the Bodo Kingdom by the British, the Bodos were completely disarrayed from their political independence.
The colonial administration and its subsequent policies brought forth significant changes in socio-economic and political in Assam. The Bodos like other aboriginal tribes and races were relegated from a position of prominence to one of backwardness”. If fact, after India‟s independence from the colonial rulers in 1947, the Bodos lost whatever they had – freedom, territories and sovereignty in the hands of State‟s dominant ruling elites who had done too little to uplift the community. In an absence of Constitutional safeguards, the Bodos, including other plains tribal groups, began experiencing high degree of socio, cultural, economic and political uncertainty and became natural victims of forced assimilation, exploitation and subjugation. Dr. Bhupender Singh (2002), who headed the three-member Expert Committee on the Plains Tribes of Assam, set up by the Government of India in 1991, to make recommendations for an appropriate political structure decisively pointed out the exclusion of the plains tribe groups in Assam in the postcolonial democratic India in the following words:
The genesis of exclusion lies, perhaps in the report of the North-East Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded Areas Sub-Committee (headed by Sri Gopinath Bordoloi) of the Advisory Committee of the Constituent Assembly on Fundamental Rights, Minorities and Tribals and Excluded Areas, relating to hill and excluded areas inhabited mostly by tribals. According to the report, its terms of reference did not permit consideration by the Minorities Sub-Committee, as the plains tribes were to be treated as a minority for all practical purposes. It also appears that another sub-committee, i.e., the Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas (other than those in Assam) Sub-Committee (of the same Advisory Committee), headed by Shri A.V. Thakkar, also omitted its consideration. To all intents and purposes, it would transpire that the case of the plains, were not considered further. The view expressed by the former sub-committee that the plains tribes would, in any case, be assimilated with the rest of the plain population perhaps discouraged further deliberation (p. 87-88).
It is said that the British had enacted Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908 to protect the land rights of the Adivasis in Bihar, but Assam has failed on this count even in the twentieth century. For the first time in Assam in the year 1948, the controversial Chapter X was added to the Assam Land Revenue Regulation Act, 1886 to legally provide protection to the backward tribal communities from mass encroachment by non-tribals into tribal areas. It is ironical, that successive State Governments failed to enforce the said act in letter and spirit following which large-scale land alienation continued unabated (Mochahari, 2013). As pointed out by Banerjee (2011) the so called protective measures of Tribal Belts and Blocks provided in the Chapter X of Assam Land and Revenue Act is practically impractical to the extent that it could be identified as a farcical Act. This is so because it did not in any way strengthen protective mechanism for tribes. The Bodo community, including all other plains tribal groups in the State were left to fend for themselves with no protection to their lands, language, culture, and economic resources. The apathy of the successive state governments and failure of state‟s responsibility in addressing genuine grievances put them in constant vicious cycles of underdevelopment and marginalisation.
In the backdrop of a constantly deteriorating situation of the plains tribal groups, a section of educated Bodos came together to form multiple community-centric organisations at different periods of time to work for the welfare of the community and negotiate with the powers that be for socio-cultural, economic, linguistics and political rights. Although, these processes began in the pre-independence period, it became more prominent after India‟s independence, particularly with the formation of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha in 1952. In the process, as the struggle for autonomy was articulated more firmly in the public domain, it began changing the political language of negotiations in Assam. A vigorous movement for the right to self-determination was launched in 1967 by the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA), also popularly known as “Udayachal Movement”, to press for equality, economic and social justice, political and civil rights, right to land, language and culture. In 1987, the All Bodo Students‟ Union (ABSU), that began in 1967, under the leadership of Upendranath Brahma, redefined its political movement by calling for the division of Assam on a “fifty-fifty” basis. The Boro Security Force (BrSF) formed in 1986, renamed as National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), vowed to liberate Boroland through an armed rebellion. This set in a new political trend changing the very nature of Bodo unrest. What became apparent in the later periods is that the political journey of the Bodos in Assam has been a turbulent one and continues to dominate public life in Bodo heartland in the absence of a pragmatic political solution to the problem.
Bodo Socio-Political Organisations: Ideology, Continuity and Shifting Positions
The socio-cultural consciousness and political trajectory among the Bodos came about in the early stages of the twentieth century. Socio-religious reformer Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma was instrumental in bringing about transformation of Bodo society in the early 1920s. He re-imagined a new Bodo society which was envisioned to be achieved through the spread of education, change of religious faith and active participation in electoral politics. To achieve the same he worked tirelessly for reforming and developing the Bodo society by removing its (regressive) medieval practices (Deka, 2014). He preached a Brahma religion among the Bodos, popularly known as Brahma Movement. This was done with intentions to safeguard the identity of the Bodos and introduce modern ways in every sphere of Bodo life (Narzary, 2007).
