The Bodos: Parting of Ways

What was the immediate impact of the independence of India on the Bodos and other plains tribals? In a memorandum submitted to the Central government twenty years later, it is expressed in the following words:

Following the attainment of political independence, a profound wave of new hope for bright future pervaded through the length and breadth of India. This wave touched the hearts of the scheduled tribes of the plains of Assam also and they thought that the National Government of the free and secular India would do justice to the tribals and they can eschew the political tide and safely devote more attentively to socio-cultural land economic tide of the rehabilitation of their society. That is why the plains tribal leaders changed their political organisation, the Tribals’ League into a socio-cultural organisation. To bring about a psychological effect among the plains tribal, along with the change of their policy, the name of their organisation was also changed from Tribal League to Tribal Sangha. Thus the Tribal Sangha, the only organisation of all the plains tribals of Assam came forward with an open heart to co-operate with the state government of Assam. 1
The statement is correct only in a broad sense because the transitory phase was not as simple as stated here. The Tribal League retained its alliance with the Muslim League in the Assembly till the general election of 1946, but in the election it contested as an independent party, neither allying itself with the Muslim League nor with the Congress. As the Congress fielded its candidates in the seats reserved for the tribals as well, there were contests between the former and the Tribal League. Though the fight was neck to neck, the fact that the Congress polled 49.2% votes against the Tribal League proved that the Congress had already become a force to be reckoned with in the tribal areas. This electoral result, along with the emergence of the Congress as the majority party in the Assembly, led the Tribal League to respond favourably to the Congress overture for an alliance.

Of course, the tribal leaders, before entering into an alliance, sought a clear assurance from the Congress as to the reservation of seats in the Assembly. In fact, as early as 1938 the Congress had wanted the scheduled castes and tribes to have reserved seats in the legislature, but they were to be elected by a joint or general electorate. In fact the Tribal League had agreed to this principle in September 1939 when it participated in the Bordoloi ministry. The agreement that was signed between the Tribal League and the Congress clearly mentioned that the present system of the separate electorate would continue till the Congress Party agreed to accept the system of keeping separate seats in the joint electorate for the tribal communities. So there was no real reason for any difference of opinion on that score, but still the issue could not be resolved immediately. One of the reasons was that some of the tribal leaders thought that the new constitution of India that was in the making might, while creating reserved seats for the plains tribals, deprive them of contesting general seats. 2 However, Bordoloi succeeded in convincing the Tribal League that such an apprehension was completely misplaced. At last, in July the Tribal League joined the Congress Assembly Party.3 That may be regarded as the first step towards the dissolution of the Tribal League as a political party.

Also two other major issues had to be dealt with during this period of transition. It is for the first time that the Tribal League took up the issue of protection of tribal land in right earnest with the government and the government was urged to do something concrete to prove its credibility. Bordoloi agreed and accordingly in December 1947 Assam Act, XV was codified. The Act provides constitution of areas into belts or blocks for the protection of those classes who on account of their primitive condition and lack of education or material advantages are incapable of looking after their welfare in so far as such welfare depends upon their having sufficient land for their maintenance. The Act makes extensive provisions for the protection of land of the classes for whom it was meant. The Tribal League was quite satisfied with these provisions. Accordingly, ten tribal belts and twenty-three tribal blocks were constituted through proper notifi- cation. But there was a major flaw in the Act, implication of which came to the limelight only later. The Plains Tribal Council of Assam, after twenty years of the passage of the Act, pointed out that ‘one interesting point may be noted that nowhere in all the relevant provisions of the Assam Land and Revenue regulation the word tribal is used…’ 4 As the implementation of the Act depends mostly on the discretionary power of the government officials, the absence of the word ‘tribal’ keeps open the scope for a liberal interpretation of the categories who can claim benefit under the Act. And that did happen.

