Kokrajhar, in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), Assam, is a sleepy town of about nine lakh people nestled in the picturesque foothills of Bhutan. Its urban merits are few – ramshackle markets, rickety buildings, a handful of pretty, well-maintained homes.
But, peculiarly, some newly-built, unoccupied buildings take up the prime real estate space in this town. These are apparently to become a hospital, a shopping mall and a technology institute. The stage is set. This wannabe-developed and modern town awaits its required doctors, shoppers and teachers. There is a supermarket – which stands out for its glass doors and fancy posters. It is run by Hagrama Mohilary, president of the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), on Kokrajhar’s main road. It’s nice to see he understands middle-class needs. In the ongoing assembly elections, the BPF is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The surrounding landscape of sweeping bucolic greenery makes the material for a very old dream – for Bodoland, or statehood for the Bodo.This dream has inched its way to bureaucratic reality in that the Bodos here are governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), a 46-member elected body.But for many, this is not enough.
Territorially, Bodoland includes the autonomous administrative unit constituted under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution called the BTAD, consisting of the contiguous districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang, and other non-contiguous areas across Dhubri, Barpeta, Kamrup and Sonitpur.
Various people within the Bodoland lobby believe there are chauvinistic forces in Assam and the mainstream media who want Assam to remain undivided. Not least because the state has been left with just a third of its land after Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were created. Interestingly, those who want to divide Assam are also accused of chauvinism.
The creation of the BTC in 2003 is a recent event in the Bodos’ long struggle – which dates back to the 1930s, when Bodo delegations met with the Simon Commission demanding an entity separate from the Assamese mainstream.
The Bodos found themselves shortchanged after they wholeheartedly backed Assamese students during the anti-foreigner agitations of the 1980s. The Bodos did not realise that the Assamese linguistic minority’s demands, represented by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), excluded any consideration for their existential crisis. But once it did realise this exclusion, Assam’s largest indigenous group did not respond too well.
For them, as well as for groups such as the Karbis in Karbi Anglong and the North Cachar Hills, the Assamese were powerful colonisers who had ousted them several centuries before. For them, the Assamese-speaking mainstream was trespassing on the plains – in the same way that, for the Assamese-speaking mainstream, the Bengalis, or Bangladeshis, have been trespassing.
People I speak with in Upper Assam frequently refer to the Bodo as inferior to them.
One local journalist in Sonitpur tells me that the Bodos have remained poor because they are not smart enough – thus demonstrating the very arrogance of which the Bodos (and the Khasis and Mizos before them) have consistently accused the Assamese.
The 1948 Bordoloi government said that the plains’ tribes were part of the overall Assamese community and would, in time, become assimilated. It failed to recognise that the Bodos had a vast oral and written history and their own sahitya sabha that fed their simple but proud nationalism.
The Bodos resisted Assamese impositions to use Hindi and Bodo written in the Devanagri script as the main languages of instruction in schools. Making the Bodo teach their children their language in an alien script was a way of making a political point for the Assamese. In material terms, it also meant that job opportunities for the Bodo were limited, and that they languished over the years, underachieving or remaining largely illiterate.
A half-hour drive out from Kokrajhar in a village called Simborgaon, I meet members and workers of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU). They are all young men, curious, courteous and in a state of something like suspended animation in response to the campaigning that has been underway all around their clean, quiet village. ABSU, with its strong base in Bodo villages, is backing the United People’s Party, a Congress ally, in the assembly elections.
ABSU was formed in 1967. They first demanded a separate autonomous region within Assam, then a Union territory and finally a separate state. They waited for 20 years for the Assamese government to ensure their rights. Then they lost patience and started blowing up bridges and killing settlers.
Most Bodos are subsistence farmers. My visit to Simborgaon makes it clear that an agro-based economy is just another name for lack of development, even poverty.
At the same time, there is no visible hardship here; in fact, a rational calm characterises the square courtyards of the Bodo homes, with their tall cacti and bamboo-fenced “bwrai bathow,” which resemble the shaivite trident found in shakta homes (although a large number of Bodos are Christian). Cattle cluster in neat pens, firewood sits in neat piles, and I see several community kitchen gardens. Beyond all these examples of an apparently structured and harmonious existence, though, it is difficult to see how the Bodos make ends meet. For vast tracts in Bodo country – several thousand square kilometres – there is nothing at all, not even forests, let alone signs of industrialisation. That said, Simborgaon is better off, for many Bodos do live even in the forests, without access to electricity, water for irrigation and schools.
Many Bodo homes here have looms to weave cloth, and families culture silkworms for the thread. There is an air of self-sufficiency and ease as the women tend to the cattle and keep their homes clean. The villagers are dressed in “bodo dokhna,” in pastel blues, pinks, yellows and greens: this is the Bodo uniform, and the patterns and colours do not vary. The young seem to be more adventurous: I see a 20-something-year-old walk past in a floral dress.
I am offered home-brewed rice beer – a traditional Bodo recipe – and wonder if this is what Bodo utopia would look like. “Is this Bodoland? Is this what you want?” I ask a young man. He laughs good-naturedly and says “yes.”
Painted in red paint all over the village walls is the slogan – “We want Bodoland.” Some make for more laborious reading: “Implement Article 2.3 and 4 for the Bodos-ABSU,” and, seemingly for non-Bodos: “Create new state for equal development of all the communities in India.”
