July 09, 2020
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The 50-50 Shot

Gogoi’s Hindu card gamble is biting back—with the Bodos

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The 50-50 Shot
Sandipan Chatterjee
The 50-50 Shot

First things first: thrice as many Muslims have been killed in Assam in July-August than Hindu Bodos whose cause the BJP is so passionately advocating nationally. Some 56 Muslims lost their lives, compared to 17 on the Bodo side. Rampaging Bodos also mistook two Bengali Hindus for members of the minority community and shot them, but these two murders are still a state secret. The official death toll, 84, includes the nine unidentified bodies rotting in the police morgues.

Chief minister Tarun Gogoi, speaking to Outlook, refused to divulge the exact number of dead Muslims and Bodos; he mumbled endlessly in the pin-drop silence of his study about how the publication of community-wise casualty figures would hurt national interests and hamper the return of normalcy in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), where the savagery started in late July, forcing lakhs of people from both communities to flee their homes.

“The burning question today is: will the Bodo terrorists again get away with murder as they have always done in the past, or will they be made to pay for their heinous crimes against humanity?” asks Devabrata Sharma, leading civil rights campaigner and professor of English at Jorhat College. Political analyst Noni Gopal Mahanta believes that Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, who rushed to the bleeding state, besides despatching P. Chidambaram and Sushil Shinde, might compel Gogoi to crack down this time on the Bodos, at least to assuage Muslim sentiments across India ahead of general elections. “There is so much at stake that I even foresee Gogoi losing his job if he doesn’t deliver,” says Mahanta.

Classified Special Branch figures accessed by Outlook reveal that whether their targets are Muslims or Adivasis, the Bodos have invariably inflicted more casualties than they have suffered. The reason is quite simple—the AK-47s Bodo militias were supposed to surrender after signing the 2003 peace accord but didn’t. An Assam government  official disclosed that extremist groups like the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have as many as 350-400 automatic weapons in their arsenal in the four districts comprising BTAD—Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa.

As killings spiralled in recent weeks, the Union home ministry had directed the Assam government to immediately launch a deweaponisation  programme. But the administration is still dragging its feet. To be sure, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF)—the political party launched after the peace accord—is a coalition partner in Gogoi’s government. But the BPF, like the BLT and NDFB, also enjoys the full backing of the BJP in its blatantly communal campaign against so-called Bangladeshi ‘infiltrators’. The nexus between BPF lawmakers—some are now in the dock for the anti-Muslim pogrom—and BJP leaders ranging from Guwahati MP Bijoya Chakraborty to L.K. Advani and Nitin Gadkari is an undeniable reality.

On August 7, BPF MPs S.K. Bwiswmuthiary and Biswajit Daimary, Bodoland Territorial Council deputy chairman Kampa Borgoyari and All Bodo Students Union president Pramod Bodo shared the stage with Gadkari and retired Lt Gen S.K. Sinha during a seminar on ‘Bodo Hindus—Refugees in their own land: Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators—the new kingmakers in an Indian state’, organised by the Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation in Delhi. C.K. Das, retired chief secretary of Assam and now a BJP full-timer, is known to liaise with the BPF leadership on behalf of the Sangh parivar.

Gogoi parried questions about the BPF’s cosy relationship with the BJP while sharing power with the Congress. “I have nothing to say at present because all political parties have agreed upon a ceasefire for the sake of peace. But being the CM, I am certainly not in the dark about what’s going on in Assam or Delhi,” he said. In the 2011 assembly elections, Gogoi easily got the better of both Hindutva parties—the BJP and AGP—by pandering to Hindu voters. Realising that the Muslims had deserted the Congress for the Ajmal Badruddin-led aiduf, Gogoi pulled out all the stops to court the Hindu constituency with stunning results.

Invite to the BJP-organised meet on ‘Bodo Hindu refugees’

“Gogoi projected himself as the saviour of Assamese Hindus. His rhetoric put even the VHP and Bajrang Dal in the shade. Naturally, he stole the BJP-AGP’s thunder,” says Rashid Chowdhury, prominent high court lawyer and the brains behind the Citizens’ Rights Preservation Committee (CRPC). The Congress won an absolute majority, bagging 78 seats in a house of 126. “It suits Gogoi politically to pile pressure on the BPF to part company with the BJP...which poses a challenge to the Congress anyway,” adds Chowdhury. “But the BPF, which has its own extremist-supremacist agenda, might not comply; let’s not forget that the BPF is irresistibly drawn to the BJP.”

The Bodos chose the terror path way back in 1987 with the slogan, ‘Divide Assam 50-50’, leaving behind a grisly trail of death and destruction. The first tripartite peace treaty between the Bodos, the Centre and state government was signed in 1993; the Congress ruled in both Delhi and Dispur then but the pact collapsed in no time under the weight of its own contradictions. So another accord was signed in 2003 when the BJP was in power at the Centre and Gogoi ruled the state. It had L.K. Advani’s blessings but was destined to be disastrous because the BTAD, covering some 8,795 sq km area, was handed on a platter to the Bodos who comprise merely 20 per cent of the population. And in the newly-created self-governing body called Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), 30 out of 46 seats were reserved for Bodos!

