As much of India plunges repeatedly into darkness at noon, the conflict and tragedy in Assam is fading rapidly. The governments, at the Centre and the state, will breathe a sigh of relief at this reduction of the public gaze, but no one should for a moment be fooled into thinking that this seeming “easing” of tension means that any of the key issues has been tackled. Assam remains a tinderbox.
The Bodos, who are the largest plains tribe in Assam and arguably its oldest inhabitants, wield political power in the four districts of the Bodoland Territorial Council, which they regard as their homeland. Although they are the largest single group in this specific area, they do not hold a physical majority: officials say Bodos are about 35 per cent of the population, Muslims comprise 20 per cent, adivasis about 15 per cent and the rest is made up of Assamese and Bengali Hindus and non-Bodo tribes.
The Bodoland Peoples Party is a coalition partner in the state with the Congress for the second term. This presents chief minister Tarun Gogoi with a series of uncomfortable questions, even as the situation limps back to normal. Indeed, Gogoi must be wondering how such days have befallen his state, considering that just a few months ago, it all seemed peaceful.
The main insurgencies—led by ulfa and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland—had quietened. Public fatigue had set in. Yet, below the surface was always a latent tension which the government dismissed, paying little heed to growing reports of intimidation, kidnappings, extortion and violence from different parts of the state. This failure to act against those who have functioned with impunity and seeming immunity has helped create the tinderbox.
Indeed, a deep-rooted political failure based on ad-hocism is what plagues Assam and the Northeast. The solutions worked out have sought to placate strident demands instead of developing an inclusive, sustainable arrangement. Thus, barring the 1985 accord with the then outlawed Mizo National Front, New Delhi has failed to come to a single agreement with any armed group in the region in which the faction has surrendered all weapons and agreed to abide by the law. Until weapons are locked away, fear and insecurity will endure in the BTC areas and elsewhere—for governments have failed to ensure that those who have lived by the gun do not continue to do so. For instance, despite the army, with its untrammelled powers of the AFSPA, Dimapur, the bustling town on the Nagaland-Assam border, has emerged as a capital of smuggled weapons and drugs.
Accords manufactured in secrecy, without the involvement of other stakeholders, result in a greater sense of exclusion and anger. Today, the Bodo elite will resist any effort to dilute the provisions of the council, which give them political and economic clout. They will also resist any effort for scheduled tribe status to the Koch-Rajbongshis and the adivasi groups, which could further change political and demographic dynamics in western Assam. Years ago, veteran journalist M.S. Prabhakara wrote presciently of how manufactured identities were tearing apart the social fabric of Assam. In one article, he spoke of how a tiny community which was not even notified as a tribe, and whose total population was not known, was hastily given a territorial status in 2005 within three months of raising its demand. Flux is inherent in any social situation, but quickfix solutions through the manufacture of consent cannot be sustained. Power-sharing comes at a price. Most scholars tend to forget that across the world, most politics is short-term, because politicians rarely have a vision of the future where they are without power, but are practical enough to know that they cannot rewrite history.
Yet, as the inmates of the relief camps, traumatised and fearful, begin returning home, encouraging reports are emerging of both communities working to keep the peace and prevent marauders from attacking their villages. This is the key to the future: the involvement of ordinary people in peace-making, in partnership with governments and local groups.
Land is finite but political and economic benefits can be shared. Gogoi’s real test will lie in bringing leaders of the communities together to respect existing realities. Perhaps an SC-backed reconciliation effort, a process mandated by the court with appointed mediators, can have a role.
(The writer, a former correspondent of the New York Times, is managing trustee of the Centre for Northeast Studies & Policy Research.)