August 03, 2020
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The Bodo War Cry

Gowda’s ambivalence revives the Bodos’ stir for statehood

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The Bodo War Cry

EVER since Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda promised statehood for Uttarakhand on August 15, ethnic groups elsewhere in the country aspiring for a similar status have taken heart and intensified their agitation. Among the prominent ones hoping to get a separate state are the Gork-has in and around Darjeeling and the Bodos, a plains tribal group inhabiting the western districts of Assam.

Although Gowda sent out mixed signals on the Bodo-land issue during his visit to the North-east last month, the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), which has been leading the agitation since 1987, is determined to go to any lengths to achieve its goal, notwithstanding any bloodshed in the region. As ABSU President Urkhao Gwra Brahma told Outlook a day after Gowda flew back to Delhi: "If the Centre and the state government continue to adopt an indifferent attitude towards our demand, the agitation may take a violent turn." 

The anger among the Bodos may be inevitable since ABSU was given an impression by Gowda that the Centre would discuss the matter with all the groups concerned before arriving at any decision. But the Prime Minister made a categorical statement in Itanagar soon after ruling out statehood for the Bodos.

 The Bodos have been demanding a separate state on and off since 1967 but the movement really took off in 1987 when the ABSU took up the cause under its charismatic leader Upendra Brahma. A six-year agitation, which was often violent, culminated in a compromise formula hastily strung together by the high-flying Rajesh Pilot, who was then Union minister of state for internal security. The February 1993 accord envisaged an autonomous council for the Bodos. This set-up, which came to be known as the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), was much short of expectations and vague on several details. But Pilot’s persuasion—and the fact that the movement was running out of steam after Upendra Brahma’s premature death due to cancer—ensured that his terms were accepted.

It is then that the second mistake occurred. The late Congress chief minister, Hiteswar Saikia, who was not taken into confidence while drawing up the accord terms, sabotaged its implementation. Taking advantage of the absence of any demarcated boundary for the BAC, he employed his famed divide and rule policy and split the Bodo political party, formed by the ABSU leaders in the wake of the accord. For three years, the provisions of the accord remained unfulfilled. Finally, this March, the ABSU, which was watching the drama from the sidelines, again decided to intervene. It got different factions together and went back to its demand for a separate state. As Hemendra Brahma, a Bodo MLA allied with ABSU says: "Only a separate state can meet our aspirations. For too long, the rulers have exploited us and neglected our demands. Under the present administrative set-up we will never get justice."

 Brahma’s contention is not far from the truth. The 12-lakh strong Bodos, largest of the plains tribes living in Assam, have largely remained beyond the government’s plans of development. The western Assam district of Kokrajhar, dominated by the Bodos, is one of the most backward areas of the state. Successive state governments have simply remained indifferent to the area and its people. Government jobs are hard to come by for the tribe, and agriculture, the main vocation of the Bodos, is not self-sustaining.

The ABSU, upset by Gowda’s ambivalence, warned of an intensified agitation at a massive rally in Guwahati on October 28. The original war cry of "divide Assam 50:50" was heard in the state capital after 10 years. But the ruling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is unlikely to grant the ABSU its wish. Instead, Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta is promoting a rival Bodo faction led by the Peoples Democratic Front (PDF), an AGP ally in the state assembly. The PDF, which openly acknowledges its ties with the banned Bodo Security Force (BDSF), is currently ruling the BAC. But Mahanta will have to tread carefully since leaving out the ABSU and its associate organisations from any permanent arrangement would only aggravate the situation.

The state government, however, cannot afford to ignore the problem, for the Bodos have an ace up their sleeve: they dominate the Kokrajhar area which connects the North-east to the rest of the country through what is known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’. When the Bodos block the road and rail link, the entire region gets affected since all the North-eastern states depend on essential items coming from other parts of the country. Much now depends on how Mahanta plays his cards in the coming months in trying to resolve the Bodo impasse. 

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