Prime Concern: Unrest in Bodoland

The killing fields of Assam

In Assam’s endless cycle of violence, the death toll is not what matters.

The killing fields of Assam

Villagers use a makeshift stretcher to carry a body at Phulbari village in Sonitpur district. Rural Assam has seen a series of coordinated attacks unleashed by separatist rebels. AFP

By Bijay Sankar Bora

In Assam’s endless cycle of violence, the death toll is not what matters. It’s how many escaped the carnage that becomes the talking point. Such has been the ferocity and intensity of massacres in the state over the years that the casualty figures become mere numbers to be added to the terror count.


On December 23, NDFB-S militants attacked Adivasi settlers in Phulbari village near Pabhoi reserve forest on the Arunachal border and Batasipur near Dhekiajuli (both in Sonitpur district), and Serfanguri and Ultapani in Kokrajhar district.

 

December 23 was another in a long list of shameful days that North-East India’s largest and arguably the country’s most diverse state has got accustomed to. So accustomed in fact that the Tarun Gogoi government failed to act despite intelligence inputs that the breakaway Sangbijit militant faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) was planning a major strike.

Deputy Speaker Bhimananda Tanti gave another example of the casual approach of the state apparatus: “Such attacks keep occurring, nothing new in it. Be it Pakistan, Bangladesh or Assam, such attacks happen despite proper security arrangements.”

The victims this time were mostly Adivasi villagers in Kokrajhar district, falling within the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District Council (BTC) area in north Assam, and in parts of Sonitpur district outside the BTC area. They retaliated too and the death toll has reached 76. The Adivasis originally came from West Bengal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, and most have grown up on the tea plantations of Upper Assam, forming the complex mix of communities inhabiting the area. The perpetrators, the Sangbijit faction of NDFB, are known for extortion and abduction activities against the non-Bodos. Ethnic insecurity is again being cited as the reason behind the killings, but that’s been the story in these parts for decades now.

The region’s oldest and culturally rich plains tribe, the Bodos make up only 38 per cent of the population of the Autonomous Council according to official records but wield high political power. This is questioned by the non-Bodos as their political aspirations rise.

The Autonomous Council was formed after the Bodoland Peace Accord was signed in 2003 by the Centre, the Assam government and the disbanded Bodo Liberation Tiger militants. The Accord did work well for some time despite the uneasy political and social atmosphere in areas inhabited by Bodos and other communities like Adivasis, Bengali-speaking Muslims and Koch-Rajbongshis. But the fault lines run too deep to be ignored in political and social terms by the governments.

Prof Rajib Hadique of the Department of History at Gauhati University traces the genesis of the violence that has been taking place in the Bodoland area to the colonial times. “The colonial experience in Assam was very traumatic as it entailed huge changes in the ecology and demography of the province. The traditional rights of the indigenous people over the forests were taken away and British imperial interests led to large-scale alienation of land for setting up tea plantations. This loss of land that was once considered common property by tribes like the Bodos created huge problems,” he says.

The threat to the Bodos’ identity with the huge demographic changes effected by the plantation industry and the immigration from East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh, created a situation of land hunger. “It is this land hunger and the problem of identity, of getting marginalised in one’s own homeland, that leads to ethnic clashes and takes the form of ethnic cleansing,” he says.

Prof Rajib Hadique blames the central and Assam governments for failing to address the structural dimension of this political problem, turning it into a protracted social conflict with no easy solution in sight. It’s a view endorsed by former Union Home Secretary GK Pillai, who says a political solution is needed, with all the communities being brought to the table.

The ethnic divide and tension was reflected in the last Lok Sabha election in which a non-Bodo Independent candidate, Naba Kumar Sarania (a former ULFA militant), emerged the winner from the lone parliamentary seat of Kokrajhar in the area over his Bodo rivals on the strength of a large section of non-Bodo voters. The political setback was hard to digest for the Bodos and the demand for a separate Bodoland state by dividing Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley regained momentum. Anjali Daimari, convenor of the Bodo National Conference, says the Bodos’ fears are real. “Today, the indigenous population is facing a threat. People now say we (Bodos) are just 20 per cent of the population."

Prominent Bodo civil society leader Kameswar Brahma blames the Centre for the mess. “It has failed to provide the rights to the Bodos and Adivasis. Even though we have the Bodoland Territorial Areas District under the Bodoland Territorial Council, it is more or less toothless. The state government is also neglecting the Bodo areas. The BTC should have been provided with full administrative and police power," he says. All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) president Promode Boro expresses concern over the new non-Bodo organisations coming up in BTC areas. “These are working against the interests of the Bodos and also the non-Bodos. They are instigating a sense of insecurity among the non-Bodo population in Bodo areas,” he says.

The statehood demand of the Bodos dates back to the 1980s when the All Bodo Students’ Union launched an agitation that put the so-called Bodoland area in the state on the boil. The agitation later transformed into a militant movement that shattered the social fabric in the area and gave rise to Bodo insurgent groups like the NDFB and BLT. The BLT was neutralised by the signing of the Bodoland Peace Accord, but the NDFB remained out of bounds as it was not part of the peace process. The BLT scaled down its demand for a separate Bodoland state within India to autonomy during the peace negotiations.

Though the Accord granted autonomy to Bodos, it could not satiate the Bodo militant groups, especially the NDFB (see box). It wants a sovereign Bodo homeland to protect the identity and the political and economic rights of the Bodo tribe, which claims an increasing threat from the burgeoning non-Bodo population in the area.

