August 03, 2020
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The Discord Resurfaces

With the Bodo Accord remaining on paper, the Bodoland movement is gaining momentum again

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The Discord Resurfaces
An accord and three years down the line, the Bodo agitation is as intense as it has ever been. In fact, if one were to go by the spate of kidnappings and killings over the last couple of years and the tribals' access to sophisticated weaponry, the cry for Bodoland is only getting shriller. And with the various Bodo factions coming to an understanding of sorts, a more concerted bid for an independent state seems on the cards.

The optimism that the tripartite accord between the Bodos, the Assam government and the Centre would bring peace to the 600,000 tribals in six districts on the Brahmaputra's south bank seems misplaced. Says Sansuma Bwismutiary, the militant Bodo leader who signed the accord but has since backed out: "Much has changed after the accord. The state government has not honoured its minimum commitments. To stick to the accord would be to let down Bodo interests."

 Bwismutiary now says that nothing short of an independent state will do, even if it entails dividing Assam. He claims that the Bodo Autonomous Interim Council, set up under the agreement, is filled with "Congress stooges" who have no following. To make matters worse, Prem Singh Brahma, the moderate who succeeded him as head of the council, has begun to take a hardline stand like Bwismutiary. There is even talk that the two leaders, now that they have a common objective of an independent Bodoland, may have come together.

The Congress government is aware of the implications of a Brahma-Bwismutiary merger. An escalation of violence in the areas demarcated as autonomous under the accord is certain, the targets being non-tribal ethnic groups in the area. Already, the last six months have seen the killing of 30 Bengali Hindus, allegedly by the tribals. Extortion and kidnappings have become routine incidents.

Ironically, the 1993 accord sought to ensure a fair deal for the economically backward, socially oppressed Bodo tribals. The total population of the designated territory extending over six districts at the time was around 18 lakh, with non-tribal Koch Rajbongshis numbering around 8 lakh. They were later declared a Scheduled Tribe by the Assam government.

It may be argued in retrospect that, in their unseemly haste, Assam Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia, Bwismutiary and the then Union minister for internal security, Rajesh Pilot, all glossed over some sticking points that were not settled even as they initialled the accord. The Bodos, asking for more contiguous territory, wanted 515 additional villages within the designated area apart from the inclusion of the 10-km belt along the Bhutan border. The demand was rejected outright by the Centre for security reasons. Later, continuing bickering over these issues forced Bwismutiary to resign as head of the Bodoland Autonomous Interim Council and oppose the accord he had signed.

As for the possibility of Bwismutiary and Brahma coming together, it is likely to be welcomed by the Bodos. It would put an end to the intra-tribal clashes which resulted in the murder of over 30 tribals, mostly youths, in the last quarter of 1995. Members of the outlawed secessionist Bodo Security Force (BDSF) and the moderate faction of the All Bodo Students' Union are said to be involved in these. Bwismutiary is said to have been close to the BDSF, which has also rejected the accord and is demanding a sovereign Bodo state. But then, the dividing line between Bodo underground militants and the over-ground moderates has often been thin, to the point of non-existence.

There is little doubt that non-tribals, who are in a majority in the autonomous territory and are portrayed as oppressors by the militants, would be worst hit in the event of this new alliance. So, while Brahma minces no words in condemning the systematic targeting of non-tribals, were he to join hands with the militants, even this lone opposition to the killings from within the Bodo movement would be silenced. Moreover, while Brahma never really succeeded in halting the hit-and-run attacks by militants, he has arranged for financial assistance for the next of kin of victims besides issuing calls for ethnic harmony.

And so, the terror unleashed by the militants through kidnappings and killings is likely to escalate. According to government sources, the BDSF is armed with sophisticated weapons and has in recent years purchased AK-56 and AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns and grenades, mainly from Myanmar and Thailand. Besides, in fighting prowess, Bodo militants are rated several notches higher than theULFA cadres by army sources and are perhaps second only to the Naga insurgents. In the first week of March itself, Bodo militants belonging to different organisations killed no fewer than 23 persons.

As a matter of fact, the security forces, too, live in fear that the militants may strike any moment. On February 21, five Central Reserve Police Force jawans were killed at Bongaigaon and just the day before six army jawans had been ambushed. Police officials in Kokrajhar admit that there is very little the forces can do in the face of well-armed and trained militants who have mastered the topography and enjoy local support. Intelligence gathering agencies are also rather clueless about BDSF operations. One estimate, though, puts the number of hard-core top-level militants at only 30.

Saikia and Assam's Director General of Police Ranju Das have repeatedly urged the Centre to beef up the security presence in the affected districts and have asked for the deployment of additional companies of paramilitary personnel. Das says more Border Security Force men are needed to patrol the international border with Bhutan to prevent militants from taking shelter there. At present, there are only 110 companies of paramilitary troops in Assam. Points out Saikia: "In Punjab there are still over 300 companies of paramilitary forces and in Kashmir over 450. It is not easy to fight insurgency." The beleaguered chief minister has even offered to hold unconditional parleys with the ULFA and BDSF militants.

 Sources in the Assam government strongly deny opposition charges to the effect that the official machinery is being used to divide the Bodos and to decimate their moderate leadership. Says Saikia: "It is the Centre which has refused to hand over the areas close to the Bhutan border to the tribal leadership. Given the extent of militant activity within Bhutan, which government would have acted differently? Similarly, the Bodos are demanding some of the reserve forests and villages on grounds of contiguity without bothering about population patterns or environment restrictions. The government cannot compromise its stand on such matters and yield to pressure."

Perhaps not. But the fact is that his failure to winsome concessions from the Central Government certainly hampered Brahma's prospects as a budding moderate leader among militant Bodos. Also, Guwahati's open support for the Koch Rajbongshis—evident in the Scheduled Tribe status accorded to them—has alienated much of the Bodo silent majority

. As a result, the moderates are coming in for much flak from within the Bodo fold. Brahma, till he made his anti-accord stand clear, was seen as an outcaste by his brethren. His survival as a leader itself was being threatened. Other moderates are also trying to project themselves as sharing the same ideology as the hardliners—in short, there is unanimity that nothing short of a separate state for the Bodos would do.

The consequent stalemate has only accelerated a flight of capital from Kokrajhar, the largest town in the Bodo autonomous district, to Guwahati, Siliguri, Calcutta and Delhi. The larger shops and establishments in the town, owned by non-tribals, are closing down and Kokrajhar is fast becoming a ghost town. Shutters are downed well before sunset and the streets are deserted, but for the security personnel on patrol. Fear looms large over the town as no one knows when and where the militants will strike next. And the mood in Kokrajhar only reflects the panic in other Bodo areas. It is a different matter that the political leadership in Guwahati and New Delhi have failed to perceive that the area is approaching a point of no return.

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