This was also an attempt to distance the Bodos from the clutches of Hinduism and a growing spread of the Christian faith among the Bodos, perceiving them as a threat to the community. Choudhury (2013) captures Kalicharan Brahma‟s efforts towards transformation in the following words:
Kalicharan Brahma initiated a process that created an autonomous sphere for accommodating the Bodo aspirations for upward social mobility. In fact the birth of Brahma Movement marked the beginning of the assertion of the Bodo identity. Naturally it was the advanced section of the Bodos who embraced the Brahma religion and these neophytes, under the guidance of the preacher Kalicharan Brahma, used the new faith as a vehicle for treading along new vistas of social reorientation…The independent status of the Bodo community, according to Kalicharan, could be claimed and attained, only by distancing it from the Assamese as far as possible and to achieve this objective, it was imperative that the new religion should be something quite different from that of the Assamese. Kalicharan‟s initial agenda was no doubt social, but he did not feel shy to give it a political twist when an indulgent British administration made situation favourable. So the foundation of the future Bodo politics was securely laid (p.147).
Under Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma‟s leadership, the Assam Kochari Youth Association and the Goalpara District Boro Association met the Indian Statutory Commission commonly known as Simon Commission in 1928 in Shillong and submitted a memorandum for reservation of seats in the State Legislature and government services for the tribal communities of Assam (Mosahari, 2011:26). The key demands were: i) creation of separate category for the Boros in the census report, ii) separate representatives in the provincial council, iii) reserved seats for the Boros in the central legislature, iv) compulsory pre-primary education and scholarship for higher education to Boro students, v) reservation of certain provincial and executive post for the Boro educated youths, vi) creation of separate seats for the Boro people in the Dubri Local Boards (Basumatary, 2007). „The recommendations of the Simon Commission were codified in the Government of India Act of 1935 and in this Act the separate electorate for the plains was granted‟ (Choudhury, 2013: 150). As a result, in accordance with the Government of India Act 1935, five seats were for tribals of Assam in Goalpara, Kamrup, Nagaon, Sibsagar and Mikir Hills were reserved in Assam Legislative Assembly (Moshahary, 2011:26). However, there was a radical decline in tribal political activities after the Assam Tribal League became defunct in July 1946. The Tribal League was formed in 1933 to highlight the socio-economic problems of the tribals (Sonowal, 2013). There were no separate political platforms of the plains tribal as most of the tribal leaders, switched side, joining the Indian National Congress. Basumatary (2007) argued that under the influential leadership of the Congress and more so because of its popularity, most tribes especially the Boros took active membership and became firm supporters of the Congress.
The biggest development in the postcolonial era came with the formation of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha (BSS) in November 1952. The BSS is a literary organisation aimed at developing Bodo language, literature and culture. Its key objective was to unite all the Bodo group of languages currently spoken within the North-eastern Region under one overarching framework and devise a standard Bodo language that could become the link language among the Bodo tribes themselves plus act as a literary language for all tribes. The ABSU and PTCA arose in the backdrop of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi‟s public statement on 13 January 1967 that Assam would be re-organised around a new federal structure. This statement of the Prime Minister had far reaching consequences in Assam, altering greatly the postcolonial political landscape. The PTCA was formed to unite scattered plains tribal communities of Assam to safeguard the land rights of the indigenous people of the State through active participation in policy making (Chakravarty, 2011). It adopted the policy of non-violence and democratic means of agitation as its core principle in its demand for the creation of a separate union territory (Basumatary, 2007). However, the PTCA gave up its demand for Udayachal in 1977 despite being vehemently opposed by a section of young leaders of the party who later formed a new political party named PTCA (Progressive) in 1980, renamed as United Tribal Nationalist Liberation Front (UTNLF) in 1984 under the leadership of Binai Khungur Basumatary. The intent of the new party was to unify the fragmented tribal leadership which later demanded the creation of a separate state named Mising-Bodoland as homeland for the two plains tribes. However the demand for Mising-Bodoland ceased to exist as it could not create its own political space, both in Bodoland and Mising dominated areas.
While ABSU took a long term perspective of the community, it proclaimed to be working for the „survivable, all round development and security‟ of the community which will eventually make the Bodo community a master race (Narzary, 2007). Accordingly, the demand for a separate „Bodoland‟ was raised by ABSU to realise this long unfulfilled aspirations of the community, to be directed by the principles of democratic socialism. ABSU president Upendranath Brahma, who redefined the roles of the Union in 1987 believed in the notion of „nationalist socialism‟ (Moshahary, 1998). To him, the idea of nationhood and nationality is not deprived of principles of multicultural coexistence. He was also directed by his self-proclaimed ideology – “live and let live”, an ideology that is often overlooked in academic and political discourse. UN Brahma‟s feeling for the oppressed was not confined to his own community alone. He was equally concerned about the realities of the Lalung, Rabha, Mising and other tribes in the State.