Violence has unfortunately been seen as a solution to the problem. And the killings haven't stopped. In 1996, the Bodo-Adivasi conflict saw the displacement of over 2.5 lakh people in Kokrajhar and Gossaigaon. Similar clashes occurred in 1998, triggering another wave of exodus from both the communities. Hundreds lost their lives and the 1990s witnessed militancy reach its peak particularly in Kokrajhar district.

The attacks on Adivasis led to the birth of Adivasi militant forces as well, like the Adivasi Cobra Force and Birsa Commando Force, which later signed a truce pact with the government.

The NDFB-Sangbijit faction’s hand was also suspected in the 2012 communal riots between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims and killings of non-Bodos around the Lok Sabha elections this year.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has hinted at a 2003 Bhutan-type operation to flush out Bodo militants and the Central government is in talks with Myanmar and Bhutan, where the key leaders have been operating from. The Central government has extended the ban on NDFB(S) by five years and the Suspension of Operations agreement with NDFB (Progressive) for six months, besides launching an all-out Army operation. That would take care of the militants for now, but a political solution is what could possibly end the spiral of violence.

Democratic front, but militant ways


“Stop the killings.” The message’s clear as tension simmers between Bodos, non-Bodos. 

 

The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Bodoland Liberation Tiger were responsible for large-scale ethnic cleansing — in 1993-94 against all non-Bodo communities and in 1996 and 1998 against Adivasis. It was apparently aimed at scaring away the non-Bodo population from the core of the so-called Bodo heartland.

While the BLT negotiated peace with the Centre that resulted in the Accord in 2003, the NDFB did not lay down arms and stood firm on its demand for a sovereign Bodo homeland to protect the identity and the political and economic rights of the Bodo tribe.

The NDFB split in 2008 after the serial blasts that left over 100 dead in four places, including the heart of Guwahati city. The mastermind was believed to be NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary, then taking shelter in Bangladesh. 

The blasts were triggered despite NDFB extending an olive branch and a section of its cadres led by Gobinda Basumatary living in truce-time camps funded by the Centre.

The Basumatary faction parted ways with the Daimary group and after forming the NDFB (Progressive), continued the peace process. Daimary was nabbed in Bangladesh in 2010 and handed over to the Indian authorities. While he was in jail, a section of the Bodo civil society mounted pressure on the Assam government to start negotiations with his faction, NDFB (R). They demanded his release, notwithstanding the seriousness of the charges against him.

The then Congress-led UPA government engaged its peace interlocutor and former Intelligence Bureau chief PC Haldar to talk to Daimary while he was in jail. Daimary is now out on bail with the government showing laxity in pursuing the case against him in right earnest.  Even while the NDFB (R) was preparing for a prolonged negotiation with New Delhi, one of its leaders Sangbijit strayed and formed the NDFB (Sangbijit) faction in 2012 and since then has been creating trouble in remote parts of the Bodoland and neighbouring areas through extortion, abduction and occasional killing of non-Bodos.

Some  cadres are suspected to be taking shelter in Bhutan and Arunachal to dodge the counter-insurgency operation in Assam, while Sangbijit has found sanctuary in Myanmar with the help of anti-talks faction of ULFA.

Endless cycle of VIolence

  • In 1993, more than 20,000 Muslims were displaced in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. The attacks continued in 1994 and 60 villages in four districts of Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Kokrajhar and Dhubri were targeted. About 400 were killed. 
  • In 1996, NDFB massacred over 250 Adivasis mostly in Kokrajhar district and burnt down scores of villages. In response, the Adivasis formed the Adivasi Cobra Force, their own militant group. Over two lakh were displaced.
  • About 50 were killed, over 500 houses burnt down and 70,000 displaced as Bodos and Adivasis clashed in 1998 in Gossaigaon sub-division of Kokrajhar district.
  • The conflict involving Bodos and Muslim in Udalguri in 2008 left more than 100 people dead and about 1.5 lakh people of various communities as refugees in relief camps at Darang, Udalguri, Kharupetia and other places.
  • Communal conflict between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims in 2012 claimed 80 lives and affected over four lakh people from both the communities
  • In May 2014, over 30 non-Bodos, mostly Bengali-speaking immigrant Muslims, were killed by Bodo ultras to avenge defeat of Bodo candidates in the lone Lok Sabha (Kokrajhar-ST) constituency to a non-Bodo

‘Inept’ Gogoi faces heat


Tarun Gogoi, assam chief minister

 

The latest spell of killings perpetrated by NDFB-S militants has put the Tarun Gogoi government on a shaky ground because of its inept handling of the counter-insurgency strategy. The Congress Chief Minister, who also holds the Home portfolio, had remarked recently that his government was not much bothered about small militant groups like the NDFB-S. In the aftermath of the violence, a visibly-rattled Gogoi, who’s never lost an opportunity to take a jibe at the Narendra Modi government on any issue, expressed his gratitude to the Centre for extending help promptly in the hour of crisis. 

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who had come to take stock in the violence-affected districts, made it clear that from now onwards the Centre would decide on how to deal with terror groups like the NDFB-S in Assam. This does not augur well for the Gogoi government and Assam police force. The state BJP has already raised the demand for imposition of President’s rule, and another spell of violence could put the Gogoi government in trouble. The veteran Congress leader would probably be banking on the fact that the BJP, which has only five MLAs, is not adequately prepared to face an early Assembly election, which is due in 2016.

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