Complexity and conflict in Assam’s ‘Bodoland’

Authorities in India need to act against armed groups and ensure share of power between ethnic and religious groups.

The violence was perpetrated on some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the state [EPA]

Indian political pundits and election officials are probably extremely dismayed with the violence in Assam state, in the country’s northeast, which has blotted efforts for a peaceful national election.

More than 40 persons have died in the attacks, almost all of them being Bengali-origin Muslims, in a sudden, ugly burst of killings in one of the eastern most states of the country and perpetrated on some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the state.

There are a range of complex factors behind the eruption of violence in this slice of western Assam, part of an extremely diverse geographical and ethnographic region which abuts on four nations – Myanmar, Tibet/China, Bhutan and Bangladesh; barely four percent of its borders are with the Indian mainland.

The communities comprise not less than 220 ethnic groups – large and small – and are barely three percent of India’s population of one billion plus. Many of these groups have roots in other parts of Southeast Asia and are the descendants of old migrations.

Crucible of revolts

The northeast region has been the crucible of revolts against the Indian state for more than 60 years, challenging the limits of democracy; governments have resorted to extreme measures to suppress uprisings.

Ethnic relations between competing groups have been fragile with clashes over space and identity. There were several armed groups seeking various forms of autonomy or independence in Assam alone of which most are in a ceasefire mode or in negotiations to settle their grievances.

Indeed, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam, that wedge of land which has been at the heart of the recent violence and that of 2012, exemplifies the complexity of the issues, the challenges in handling them and how explosive such contestations over land, identity and mobilisation can be.  

The area has seen a series of riots, gun battles and killings over the past 20 years involving Bodos, local Muslims and other resident ethnic groups. Yet, till 1993, when the first attacks by rebels on civilian groups took place, there were hardly any communal riots. In the 2012 riots, police linked members of the Bodo ruling party to the extensive violence. 

The current parliamentary elections have created concern among Bodos that for the first time in 20 years, a Bodo may not win the local seat. This could have triggered part of the backlash, apart from the involvement of supporters of the ruling elite and an armed faction.,

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The Bodos, the largest tribe in the plains of Assam, control this area and their leaders won special powers and privileges after a 2003 agreement with the federal government closed campaigns of armed and non-violent campaigns for separation. The Sixth Schedule of the constitution was invoked here, an affirmative set of laws asserting the primacy of local tribes over non-tribe groups in different parts of the northeast. That agreement rewarded the Bodoland Tigers Force, an armed group, with political power, which it has held for over 10 years, while also becoming a coalition partner to the Congress Party in Assam state.

Fragile peace

However, the 2003 agreement did not bring the anticipated peace; the conflict was sustained by another group wanting “independence” but was later brought into a peace process. A third faction has played spoiler and is accused by government of being directly involved in the recent killings. Throughout this period, the victims have largely been from what Indian officials euphemistically call the “minority” community – or Muslims.

Another phrase is often used to target the Muslim groups here – they are described as “Bangladeshis”, playing into a deep fear in Assam and the northeast that illegal migration from neighbouring Bangladesh is swamping the region and changing its demographic profile.

Independent scholars and researchers say that there has been migration from Bangladesh in the past and some still continues. However, they say that these figures are exaggerated to play up right-wing assertions and local apprehensions. Assam saw a powerful anti-immigrant movement in the 1980s that exploded into communal clashes, which left thousands dead. Muslims are over one third of the state’s population and play a key role in deciding the fate of more than 30 state assembly constituencies out of 126. 

However, the current parliamentary elections have created concern among Bodos that, for the first time in 20 years, a Bodo may not win the local seat. This could have triggered part of the backlash, apart from the involvement of supporters of the ruling elite and an armed faction.

It is necessary to understand the origins of these concerns: the BTC districts throw up a contradiction to the concept and practice of democracy where majorities win elections and rule areas. Here, the physical majority is non-Bodo – including Muslims, Assamese, Bengali Hindus and tribal groups such as the Adivasis and Koch-Rajbongshis. However, under the Bodo accord, the levers of political power, including representation in the local council or assembly, access to funds and the force of weapons (the place is awash with illegal small arms which have never been surrendered by various “accordist” armed bands), are with the Bodos.

As a result, the non-Bodo majority has increasingly felt marginalised and vulnerable. There have been not less than four major campaigns of bloodletting in the last 20 years (1993, 2008, 2012 and now) and tens of thousands remained unsettled and fearful in camps for the displaced.

Way forward

The assaults in 2012 saw perhaps the largest internal displacement in post-independence India with nearly half a million persons fleeing their homes after Bodo armed men attacked and burned villages; counter attacks by Muslims followed. Most victims of the riots of two years ago have reluctantly returned home, but some of them have been displaced again.

While May 16 will decide the fate of India’s next government, the results in the Bodo areas may indicate if a majority there has peacefully decided to express their opposition to the politics of discrimination and violence. For long, there has been growing public displeasure at the politics of expediency and lack of accountability about the way governments have rushed through accords with armed groups. These factions have often waged brutal campaigns and yet been rewarded with greater power. 

A way forward can emerge only by bringing all political, ethnic and religious groups together in a dialogue that asserts peace and mutual respect. The sharing of power is crucial especially at the village level so that funds and political patronage are not limited to one group alone. A third would be to ensure controls on further encroachment on tribal lands. Finally, a relentless campaign is needed against the armed groups and the killers as well as a crackdown against the circulation of small arms. This is a difficult road to take but there are few alternatives. Otherwise, radicalisation could grow. 

In the heat and dust of the Indian elections, the issue is already vanishing from media headlines. If the approach outlined above is not taken, the problem is likely to be buried before being tragically resurrected.

Sanjoy Hazarika is Director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamiia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is a columnist, author, documentary filmmaker and activist.