On the other front, the Boro Security Force (BrSF), turned to armed resistance and rebellion as a possible solution to liberate the Boro nation from the Indian expansionism and occupation. The political foundation of the BrSF was laid down when a group of nationalist minded Bodo youths met in Udalguri in January 1983 and formed the Young Bodo Nationalist Association (YBNA). The YBNA embarked on a mission to install nationalism, socio-economic and political consciousness among the illiterate, ignorant and uneducated Bodo people‟ and that later became a driving force behind the formation of BrSF (Sonowal, 2013). The Chapter III of the Constitution of BrSF, renamed as National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) in 1992, illustrates its ideological leanings in the following terms:
A nation‟s destiny is decided by the struggle of the patriots. It is serious matter on the part of the revolutionary Party as to what means of struggle should it adopt against the enemy. So far our policy is concerned, there is no question of violence or non-violence, but it is the objective condition that decides the means of struggle. We believe in the logic – force to force and reason to reason. If the enemy fights with reason so shall be our means of struggle. The colonialist government of India resorted to arms against us to settle our problems so we have picked up arms for our defence (http://www.oocities.org/ndfb2001/manifesto.htm).
The Bodo Liberation Tiger (BLT), formed in 1996 in the backdrop of the failed Bodoland Autonomous Accord (BAC) of 1993, first upheld the idea of a separate Bodo state. However, in the course of the peace parleys with the Government of India in 2000, the BLT leadership deviated from its demand for a separate state and opted for an autonomous administrative set up named Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), to be brought under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in February 2003. On the same lines, the above was a repeat of the compromised reached by ABSU that climed down from its demand for separate statehood and accepted the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) in February 1993. However the ABSU later revived its movement for a homeland after the non-implementation of the BAC Accord. The All Assam Tribal Women‟s Welfare Federation (ATWWF) formed under the patronage of ABSU in 1986, renamed as All Bodo Women Welfare Federation (ABWWF) in 1993, soon embarked on a mission for social reformation on issues related to Bodo women whilst actively engaging in the political movement.
However, after the BAC Accord, its socio-political influence in Bodo society failed to make any dent due to the lack of abled women leadership and strong ideological roots. However, post BTC accord, ABWWF remained closely associated with the Bodo People‟s Front (BPF). The BLT converted itself into a mainstream political party after the BTC accord. Another organisation named the Bodo Women Justice Forum was formed by Anjali Daimary in 1992 to create awareness of the community‟s rights and to fight against state excesses on civilians. In 1996 and 1997, she represented the Bodo tribe at the UN Working Group on Indigenous Population (UNWGIP) in Geneva (Rehman, 2009). In September 2010, the Bodo National Conference (BNC) was formed to unite all Bodo groups under one platform and to resolve the long standing Bodoland issue by diffusing the conflict and antagonism among the different Bodo groups. Kampa Borgayary, the Spokesman of BPF was unanimously selected as the Chief Convenor. But the BNC quickly abandoned its core agenda and became an outer political wing of the BPF. Moreover, the ABSU withdrew itself from partaking in the affairs of the BNC because Bodoland‟ did not feature in its core agenda. Within the struggles, the NDFB faction led by Govinda Basumatary walked out of the BNC camp citing the same reason as was the case with ABSU. In addition, organisations like the United Democratic People’s Front (UDPF), Boro People’s Forum for Peace & and Rights (BPFPR) were formed to fight for Bodoland. In the recent past, the NDFB witnessed a split around three factions. Two of these factions (now in ceasefire talks with the Government of India) gave up the demand for sovereignty and agreed to negotiate within the ambit of the Indian Constitution to address their demands. The other faction still struggling outside the framework of the Indian Constitution is the NDFB faction led by IK Songbijit. In March 2012, a civil society groups named People’s Joint Action Committee for Boroland Movement (PJACBM), a conglomeration of 43 Boros and Non-Boros was floated to demand for a separate Bodoland.
What has been seen over the years is that none of the Bodo organisations could maintain ideological continuity around key objectives of the struggle. Over the years changes in party ideology took greater precedence than the objectives that were set out to be achieved. Inability of the Bodo organisations to withstand political adversities has manifested three processes:
- (i) lack of strong ideological indoctrination,
- (ii) political compulsion from both the State and the Central government, and
- (iii) opportunistic politics among the Bodo leadership.
Although the third point remains both theoretically and politically contentious, yet many points the fact that many of the former Bodo leaders made entry into electoral politics and remained non-committed to the larger issue of Bodo emancipation. As a closure to the above section a point about key shortcomings of the Bodo movement must be stated. It is often argued even after so many years of struggle the ideological content and foundations of influential Bodo organisations were hardly known to the outside world.
Three fundamental reasons could be proposed to capture this trend. First, the territorial aspiration of the community has never been recognised as a rightful democratic assertion falling within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. Second, there is a rejection of historicity and socio-cultural and economic factors that became the drivers of the Bodo agitation in the postcolonial times. Third, the production of knowledge and debates, both in politics and academic circles are tilted towards propagation of propaganda as against the incapacity of the community leaders to disseminate timely and accurate information to the larger audience. As a result, the Bodo movement has often been perceived as a “separatist movement” although its struggle for recognition of right to land and political power over the territory its people inhabits is very much a demand that falls within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Such contentious narratives fuelled in the outside world have contributed immensely to narrowing possibilities for constructive dialogue over the Bodoland issue. As a result, the demand for Bodoland has been forced into isolation by varied agencies of the state locked into a very unhealthy process of identity politics thereby disallowing any real positive deliberation within the Indian Constitution and the organic rights to self-determination by the indigenous people of the state.
