Unlike earlier, the recent spate of violence in the Kokrajhar and Baksa districts of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) in Assam has been triggered by electoral politics and not over the control of land. Increasing pressure on land brought the indigenous Bodos and the Bengali Muslim immigrants or the Bodos and the Santhal Adivasis into direct conflict resulting in widespread ethnic violence which displaced whole communities and took hundreds of innocent lives. This time the violence has been restricted to the Kokrajhar Parliamentary Constituency where Bengali Muslims have been targeted as they are suspected to have voted against the Bodo Peoples’ Front’s (BPF) candidate. The BPF is a part of the Congress government in the State and administers the BTAD.
Kokrajhar is a reserved Schedule Tribe (ST) Parliamentary seat. In the recent Lok Sabha elections for the first time in its political history the constituency witnessed a multi-cornered contest because of a fractured Bodo community and a sharp divide between the Bodos and the non-Bodo voters. Several heavyweight Bodo candidates were in the fray including State Cabinet Minister Chandan Brahma (BPF), former Meghalaya Governor Ranjit Shekhar Mushahary (Trinamul Congress), sitting MP SK Bwiswmuthiary who fought as an independent having been denied a ticket by the BPF and Former Rajya Sabha MP UG Brahma also an independent supported by the powerful All Bodo Students Union (ABSU). With the Bodo communities votes expected to be divided among these prominent candidates, the non-Bodo votes had become a crucial factor for winning.
However an umbrella group of twenty-one non-Bodo organisations of the BTAD, who are opposed to the formation of a separate State of Bodoland, under the banner of Jonogostiya Aikya Manch have lent their support to an independent candidate, Naba Kumar alias Hira Sarania, who was once the commander of ULFA’s dreaded 709 battalion which was active in the lower Assam districts. The non-Bodos including other tribes of which the Bengali Muslim community is a major constituent have never won this seat inspite of forming two/thirds of the constituency’s population. Out of a total electorate of 14.5 lakh voters in the constituency only 3.20 lakh voters are Bodos. Therefore this time with the numbers in their favour they expect to win. This has caused resentment among the Bodos particularly in the ruling BPF whose bastion is Kokrajhar.
For the time being the violence has been contained with area domination by the security forces. But there is every possibility that the simmering embers will be rekindled and result in a bigger conflagration which may not be restricted to one parliamentary constituency or the BTAD areas only. There is an imminent danger of indulging in political brinkmanship which successive governments both at the Centre and in the State, mainly of the Congress, have been doing while handling issues in the insurgency ridden North-east.
The genesis of ethnic violence in Bodoland lies in the anti-foreigners movement of Assam in the 1980s. The movement gave birth to a powerful regional political party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which routed the Congress in the 1985 State elections. To destabilise the incumbent AGP government and regain power the then Congress government headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the Centre encouraged the Bodos to agitate for a separate State and indulge in violent militancy to achieve their goal. Reportedly the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) even trained some batches of Bodo militants in the use of explosive devices. The Congress regained power in 1991 but were ousted by the AGP in 1996. The campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bodoland began soon after and has continued intermittently despite the efforts of successive Congress governments to control it.
The Assam government and police have blamed the anti-talk Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) for the recent killings. However the militant outfit has denied any involvement in the incidents. Locals in the affected villages blame the BPF. The involvement of forest guards in the violence have lent credence to these allegations. Many ex-cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), once the militant wing of the BPF, have been rehabilitated as forest guards.
After Telengana the Bodos demand for a separate State has become more strident. But the demographic equation in the proposed State does not favour the Bodos. The Bodos and other tribals constitute only 20 per cent of BTAD’s population. An overwhelming 80 per cent are non-Bodos of which a sizable section are Bengali Muslims many of whom are suspected to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Though, there can be no justification for the violence perpetrated, the political brinkmanship indulged in by successive governments, mainly of the Congress, in the interests of vote-bank politics also deserves strong condemnation. In reality the Bodos and other indigenous people are a minority in their own homeland. Unless this demographic imbalance is rectified and the problem of illegal immigrants permanently solved, violence and ethnic cleansing will continue to haunt Assam.
(The writer is an entrepreneur & free-lance writer based in Guwahati can be contracted at email: [email protected])