However, the enactment of the protective measures notwithstanding its limitations may be regarded as a major achievement of the Tribal Leagues.
The second one, in a sense, was an achievement of Bordoloi. Before independence, the Constituent Assembly was faced with the problem of formulating a policy for the protection of the socio-cultural distinctiveness and economic interest of the different tribes of Assam.

To look into the matter in all its manifestation, a Committee was formed with Gopinath Bordoloi as its chairman. Bordoloi, mainly on the advice of the Khasi Land Mizo leaders with whom he had developed a good understanding, suggested measures which were ultimately incorporated in the sixth schedule of the constitution that provides for autonomous district councils for the hills districts. Bordoloi persuaded the plains tribal leaders not to press the demand for plains tribals inclusion in the sixth schedule. There were some alid reasons for Bordoloi’s plea. The hill districts of Assam were inhabited by distinct tribes occupying specific territories where they formed an overwhelming majority. These areas could be easily demarcated and identified as units where the sixth schedule could be enforced. The plains tribals of Assam in the forties were living in the plains of Brahmaputra Valley side by side with other peoples. It was difficult even at that time to carve out any viable region where the habitation of the plains tribals would have justified creation of a district demographically. This administrative difficulty apart, Bordoloi was then visualizing a unilingual Assam or at least a unilingual Brahmaputra Valley by incorporating the plains tribals within the Assamese nationality. He did not want to put an initial block to this potential prospect by creating a separate kind of polity for the plains tribal which would inevitably have given rise to isolationist tendencies.

The Tribal League had its own reasons to toe the Bordoloi line.The Bodos were the most dominant component of the League and their position was further consolidated since Morans and Chutiyas opted for derecognition of their tribal status in the new Constitution. As a result the Bodos became sole authority to represent the tribal cause because others plains tribes including the Miris (later came to be known as the Mishings) and Lalunge (now called the Tiwas) were far behind them numerically as well as in material advancement. The new Constitution, it was clear, would grant universal adult suffrage and the Bodo leaders were not unaware that this would allow them to use their numerical strength to great advantage. It was also clear that the Congress would stay in state power for quite sometime and the pragmatic Bodo leaders were now eager to become a part of the ruling group not as an ally but as a full-fledged component. Bordoloi was the supreme of Assam Pradesh Congress and it was only he who could ensure suitable accommodation of the Bodo leaders in the state Congress which would have been otherwise difficult because of the hobnobbing of the Bodo leaders with the successive Muslim League ministries before independence. Thus, Bordoloi found it easy to persuade the Bodo leaders to abandon any idea of staking any claim for benefits of the sixth schedule on a give and take basis.

Unfortunately Bordoloi died in August 1950, but his commitments to the Bodo leaders was respected and in the 1952 general election, the Bodos fought under the Congress banner and Sitanath Brahma Chaudhury became a Congress MP and Rupnath Brahma, a Minister of Assam—thereby two topmost leaders of the Bodo community—found respectable positions in the new power structure. This is the background that facilitated the dissolution of the Tribal League. In other words, the Tribal League as a whole was co-opted by the ruling Congress party. While at the upper level this game of co-option and conciliation was going on, some more positive symptoms surfaced at the level of the masses. Already we made a reference to the endeavour of the Revolutionary Communist Party to involve the Bodos in its activities.