State Hegemony, Territorial Aspiration and Political Rhetoric In the year 1960, the Government of Assam passed the Assam Official Language Act which turned out to be highly discriminatory against linguistic minorities, imposing the Assamese language on all ethnic groups in the state. Despite vociferous opposition from the linguistic minorities, the B. P. Chaliha government yielded to the demand of the Assamese people and declared Assamese the sole language of instructions and a statutory requirement to obtain employment in government offices in the state. „Riots‟ on a small scale also broke out in 1972 over the controversial decision of Gauhati University to switch to Assamese as the language of undergraduate education (Baruah, 2012:105). According to Saikia (2011) these discriminatory policies were predominantly associated with affirming the rights of the urban, educated Assamese-speaking minority and their control of the economy and politics of the state. This proved beyond doubt that the ruling class were more concerned with the security of the Assamese-Brahmins linguistic minority. It is argued that this was one of the long cherished demands of Assam Sahitya Shaba (ASS) that laid solid ground for widening gaps between the minority/indigenous groups and the Assamese community who saw language as a vital tool to form a greater Assamese society.
Bodo assertion in the domain of language had already begun with the formation of BSS in November 1952. Serious attempt was made by BSS to promote the Bodo language, literature and culture and unite all tribes falling with the Bodo group spread across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. In retrospect it was a much needed initiative at a time when talks of the Assamese language made a compulsory medium of instruction in schools. Against this one-sided state policy, the BSS submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister of Assam (1953), demanding for the introduction of the Bodo language in the primary schools in Bodo dominated areas. Ironically, the State government led by the then Chief Minister Bishnuram Medhi perceived this demand as a challenge to their authority and an act of separatism, conceived at that juncture as a threat to the supremacy of the Assamese language in the state.
Not until May 1963, ten years after the demand was made that the State government accepted the demand and began implementing the same during the tenure of Bimala Prasad Chaliha as Chief Minister (Narzary, 2007). Karlsson (2001) justifies that „the issue of language is indeed central to the formation and struggle of the Bodo community.‟ The Roman Script movement by BSS between 1974 and 1975 for the Bodo language also illustrates how the Assam Government was not comfortable with the linguistic assertion of the Bodos. In the face of it, Prabhakaran (2013:12) argued that “the adoption of a script for a language, which otherwise possesses no script of its own, should be entirely a matter for the people concerned.” The demand was obviously raised considering the needs of the community to promote Bodo language and literature because since its inception, the BSS has been facing the problem of using the multiple scripts (Bengali, Assamese and Roman Script) for writing the Bodo language and literature (Redian, 2013). The Roman Script was expected to solve this puzzle, but strictly opposed by the state government for reasons that are not clear to date. Instead of attending to the resolution of the matter at hand, the State government radically crushed the agitation leading to killing of fifteen agitators by police firing. Further after the intervention of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Devanagiri script was imposed on the Bodos on 9 April 1975 and the BSS surrendered its demand. As stated earlier, the PTCA took up the demand for autonomy in 1967, but soon fell to the designs of State politics even before it could materialised into a more concrete demand. Both the State and the Central Government didn‟t pay serious attention to PTCA‟s agitation though this was the first overt display of disagreement against state policy by the plains tribals in postcolonial Assam. Nonetheless it is important to note that by 1978, the influential PTCA leaders were completely co-opted by the State‟s political class forcing them to surrender the demand for autonomy. In this context, Choudhury (2013) states:
Samar Brahma Choudhury, the son of Sitanath Brahma Choudhury who had cherished the desire to become the heir-apparent of Rupnath Brahma but could not be accommodated by the Congress for emergence of Renendra Basumatary, was inducted in the Janata Ministry as the representatives of the PTCA. Brahma Choudhury, along with the newly elected PTCA M.P. Charan Narzary was given a free hand by the new government to deal with all matters related to the plains tribals of Assam. But this monopoly of power had a price to it. The PTCA had to abandon the demand for a separate state…” (p.153)
In 1977, PTCA joined the Janata Party-led Golap Borbora Ministry of Assam. On coming to power, the PTCA gave up its professed path of struggle” (Sonowal, 2013: 55). Consequently, the demand of Udayachal was translated into mere rhetoric to meet the pressing political needs. In the backdrop of this fiasco, the ABSU arose and became a powerful voice that led to significant transformation of Bodo politics in history. After Upendranath Brahma took up the ABSU leadership in 1986, there has been a fundamental shift in the Bodoland movement. Sonowal (2013: 59) asserted that the ABSU was firm in its conviction to championing millions of tribal peoples‟ age old cherished goals and basic objectives for the creation of Bodoland”. The slogan – divide Assam fifty-fifty; popularised by Upendranath Brahma became a new slogan causing tremendous upheavals and disappointment in the corridors of powers of the elites of the ruling class. This slogan captured the imagination of the masses, as many tribal groups like the Karbis, Dimasas, Mishings and many others soon rallied behind this idea towards the realisation of the right-to-self determination of indigenous people. To achieve its demand, ABSU adopted a series of agitation programmes like protest, mass rally, bandh etc and submitted a series of memorandums to the Central Government. The movement lasted for six years (1987-1993) and was ruthlessly crushed by the states government through use of violence killings, mass arrest and raids of Bodo villages. It culminated in the singing of the BAC accord in February 1993. Later the failure to implement the accord around the BAC led to the revival of the demand for statehood by various Bodo organisations.