The desire for statehood, and violence
U.G. Brahma is a calm, soft-spoken ideologue and politician who has authored several books of fiction and essays, and a book of poetry – a debut that won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 2014. He is the president of the UPP and its Kokrajhar West candidate. The party was formed by a breakaway of BPF members less than a year ago. The creation of Bodoland remains critical to their politics.
“After 10 long years of the peace process nothing resulted that was concrete – neither during the time of the UPA nor of the NDA government. But at least the UPA, during Manmohan Singh’s time, initiated the process of negotiations, with some insurgent groups as well. Modi has never spoken to us,” says Brahma.
“The BJP won seven seats with our support in the last election. They could not have done it without our help,” he adds.
Bodoland is also missing mention in the manifesto of the BPF. Hagrama Mohilary, who leads it, is a close aide of Himanta Biswa Sarma, who quit the Congress to join the BJP, taking various regional parties’ connections for tribal votes with him.
Derhasad Basumatari, an ex-BTC member from BPF, takes a different line on the issue of a separate Bodoland: “We are building infrastructure. If we have a state that is well-developed, the cries for a separate Bodoland will cease. The reason for demanding Bodoland was and is a lack of development. What will be the meaning of Bodoland if one’s needs are fulfilled?”
But nationalist ideology refuses to dissipate.
Bodo militants continue to kill innocents, in a move to hurt the Assamese authorities by striking at the minorities that support them. Vulnerable Bengali and Adivasi settlers have often found themselves facing the barrels of Bodo guns. Instances of violence by the NDFB(S) (National Democratic Front of Bodoland-S) militants were widely reported in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
Cold-shouldered by the Centre
In its manifesto, the BPF promises social development alongside sympathetically referring to the statelessness of Koch-Rajbongshis and reservation for the Kalitas and the Adivasis. It ignores the Bodo issue altogether.
Brahma is afraid that the authorities are dropping the ball on nationalists who have been engaged in talks. He warns: “80% of Bodo civil society wants a solution to the insurgency. The creation of the state was a mass movement, but after the creation of BTC, it became a political movement. Things may deteriorate now, since in 18 months of BJP rule at the centre, no talks have so far been held.”
According to Brahma, “the system cannot be bypassed” and “state-creation is a process of gradual upgradation.” Meghalaya and Nagaland, for example, were not directly created by any single government. They were first Sixth schedule areas, and then became autonomous areas. He pointed out: “Today many people are opposing statehood – mainly the non-Bodo – but soon they will start saying that it’s time for upgradation.”
Brahma added further that the Bodo problems may get worse as the Bodo are themselves a minority in the BTAD now. Time may be running out for them, just like it is for the Tibetans, who are getting overwhelmed by the Han Chinese in Lhasa.
Brahma described the current scenario as per the UPP’s plans: “The creation of Bodoland will make the BTAD a general state, but Meghalaya and Nagaland are exclusively tribal states because the Sixth Schedule has not been withdrawn, although it was supposed to be.”
“Non-Bodo” is a term that was created by anti-Bodo groupthink and has come to be widely used after the NDFB(S) killings. It blurs the line between Bodo nationalism and Bodo insurgency.
In 2012, violence between Bodos and Muslims led to the death of 77 people and the displacement of upwards of 400,000 men, women and children. In 2014, more than 70 civilians were massacred in armed attacks by the NDFB(S).
“You can’t say Bodos are extremist by nature. When ULFA [United Liberation Front of Assam] killed people, they were not referred to as Assamese extremists, they were just identified as ULFA,” says a local journalist.
Brahma believes that the “Bodo/non-Bodo” problem is going to change: “Even a “non-Bodo” might vote for me. After this election, “Bodo/non-Bodo” will no longer be an issue. We are becoming a mixed society,” he says.
BPF’s Derhasad Basumatari thinks very differently, however.
“Bodo chauvinists – meaning the UPP – say, ‘vote for Bodos.’ They incite Bodos by telling them that their rights have been given to non-Bodos. But people will only vote for the people who will actually work towards Bodoland.”
He said that the Congress counted on the BPF to get them 20-30 seats: “To whom we give our vote matters. But we have not placed a candidate outside BTAD. We want the BJP to get the votes.”
Not long ago, the BPF supported the Congress. But it discarded the latter when Sarma joined the BJP after a fall out with chief minister Tarun Gogoi. “Our relationship with the CM was, and even now remains, very good. For our tribals, he is still good. But he is after all a party guy. And in order to be a good party guy you need to listen to the people in your party also,” said Basumatari, duplicating Sarma’s line to the press – as if the BPF’s relationship is not with the Congress but really with Himanta, the individual.
“If the BJP acts like the Congress, then the BPF won’t stay. They need us. If they do work with us, that’s fine. But if not, then what happened with the Congress will happen again. But I don’t think it will happen with the BJP,” elaborated Basumatari.
The regional parties’ loyalty to Sarma is beyond doubt. Political greybeards say that if there was a hung parliament, these parties would choose Sarma over BJP’s official CM candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal.
But a Bodo elite is emerging in urban and rural areas, and as the ideology refuses to go away, the likelihood of tensions, and possibly violence, increases, said ABSU president Pramod Boro.
“Bodo people are hardworking, honest and independent. But if institutions, public amenities and the right political patronage is not given to them, they may, I’m afraid, join other movements, like the Maoist movement. Let’s hope it doesn’t go that way. Here, the movement is a nationalist one,” he said.