This created a new kind of awareness amongst a section of the Bodos. Bishnu Rabha, who epitomized this new consciousness also furnished the plains tribals with a thesis for contributing to the creation of a composite Assamese culture which he termed as the Kamrupi culture.6 The revolutionary experiment to reach that goal failed, but the essence of his preachings was not completely lost. On the other hand, under the First Five Year Plan, some development works, involving handicrafts, irrigation and agriculture, were undertaken by the government and in spite of incapable handling by the officials, some benefits did reach the tribal masses. That created an atmosphere of hope and expectation. The middle class base of the Bodos was also expanded to a certain extent. The congenial situation inspired the Bodos to develop a better relationship with their Assamese neighbour which their advanced section felt necessary also for ensuring state patronage. Naturally a large number of educated Bodos became bilingual using their mother tongue at home and Assamese as the language of culture and education. That influenced the psychology of the general masses and a big chunk of them returned Assamese as their mother tongue in 1951 and 1961 census. It is only under this circumstance that the number of the Bodo speakers shows virtually no appreciable rise in these two census. And this stagnation of their numerical position enhanced the number of the Assamese speakers.7
Even in 1971, when the identity consciouness of the Bodos became assertive, the census figure shows that whereas 6,10, 459 claim themselves as members of the Bodo tribe, the number of Bodo-speakers was 5,33, 713. In other words about 80,000 Bodos did not speak their mother tongue, and as M. Hussain points out: ‘the loss of tribal identity in the Brahmaputra Valley has always been to the gain of the Assamiya nationality.’

The situation more or less fit in with the framework put forward by Imtiaz Hasnain:
No doubt, the rapid social change as a result of modernization and urbanization, uniform educational opportunities, linguistic practicality, and pragmatic desire for better socio-economic conditions, and increasing pressure of dominant group on the geographically isolated and dispersed linguistic minority groups did make a dent on the language maintenance behaviours. But in the case of the Bodos, this phase was purely temporary. This is the difficulty with such framework that becomes handy in explaining a development up to a certain point, but fails to predict whether the ‘language maintenance behaviour’ would continue in the same direction or there is a possibility of reversal. In the present case, during the first decade after independence, most of the factors mentioned by Hasnain collectively worked to inspire the Bodos to accept Assamese; but after two decades there was a reversal of the process which is manifested by the 35 per cent decennial growth of the Bodo speakers in 1971. And this did happen in spite of the more vigorous presence of most of the factors that in the earlier decade had produced quite the opposite effect. If a framework identifies some factors being casually linked with a certain process of development it can be presumed that a reversal of the process would be possible only in the absence or weakening of these factors. Otherwise the framework collapses under the weight of its own logic. So, the analytical framework presented by Hasnain with a claim of ‘explaining and predicting the language behaviour of social groups in a multilingual setting’ fails to enrich us with any insight to appreciate the language behaviour of the Bodo people.
We will desist from depending on such rigid and inherently mechanical approach for appreciating and explaining the different aspects of the Bodo behaviour pattern during the post-independent decades. Rather we shall try to narrate the developments that directly or indirectly contributed to produce responses which today we identify under a common term as the Bodo assertion. No doubt a framework is necessary for deeper understanding of a problem, but since we are yet to develop an analytical tool dependable enough to answer most of the questions involved in the process of socio-political developments of the kind we are concerned with, it is better to rely on hard facts than on methodological red-herrings.
The first decade following independence was the period when the Bodos genuinely felt an urge to develop a better understanding with the Assamese society. The upper strata took the lead in that direction with obvious pragmatic considerations. But to the newly developing middle class the urge was genuine. It needed an expanded space for its accommodation and the members of this class genuinely felt that it was only the goodwill and the broadmindedness of the majority community that could have provided them with that space. Moreover, the educated Bodos desired to express themselves to a wider audience and it was only through Assamese language that they could do so.

Medini Choudhury, the novelist and Bhaben Narji, the essayist were the product of this desire. And above all, there was Bishnu Rabha who showed what the Assamsese society could gain in the arena of culture, art and literature from the plains tribals if a congenial atmosphere was created. The Bodos even came forward to establish a common front with the Assamese when the question of incorporation of Goalpara district with West Bengal came up before the States Reorganisation Commission in 1954-55. Though most of the Bodoinhabited areas of that district had been a part of Bengal since the days of the Mughals to 1874, the Bodo leaders opposed the move. During the post-independent period, all the primary schools of Western Goalpara had Bengali as their medium. But after independence, when the Assam government decided to stop financial grant to the Bengali-medium schools, the number of Bengali medium primary schools in Dhubri subdivision of Goalpara came down from 250 in 1948 to three in 1951. The Bodos of the area, who had been accustomed to learning in Bengali were put at a disadvantage.10 But they accepted the situation without protest for identifying themselves with the Assamese aspirations. Also with the same motivation, the educated Bodos co-operated with the Assamese middle class in establishing branches of Assam Sahitya Sabha, the core organization that monitors the Assamizations process of the state.