Insurgency, Rupture, Relationship
The rise of militant outfits gave a new twist to Bodo struggle for a separate homeland. In fact, militancy received wide attention from across the political spectrum and the process itself radically altered the paradigm of the struggle in the later period. The PTCA, which was the first political force of the plains tribes of Assam, remained overground to achieve its demand Union Territory. However what emerged in the next phase alongside the ABSU agitation was the birth of the Bodo Volunteer Force (BVF) and BrSF. However how these militant forces are viewed greatly depends on one‟s location. While many view these movements as patriotic, others view them as sub-nationalist movements positioned against the state. From the perspective of the community it would be difficult to argue against the revolutionary nature of the struggle which by all counts is premised around people‟s desire to be liberated from what is perceived as hegemony of the Indian state manifested in the immediate through Assamese domination. While such narratives does not amount to glorification of violence which occurred in the course of Bodo movement, what is worth noting is that as early as 1986, this means of struggle was accepted by a section of Bodo youths who saw armed rebellion as the only remaining alternative to achieve Bodoland. There are different highly contested narratives about the need of armed groups in the struggles. Whatever be the arguments this it seemed in retrospect was felt necessary by many Bodo youths who participated in the struggle. A section of former ABSU activist argued that the intent of the BVF was primarily to resist and counter State atrocities against Bodos as the State government used brute force to crush the Bodo agitations. In retrospect one could argue that the use of state force could be the reason, why the BVF became defunct soon after signing of the BAC Accord in February 1993 while at the same time some active members of the outfit later went on to form the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) in 1996 immediately after the peace deal failed miserably.
As discussed earlier, the primary objective of the NDFB was to liberate the „Bodo nation‟ from the colonial occupation of India and to give protection to the Bodo community from further aggression. In the perspective of the outfit, complete secession from India is indispensible in order to realise the long cherished demand for Bodo homeland to be carved out of Assam. The Bodo national principle was formulated in such a manner as to position any party or communities or state apparatus opposing territorial aspiration of the Bodos as an enemies of the Bodo nation. While such reductionism and simplification of the principles distorts the more subterranean meaning of the NDFB struggle, yet what noteworthy is that the outfit „emerged as the most dreaded outfit in the region with highly motivated and politically indoctrinated army of cadres‟ to continue the struggle for the liberation of Bodoland (Sonowal, 2013:56). The „secessionist‟ portrayal of its struggle attracted violent state responses that resulted in a overt war between the paramilitary forces and the outfit. To these extremely violent encounters premised around secessionist cries, the neither ABSU did join hands nor supported. The demand for „sovereign‟ Bodoland propagated by NDFB which culminated into internecine and thus created a fragile political situation was negated and shunned by the ABSU. Moreover, squabbles between NDFB and BLT leaders and cadres became a regular affair after latter began to impose its presence in areas where the NDFB enjoyed enormous public sympathy. Prior to that, the PTCA leaders and sympathisers also fell victims to BVF bullets. However from the position that we are now, the violent fratricidal killing amongst Bodo groups was indeed self-defeating and detrimental to the larger cause of the Bodo nation. The policy adopted by a section of ill-informed leaders who on hindsight could not foresee the ill effects of the war against members of the same community led to fragmentation and degeneration of the Bodo struggle for quite some time. Prominent leaders like Bihuram Boro, Baliram Boro, Swmbla Basumatary, Bineswar Brahma, among many others were killed in insurgency crossfire over narrow ideological differences among the leadership. Violent militancy furthered the isolation of Bodos from other non-Bodo communities, creating bitter relationships between different interdependent communities in Bodoland. This has created a vacuum over the years and as a side effect has seen the rise of anti-Bodos formations. These processes were further strengthened further immediately after the Bodo-Muslim conflict that occurred in Barpeta and Bongaigaon in 1993 followed by Bodo-Santhal in 1996 and 1998 in Kokrajhar district.
Women, Politics, Resistance, Marginalisation
The Bodoland movement regained momentum beginning of 1987 under the banner of ABSU. It provided a crucial platform for the involvement of Bodo women in the struggle for a Bodo homeland. The participation of women in large numbers and with such commitment was perhaps the first in postcolonial India in any struggle for ethnic autonomy. Upendranath Brahma perhaps could visualise that the movement under his leadership would not make much headway without mass public support especially of women who almost constitute half of the Bodo society. This reality led to the formation of All Assam Tribal Women Welfare Federation (ATWWF) in May 1986, renamed as ABWWF in 1993, to look after the interest of Bodo women in areas such as economic needs, civil rights and overall development (Brahma, 2001).