Devabrata, who is the chief advisor of the leftist United Revolutionary Movement Council of Assam (URMCA), says, “Nothing could be more undemocratic and discriminatory (than the creation of the BTAD-BTC). Democracy is all about majority rule. BTAD-BTC is just the reverse of that principle. How can 20 per cent rule over 80 per cent? Because the Bodos do not enjoy numerical majority, they are resorting to ethnic cleansing, targeting Muslims, Adivasis, Rajbanshis and even Assamese caste Hindus. The Bodos have become a law unto themselves. We stand for the dissolution of BTAD and BTC to stop the rape of democracy. Bodos comprise a little over six per cent of the state’s population but are demanding 50 per cent of Assam for the Bodoland of their dreams. Muslims comprise over 30 per cent of Assam’s population. Yet they have so far displayed exemplary patience despite grave provocations. What will happen if Muslims and other victimised communities unite and retaliate?”

Sharma’s depiction of Bodo belligerence is borne out by Anjali Daimari’s response to Outlook’s poser about the ways and means to restore the peace.  Daimary, convenor of the Bodo National Conference, an umbrella organisation of 25 Bodo outfits, replied: “Obviously there is no place for illegal migrants in BTAD. What’s even more crucial and non-negotiable is that all non-Bodos living in BTAD should be mentally prepared to meekly accept the leadership of the Bodos.” Asked to elaborate, she added: “There is simply no room in BTAD for bodies like the Anabodo Suraksha Samity, or Non-Bodos Protection Committee. Who are these Mahantas and Kalitas running the Samity? Assamese Hindus, Muslims, Bengalis, Rajbanshis, Adivasis, Nepalis or Saranias residing in BTAD must curb their egos for their own good. That’s it.”

Clearly, the Bodos are a very confident lot today, having grown from strength to strength since 2003. They have reaped huge dividends from their investments in both the national parties. Besides running the BTC, they have extracted tangible and intangible benefits as partners in two successive Congress-led coalition governments in Assam since 2006. In 2006, out of the 10 BPF MLAs three were made ministers by Gogoi (whose regime was a bit shaky at that stage because the Congress had only 53 seats in the 126-strong legislative assembly). But in 2011 the Congress tally shot up to 78 seats. Now there are 12 BPF MLAs, but only one, Chandan Brahmo, is a minister. Significantly, the BPF has leveraged its political clout to send an MP to the Rajya Sabha (Biswajit Daimary), instal a Bodo judge in the Gauhati High Court (P.K. Mushary), a Bodo chairman in the Assam Public Service Commission (Gita Basumatary), a Bodo governor in the Shillong Raj Bhawan (Ranjit Sekhar Mooshary) and even a Bodo election commissioner (H.S. Brahma).  

The recent massacre of Muslims has reopened the debate over the wisdom of signing peace accords with “agents of violence wearing a fig-leaf of ethno-nationalism”, to quote Ravindra Narayan Ravi, one of the Intelligence Bureau’s foremost experts on the Northeast.  Ravi, who retired as special director in April, says, “The situation has worsened since 1993 when the state started appeasing radical ethno-nationalists for political gains and inaugurated as many as 21 ethnic-centric constitutional, statutory and administrative autonomous councils. Hiteswar Saikia (former CM) spawned seven. Gogoi has fathered 14. The BLT, responsible for much of the recent bloodshed, was supposed to have disarmed itself in 2003 but its core armed capability has remained intact with the tacit nod of the state. The government’s patronage of non-state agents of violence, alluring them with incentives for their smash-and-grab politics and the total collapse of the criminal justice system have created a criminogenic environment in Assam.”

“The new councils have overnight created a large mass of disgruntled others who share the habitat but feel institutionally discriminated against by the state. Innumerable faultlines,  hitherto latent or non-existent, emerged and unleashed centripetal forces of varying magnitude. Communities that peacefully existed for long are now gunning for each other. In the last two decades, Bodos, Muslims, Adivasis, Koch-Rajbanshis, Rabhas, Garos, Karbis, Dimasas, Nagas, Kukis, Hmars, Morans and Mishings have clashed frequently,” he adds. According to Ravi, “the Centre that underwrites Gogoi’s misadventures is a partner in his sins; the state government today is like a zombie with a Kalashnikov in one hand and wads of cash in the other—both generously supplied by the Centre!”  

Wajahat Habibullah, one of India’s most respected civil servants who now heads the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), has given the prime minister in writing that there is every danger of the Muslims in BTAD becoming militants in the future if their security is not ensured. The NCM report submitted after visiting Assam states that jehadi elements from the rest of the country might start sending lethal weapons to the troubled region if remedial action is not taken quickly. Devabrata, on the other hand, invoked Shakespeare. “The bard wrote that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The same can be said about Assam today.”

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