These gestures of goodwill and cooperation were misunderstood by the Assamese middle class as the signs of weakness and surrender. Because of inherent historical lacunae this class was never sure of itself and it tried to accomplish the unfinished task of nationality formation in a hurry and if necessary, forcibly. 11 As early as 1948, the
feeling of this class was expressed by a Congress number of the Assembly (Nilmoni Phookan):

Regarding our language, Assamese must be the State Language of the Province. There can be no gainsaying of it even if the Governments stand or fall by it. All the languages of the different communities and their culture will be absorbed in the Assamese culture. I speak with rather authority kin this matter regarding the mind of our people that this state cannot nourish any other language in this province.12 Gopinath Bordoloi, the Chief Minister, also did not make any false promise when he said in the Assembly: “For the homogeneity of the province, they (non-Assamese) should adopt the Assamese language.
It is not the intention of the Government to make Assam a bi-lingual state.”13 It was perhaps a slip on the part of the Chief Minister to pronounce the intention of the government that way. What would be the language of a state under the democratic system does not actually depend upon the intention of the government but on the people or peoples of the state. On the other hand in deliberation of his party MLAs, there is a reference to ‘our people’. These people were obviously the Assamese people whose cause he championed. Phookan was emphatic about the mind of his own people but did not concern himself with the feeling of the people who were not his. One who knows Assam, of course, can easily discern that Bordoloi and Phookan were speaking to complement each other. Phookan spoke as the representative of the Assamese middle class which was the ruling class of Assam. And since independence, this class ‘has largely succeeded in projecting its own class and fictional interest as the interest of the Asamiya nationality, of the people of Assam.

Bordoloi was the leader of this class and hence when he spoke of the ‘intention of the Government’ he simply expressed the feeling of this class which successfully projected its own interest ‘as the interest of the people’. It needs to be mentioned that the Assamese middle class had complete control over the state power and most of the chronic problems of Assam had their origin in the fact that this control had been established and maintained ignoring the empirical realities of the polyethnic poly-linguistic Assam. However, this assertive language policy which has been termed as ‘aggressive nationalism’ by R.B. Vagaiwallah, the Census Superintendent of Assam,15 did not affect the Bodos directly during the early years. The Assam government was then primarily concerned with dealing with the Bengali language, which has been manifested in its education policy which has been mentioned earlier. In other spheres like land settlement also the government used the linguistic identity as a criteria for consideration, but the Bodos were spared. For instance, the government of Assam issued a circular prohibiting settlement of and to the non-indigenous people and while defining indigenous people it was stated; “indigenous persons of Assam mean persons belonging to the state of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any of the indigenous languages of the region.” 16 So, till then the Bodos did not find their language to be an impediment to their economic pursuits.17
It is not that the language consciouness of the Bodos was quite in an under developed stage in the fifties. Their advanced section adopted Assamese, but at the same time they were keen to develop their mother tongue. It is comparable to the situation of the British, provinces of the eighteenth century where the advanced section learned English to develop their respective vernacular languages. In the early fifties some Bodo youths felt that something had to be done for the development of their own speech that was yet to develop as a literary language. The outcome was the establishment of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha in 1952. The first President of the Sabha was Ravinendranath Basumatari, a very young enthusiast who had just come out from the college. Most of the other members of the executive committee were also young in age.
Bodo Sahitya Sabha came into existence without much fanfare and thereby its potential significance was missed by the Assamese. The title of the Sabha itself was inspired by Assam Sahitya Sabha, the giant organization run by the Assamese middle class for propagating Assamese language and culture throughout the state. It was and still is the basic organization that has enough clout to dictate to the government its linguistic and cultural policy. Financed heavily by the state, it is capable of distributing favours of immense magnitude to those who toe its line. All state awards concerning art, culture and literature are processed, directly or indirectly, through and by Asom Sahitya Sabha. In short, the cultural hegemony that the Assamese middle class has established over all other groups throughout the state may be attributed to the aggressive agenda of Asom Sahitya Sabha. The Bodo youths, while naming their literary organization, were obviously inspired by the wealth, grandeur and authority of this organization and had a dream of building up Bodo Sahitya Sabha in the same model with similar objective. Its beginning was humble, but its founders cherished a great dream. The setting up of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha (BSS) was itself a token protest against the language policy of the Assam government but that message was lost. None of the major Bodo leaders was associated with BSS initially and that reassured the state government to proceed with its language policy. In 1987, All Bodo Students’ Union in a memorandum submitted to the President of India observes:

Assam is a multilingual, multi-racial and multicultural state. But yet the Assamese people always try to impose Assamese language upon the non-Assamese people including the indigenous tribal people. As such, here arises the clash between the Assamese-speaking people on one hand and the tribals and other linguistic minorities on the other. 18 It took some time for the Bodo political leaders to take cognizance of this basic fact of Assam politics. But to the workers of the cultural and literary field, the fact became clear quite early. It was Asom Sahitya Sabha that contributed by its overzealous postures to the rapid development of cultural awareness amongst the Bodos. In 1950, Asom Sahitya Sabha first raised the demand for recognizing Assamese as the only official language of the state. The government was not unsympathetic towards the demand, but it was apprehensive of the reaction of the hill districts, particularly the districts of Khasi hills, the Garo hills, the Naga hills and the Mizo hills. So it bought time and at the same time encouraged the use of Assamese in the official transactions whenever and wherever possible. But the Assamese middle class became restive for statutory recognition of a de-factosituation. In April 1959, Asom Sahitya Sabha resolved in its annual conference that within one year the government should make Assamese the sole state language. To press the demand, September 9, 1959 was observed as the Demand Day with usual fanfare. Chief Minister B.P. Chaliha was hesitant which is apparent from his statement:

There are two important reasons which warrant enactment of a state language. First, to make the official communications easily understandable to the common men; and second, to break the barrier of language which now splits the diverge population of the state. The Government apprehends that if this issue was decided only on the basis of majority and minority, its object would be defeated. 19 The objective of the Chief Minister was to go for the enactment only after convincing the hill districts of its desirability. Otherwise, he knew all of them would opt out of Assam. Sahitya Sabha had already inducted its natural ally, the student community in the movement, and in no time the movement took a violent form, the victims being the Bengalis. Hardpressed by the situation, the Chief Minister was compelled to introduce a bill in the Assembly which subsequently became the Assam Official Language Act, 1960. 20 A unilingual Assam had always been the dream of the Assamese middle class since the British days.21 Asom Sahitya Sabha, since its inception in 1917, had been propagating this as the singular goal of the Assamese people. It is for this reason that the reaction of the hill districts was of no concern for them. If these districts opted out, that would strengthen the process of homogenization of Assam – that was the dominant feeling of the period. So, the enactment of the Assam Official Language Act was hailed by the Assamese middle class as a major victory and it was celebrated.

In this euphoria, a small development was not noticed by the Assamese people. When the debate on the issue of the state language was at its zenith, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha met and adopted a resolution. It received practically no attention from the political circles and the vocal Assamese press also preferred to ignore it. This indifference was due to the fact that the resolution of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha did not produce any immediate political effect. The Bodo MLAs, all of whom were in the Congress Legislative Party, remained loyal to the ruling group and none did express any resentment over the text of the Assam Official Lanugage Act. So, the dissenting voice of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha was dismissed as a whimsical extravagance of some frustrated youths. However, as a pre-emptive move, the ruling party arranged to coopt Ranendra Basumatari, who was the first President of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, w initially given a Congress nomination in an Assembly seat and subsequently was made a minister. This was thought to be sufficient to stifle any murmur of protest that might be voiced any Bodo group.