The idea to bring and unite women in a common platform with a common ideology to fight for ensuring human rights and justice of Bodo women in the spheres of socio-economic, political and educational, cultural and for their emancipation from social and domestics drudgery, thereby enabling themselves in rendering positive services to the promotion, welfare and preservation of the indigenous self-identity of all Bodo groups. This mobilisation was also needed to fight against state barbarism and human rights violation during the Bodo agitation. A section of women even joined the Bodo Volunteer Force, but it has been noted that their activity was restricted to carrying messages and dissemination of information to male counterparts and providing basic nursing to injured cadres of ABSU and BVF activists. Their support to men in the course of action was not much in the limelight. Brahma (n.d) asserts that:
During….the innocent people specially the women and children were trapped between the law enforcing agencies and the revolutionary movement. At the junction repressive measures of the Army and paramilitary forces increased enormously. Once again, the women were easy victim….many innocent girls as well as women lost their chastity and some were even killed due to widespread incidents of rape and sexual harassment by the police force. ….Therefore, the ABWWF was born out to confront the army and police personnel against their actions (p. 306-307).
Against the State atrocities, ABWWF became a formidable force during the Bodo movement to counter the state against threat to their male counterparts of being persecuted or shot security forces. They acted like a wall between repressive state forces and Bodo agitators. They organised the masses, participated in protest rally, gheraoed, dharna and campaigned against alcoholism, challenged polygamy etc. What could be termed as the most successful achievement of ABWWF was the struggle against the Assam police in Gauhati High Court over the notorious Bhumka Gangrape case which was won (Brahma, 2001). Nonetheless they also became victims in the hands of the state paramilitary forces. On 12 May 1998, Gaide Basumatary and Helena Basumatary of Zumduar village in Kokrajhar district were shot by the Assam Police. Gaide’s three months old baby- Rombha, succumbed to her death after a couple of weeks after here mother‟s death. Helena was a student of class nine.
There are numerous of cases of Bodo women being victimised by the state forces. However, it is ironical that women’s role in Bodo political movement has been declining since the premature death of Upendranath Brahma in May 1990, in whose vision, women were essential if Bodoland was to materialised. Since the BAC accord, ABWWF’s voice in Bodo politics has diminished to the extent of being exceedingly inaudible. Brahma (n.d: 361) argued that after the BAC accord, “women were expected to relinquish their involvement in public activities. Only a few high profile women like Pramila Rani Brahma could successfully resist this assumption and held public office, but majority complied silently.” There are two basic reasons proposed to explain this phenomenon: the successive women leaders were followers with no political commitment and ideals and second, there was lack of support from its parent organisation (ABSU). It has been observed that women‟s participation in decision making bodies and the subsequent governance in BTC remain highly unsatisfactory even though political space for women‟s participation in Bodo politics has been created.
Peace Accords, Power Struggle and Party Politics
The idea of an autonomous council was not to the taste of the Bodo leaders since its inception, although the PTCA leaders showed inclination for autonomous council in the later stage of their agitation. Both BAC and BTC Accords retrospectively have been considered a product of political indecision, an imposition and surrender of a section of Bodo leadership to the hegemony of the Indian state. Sonowal (2013) argued that the creation of BAC failed to satisfy the expectations of all sections of the Bodos. Similarly, Deka (2014: 76) asserted that the enthusiasm of BAC did not make much time to vaporise. The BAC was included neither in the 5th nor in the 6th Schedule of the India Constitution. Its geographical area was just one third of the total territory the Bodo leaders wanted. It did not have much teeth and those who headed it, perhaps lacked the vision and sincerity (Mukhim, 2011). The creation of the BAC gave rise to unprecedented violence among a cross section of Bodo groups and between Bodos and Muslims in Bongaigaon in 1993. The NDFB outrightly rejected the BAC Accord. This contestation was enough to create further rift among the warring Bodo groups. The power struggle among the Bodo leaders cropped up as ABSU was already divided over the selection of the first Chief Executive (CEM) of the proposed Council. Subsequently the Council collapsed and ultimately led to the creation of Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) in June 1996. Nonetheless, there is a general consensus that BLTF was a double-edged sword of the State machinery to tackle the secessionist tendency of the NDFB and to subdue the democratic movement of ABSU. Thrown into sudden confusion by the renewed Bodo unrest and rise of NDFB after the BAC fiasco, the best strategy for the government was to contain the Bodo movement by any means and BLTF became a tool of the State on the lines of Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam (SULFA). The BLTF leadership reconciled itself to an autonomous administrative arrangement under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution comprising of four districts – Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. This was the first time the central government, through a Memorandum of Settlement (MOS) with the BLT, gave a constitutional recognition to a virtual Bodo homeland in Assam (Nath, 2003). A 40-member elective political administrative structure was created under the terms of the agreement. Three new districts were carved out, an allocation of Rs. One billion a year has been earmarked for the new Council (Hussain, 2006:296).
