By: Dhruv Singh
Who are the Bodos?
The Bodos are one of those various Indo-Mongoloid communities which belonged to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. This ethno-linguistic group was one of the earliest inhabitants of Assam. The Bodos are mostly concentrated in the Bodoland Territorial Region, north of the Brahmaputra River in Assam, forming the largest ethno-linguistic group in the state, with a population of around 6% according to the 2011 survey. The people belonging to the Bodo tribes mostly live in rural villages and practice agriculture, employing traditional techniques for sustenance. The Bodo Empire encompassed almost the entirety of northeast India, parts of Nepal, North Bengal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Origin of the Dispute
The Bodos started facing various issues such as illegal immigration from neighboring areas, encroachment of their lands by the settlers, loss of their culture and language as well as forced assimilation beginning in the early 20th century. People from neighboring Muslim majority regions as well as from Hindu dominated regions of Bengal and Bihar were coming and settling in the Bodo majority areas, and were slowly changing the demography and taking over historically Bodo controlled regions. The members of the tribe felt as if the cultures of the immigrants were overshadowing theirs and felt that their language and culture would be lost forever if they did not take any action. The first demand of creating Bodoland as a separate state was raised in the 1930s by Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma, a social and religious reformer of Bodo society. He submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission urging for a separate political setup for the various tribes that was led by their respective members. However, this demand was rejected by both the then Colonial India and then subsequently by the newly Independent India.
After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, people were fleeing for their lives to avoid the persecution of the Pakistani army under the leadership of General Tikka Khan. The Muslims fleeing the country chose to settle in the Indian State of Assam in masses including the regions claimed by the Bodo tribes. This amplified the problems being faced by the members of the tribe and they felt as if their voices were not being heard by the state or the central government. This coupled with the fact that this region had seen little to no development since independence and lagged behind in education and employment; added fuel to fire. When this issue of Bodoland came to a boiling point in the 1980s, a local social activist Upendranath Brahma formed the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) along with a political organization Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC). These organizations were formed with the objective of attaining a 50-50 split of the state of Assam to carve out Bodoland. Under their proposed plan, the western half of the state would have become Bodoland, whereas the eastern half would
remain to be known as the state of Assam.
Split of Bodoland Statehood Movement
Initially this movement started out peacefully but as time passed it turned increasingly violent. Protests, riots, bloodshed, murders and burning of public property became frequent occurrences at the height of the movement in the 1980s. In 1986 the movement split into 2 distinct factions- the first being the political movement and the other being a violent insurgency. The political groups were led by the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) while the armed groups were mainly represented by National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF). Their demands were finally heard by the state government in 1993 and the Bodoland Autonomous Council was created. Under this, the Bodos were granted autonomy from the decisions of the state and could take important decisions on topics concerning infrastructure and education that suited their own needs. However, this peace did not last long and the agreement broke by the year 1996.
The Government finally takes action
In response to the failure of the accords, the All Bodo Students Union started a mass agitation and this time they clearly said that an autonomous zone would not fulfill their needs and what they needed was statehood. The central government took notice of the unrest and signed the Bodo accords in 2003 with the Bodo liberation Tigers, then a militant organization. The Assam state government was also a party to the newly signed Bodo accords. Under this agreement, a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was created and had administrative, executive, financial and legislative powers over 40 policy areas. The BTC was assigned with the task of fulfilling the educational, economic and linguistic aspirations of the Bodos as well as the preservation of land-rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos while speeding up the pace of infrastructure development. Four districts of Northern Assam namely Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa where Bodo population was concentrated came under the BTC administrative area. The BTC was formed under the 6th schedule of the constitution of India concerning the administration of tribal areas.
Fallout of the accords
The accords were accepted widely by the people but peace was still not achieved. As soon as the BTC was formed a power struggle began among the various factions of the parties over the control of the BTC. The parties that were not able to grab power in the BTC started to sabotage the working of the council through hostile behavior and non-cooperation of the people belonging to their factions rendering the council powerless. This gave rise to frustration among the people and a renewed call for statehood of Bodoland. After the surrender of BLTF in 2003, the various factions of NDFB have led the struggle for the statehood of Bodoland. The group has carried out several attacks, killings and bomb blasts targeting non-Bodo civilians, non-Bodo tribals, Bangladeshi migrants as well as the security forces in the areas it claims to be Bodo territory. In 2012 there were violent clashes between ethnic Bodos and Muslim settlers in Assam state which resulted in riots that continued for a month. 5 lakh people had to be displaced and 80 people died as a result of these clashes. After the riots only one faction NDFB(S) remained as the single active Bodo insurgent group operating in Assam.
Another attempt to achieve peace?
In January 2020 the Central Government along with the State Government signed a new BODO accord with representatives of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU). According to this agreement NDFB will surrender thus ending the military insurgency of the Bodoland Statehood Movement as well as give up all its weapons. In return The Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) will now have more administrative power and the Bodos would enjoy greater political rights safeguarding their language and culture. The Bodo language with Devanagari script was recognized as an associate official language in Assam. An economic package of Rs. 900 crores was also announced by the central government for development of the Bodoland areas.
How does the situation stand today?
In October this year, a new apolitical organization called the All India Bodo People’s National League for Bodoland Statehood led by former MP Sansuma K. Bwismwmuthiary, vowed to reignite the statehood movement. They rejected the BTR accords and claimed it was a betrayal of the Bodo people as it had a provision of excluding villages with more than 50% of non-Bodo population, thus effectively reducing the area under the current BTC.
The Ministry of Home Affairs remains firm to maintain the territorial integrity of Assam and has rejected to entertain any demand for a separate state or a Union Territory. The Bodos want a separate state on grounds of preservation of racial and ethnic heritage however, according to the constitution this is not a valid ground for the creation of a new state.