But the tactics, though they were effective on a short-term basis, ultimately did not produce the desired effect. Doubtless the resolution of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha had a political implication and power politics within the Bodo society also played its due role in its formulation; but the fact remains that it was a product of a specific historical situation when for the first time an indigenous community represented by its more radical section decided to oppose the cultural hegemony of the Assamese in the Brahmaputra Valley. This decision was momentary and the mere historical worth of this specific point of departure from the past line has made the resolution a testament around which the subsequent cultural aspiration of the Bodos has been evolving. The resolution for its historical significance deserves to be quoted in full:

Whereas the repercussion of the official language issue in Assam has threatened the very unity of the nation, in particular the unity of the state of Assam, the Bodo people of Assam view the development with grave concern. It has given its anxious thoughts over the issue and came to the conclusion that ‘Hindi’, the official language of India should be the only official language of Assam for the following reasons’.1. The unity of India has to be maintained in order to preserve the newly won independence. The issue of the official language in Assam has threatened the unity having given the fissiparous tendency which is harmful for Assam and for India as a whole.To put an end to this tendency the best course open is, in the opinion of the Bodo people, to accept ‘Hindi’ as the official language of the state of Assam placing thereby every linguistic group in the state on the same footing; that way putting the people of Assam one step forward towards learning Hindi.
2. It cannot be denied that Assam is a multilingual state. Every linguistic group desires to keep alive their literature and get education in their own mother tongue. The biggest linguistic group in the state is that of Assamese which can claim only 54
per cent.

According to the opinion of the S.R.C. a language should be spoken by seventy per cent or more to be recognized as an official language of a state. Looked at from this point of view the declaration of Assamese as Official language of Assam will mean imposition on the people of other linguistic groups. The people of the Hill districts and Cachar are almost one and all ignorant of this language. Even in the Brahmaputra Valley districts, mainly the northern parts of Goalpara, Kamrup and Darrang and some parts of Nowgong and North Lakhimpur districts the uneducated rural tribal people, mostly the Bodo people, are totally ignorant of this language. The purpose for the adoption the official language of a state is to better and smoothen the administration. In this the adoption of Assamese as an official language will totally fail. 3. In Assam, the Bodo speaking people are the largest tribal group. They have preserved their language and culture all these years under adverse circumstances. They desire very legitimately to preserve them in future also. They consider that to maintain their separate identity and to develop themselves most speedily, their children must be given education in their mother tongue. This will not be possible if Assamese is recognized as the official language of Assam because, in that case, Assamese will have to be learnt by the Bodo children putting thereby an extra burden upon them which will put them at a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis the Assamese-speaking students.

The resolution has different layers underneath and a closer scrutiny would reveal that below the surface the resolution contained in embryonic form most of the perceptions and strategies that have been deployed subsequently for the assertion of the Bodo identity. The suggestion for adoption of Hindi as the official language of Assam
may appear at the first sight as a pious wish of some simple-minded tribal youths unaware of the complexities of the vexed problem. But the fact was otherwise; the suggestion to adopt Hindi as the official language of Assam was incorporated in the resolution on two important considerations. First, the Bodo people had seen the zeal and aggressiveness with which Assamese was being propagated by some influential section of the majority; they had rightful apprehension that once recognized as official language, Assamese would be imposed on all and in every sphere and thereby their Bodo language would face extinction. So, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha preferred to adopt a negative policy than to allow imposition of Assamese.

This negation of Assamese at all cost subsequently became an ingredient of the Bodo assertion that became more explicit during the script movement of the seventies. Anyway, the move of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha also advocated the case of Hindi. This was done as a strategy for placating the central government whose support the Sabha needed to combat the policy of the linguistic expansionism pursued by the Assam government.

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