The new Bodo Accord, however, had created a new territory beset with problems in Bodoland. The high hopes generated among the Bodos following the creation of BTC were quickly shattered when the BLT leaders fell out of their own in a bid to control Bodo politics (Singh, 2011). The struggle for Bodo ethnic identity has been converted into a struggle for capturing power by a handful of former BLTF leaders (Gupta: 2010). The Bodo People‟s Progressive Front (BPPF), a political party formed in 2005 at the behest of the ABSU, underwent a sudden split on the eve of the first BTC elections in 2006 that culminated into target killings by the BLT cadres against their rivals. The first BTC elections held on May 13, 2005 witnessed former BLTF chief, Hagrama Mahilary, openly campaigning against official candidates nominated by the newly floated Bodo People’s Progressive Front (BPPF), despite the fact that the BPPF had the backing of the ABSU, and the former BLT at least officially (ibid.). This set in a new benchmark in Bodo politics where party interests predominated the larger political interest of the Bodos. ABSU has been practically marginalised politically and Bodo politics is currently controlled by those who took up violence as a path for Bodo liberation.
State Violence, Weapons of War and Human Rights Violation
Central intervention and state’s response in the Bodo agitation has hardly been positive and encouraging. What has been observed over the years is the repressive use of paramilitary forces to crush the movement with an iron fist. Its complete apathy and lack of commitment to finding sustainable solutions to the political demands and grievances of the Bodo and other tribal communities is remarkable. It can be argued that the State government has used every means at its disposal to derail the territorial demand it perceives as an alternative political space for all the tribal communities living on the north bank of river Brahmaputra, whose genuine grievances remained unattended for decades. On this count, Ghanashyam Pardesi (1988) in his article, Assam police terrorise tribals in Assam pointed out how the State government was ready to crush the Bodo agitators. In his words:
The Bodos were labelled as extremists and as “divisive forces” and deserved to be treated with heavy hand. In a number of public speeches, the Home Minister Bhrigu Kumar Pukon, called on the state police to deal with the “divisive forces” with a “heavy hand”. At the party convention at Mangaldai, the Chief Minster, Mr Prafulla Kumar Mahanta said that they would not hesitate to shed the last drop of blood to prevent the division of the state. I wonder whether the Chief Minister was calling upon his supporters to be ready for a civil war with the Bodos. All these utterances have created a very dangerous atmosphere in the state….The contempt and the brutality with which the state government has chosen to solve the Bodo problem has only further alienated the tribal people. To execute it… the state government has handpicked known anti-tribal officers, particularly the police officers, for work in the tribal areas (p. 3).
For instance, the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) Government led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government ruthlessly exploited the situation and unleashed unprecedented brutalities on innocent civilians who had either little or no connections with the Bodo unrest. On 25 and 27 January, 1988, 12 Bodo women were raped by the Assam Police Task Force (APTF) in Bhumka village in Kokrajhar district on 25 and 26 January, 1988 (ABSU, 2001). The general consensus is that State sponsored violence was the biggest weapon to deal with the Bodo agitation. Mosahari (2011) in this context cites some hard facts to illustrate state violence in the following words:
The AGP government has not contented with the killing of Bodos only by police personnel…It has adopted a new method for killing the Bodos in large scale through pre-planned rioting in different Bodo dominated areas like Gohpur and Rangapara under Sonitpur district, Simalguri under Kakhimpur districts, Khairabari and Bhakatpara and Phorupeta under Lakhimpur district during the Bodoland movement. In Nation-wide known Gohpur carnage …over one lakh Bodos were rendered homeless…..In Simalguri carnage too, more than 20 Bodos were butchered and thousand rendered homeless. In Khairabari, Bhakatpara and Phaorupeta also more than 50 people were killed….Assam police. Similarly, in Rangapara also….rioters killed over 100 Bodos during the riots of May, 1989‟ (p.141).
Such incidents illustrate the magnitude of State sponsored violence which in the opinion of some is only the tip of the iceberg. „The treatment of the movement as a law and order problem by the State government and callous and brutal handling of the situation by the police aggravated the disorder and in the eyes of the Bodos, symbolised the desire of a section of people to dominate over the tribals and legitimise the violence which the militant Bodo youth resorted” (Sharma, 2007:101). While numerous agitational programmes were organised in protest against police atrocities, these however led to further causalities and atrocities. Thus, “…a sort of vicious circle developed which paid political dividends to the movement‟s leaders in terms of public sympathy and media attention, and worsened the situation” (ibid.101). In the recent past, between January and December 2008, unidentified militants killed at least 82 Bodos (ABSU, 2008), yet not even a single perpetrator of the crime has been arrested though the Stage government was aware of the insidious political games played at the expense of peoples‟ lives. The post BTC period witnessed killings of as many as 300 Bodos, with least State intervention to stop it from escalating. While the Bodos are partly to be blamed for such incidences, government intervention was practically missing altogether. Since 1993, there has been series of ethnic clashes in different parts of Bodoland; yet there is only a marginal improvement in the law and order situation in the region. What can be argued in this context is that there is an abdication of state‟s responsibility in Bodoland. The region continues to remain a troubled periphery in absence effective administration.
Fragile Solidarity, Communal Groupings, Counter Resistance
The Bodo agitation under Upendranath Brahma‟s leadership gained support from other parties who accused the State government of pampering and fostering “Assamese Chauvinism” (Sharma, 2007). The notable ethnic organisations like All Cachar-Karimganj Students‟ Association (ACKA) and All Assam Minorities Students Union (AMSU) extended their moral support to the ABSU movement (Deka, 2014). Their solidarity was on their perception that Bodoland movement was a potential challenge to the Assamisation policy and political hegemony of the Assamese over linguistic minorities in Assam. Apart from it, ABSU received outside solidarity in its annual conference held at Bashbari Conference in Dhubri district from December 19-22 in 1988 as delegates from Tripura Upajati Yuba Samiti (TUJS), Tripura Tribal Students‟ Federation (TSF), Tripura Sundari Nari Bahini (TSNB), All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) participated in the programme (Assam Tribune, 20 December 1988). It was police atrocities on innocent Bodo people that brought together a number of ethnic organisations to jointly condemn the incidents. For instance, the Assam Students‟ Solidarity Convention held at Sarupather in Golaghat district on March 25-27, 1989, sponsored by All Assam Tribal Students‟ Union (AATSU) and All Tai-Ahom Students’ Union (ATSU) and attended by Assam Tea Tribes Students‟ Association, Rabha Students” Association, Lalung Youth Front, AMSU, All Assam Tai Juba Chatra Parishad (AATYCP), All Assam Man (Tai-Speaking) Students‟ Union, Sonowal Kachari Students Union jointly condemned the police torture of Bodos and demanded tribal autonomy (Assam Tribune, 28 March 1989, see also Deka, 2014:70). Unfortunately this sort ethnic solidarity was short lived. It practically disappeared during the signing of the BAC Accord as many of the communities were against the inclusion of non-Bodo villages in the Council. For instance, a 14-member delegation headed by Ramesh Ch. Ray and Pritish Kanti Sinha, President and Secretary respectively, Goalpariaya Bhasa Sankritik Samorah Samity submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister, Hiteswar Saikia and demanded exclusion of non-Bodo dominated villages and two beels from the map of BAC (Assam Tribune, 14 April 1993, p. 3). Their blanket opposition to inclusion of non-tribal villages in BAC area emerged from deeply rooted “fear” and “speculative assumption” that the creation of Bodoland will culminate in subjugation of rights of non-tribals. Bodos read these as part of larger state strategy to divert Bodos from their political aspirations. Ironically, the opposition represented by legislative groups such as the AGP, NAGP SUCI, CPI, CPM, ASDC, BJP, and JSM also joined the bandwagon of anti-BAC movement. They collectively submitted a memorandum against the BAC (Assam Tribune, 16 April 1993, p. 1).
What is demonstrated in the language of protests against the Bodo statehood movement is „continuation of the hegemony of the ruling elite and proxy war against demand for Constitutional rights. During the BTC peace process, several attempts were also made by Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samiti (SJSS) to form „anti-Bodo‟ conglomeration to thwart the peace process. The SJSS, All Koch Rajnbongshi Students‟ Union (AKRASU), and Assam Tea Tribes Students‟ Association (AATTSA) and other public bodies of non-Bodo communities aired their concerned about being reduced to second class citizens in Bodo dominate areas‟ (Biswas 2006:270). Daimary (2003) however argued that the specific provisions in the BTC Act entitled the non-tribal communities legitimate right to land and economic resources. He says:
In the 46 member BTC, 6 will be nominated by the Governor and 40 will be elected out of which 30 seats will be ST reserved, 5 reserved for non-tribals, and 5 open for all. It is a great achievement for non-tribals…..besides, clause no. 4.6 of MoS of the Sixth Schedule will not be applicable to BTC area” is another achievement for non-tribals. In original form in para 10 of the Sixth Schedule, non-tribals are not allowed to practice money lending, trade and commerce without prior permission of the council. But in BTC, this restriction will not be applied. In precise, BTC has become a “Happy Home” for all people irrespective of caste, creed, community and religion (p. 1).
But such provisions have been overlooked by forces who are opposed to the demands of the Bodos. They have been organising series of protest, bandh, rail roko, submission of memorandum, strikes, etc, to force the state to strike down the peace deal. They fear that the BTC will reduce them to second class citizens, while the Bodos themselves will enjoy all constitutional safeguards provided to them. But such assumption are far from correct because certain provisions have been inserted in the Accord to accommodate their interests and safeguard their right to ownership of lands and resources (Sonowal, 2013).
The struggle for a separate Bodo state continues to grow every passing day with new twists and turns to the movement itself. Writings on walls such as “divide Assam fifty-fifty, Create Bodoland under article 2 and 3 of the Indian Constitution, No Bodoland No rest,” among others distinctly manifest this political wave engulfing the Bodo heartland. New terms and campaigns like – People‟s Revolution, Total Revolution and Long Walk to Freedom have been articulated in the recent past to keep the momentum of the struggle progressing. While on the other side, the call for division of Assam is equally, at times violently, countered by the anti-Bodoland demand groups which are gradually resorting to strikes, bandhs, rail blockade and other forms of protest to sabotage the peace process. It is important to note that there has been no pragmatic political dialogue to address these issues within the framework of the Indian Constitution. The larger debates on the part of the successive State and the Central governments to find a long term solution to Bodo demands is practically missing and consequently the issue of Bodoland statehood is overlooked in the corridors of powers.
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