Bodo Problem in Assam has Broader Security Implications
The massacre of 14 people in Kokrajhar, Assam and identification of the body of the slain terrorist as that of Manjar Isleri, a self-styled area commander of the 16th battalion of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB Songbijit) faction, confirm that successive governments in New Delhi and in Assam have done precious little to solve the Bodo problem since the last conflagration in 2012. Back then, the suspected Bodo militants torched and looted houses of poor Muslim families and mercilessly slaughtered a large number of the latter in the Kokrajhar district.
The Bodo problem has international ramifications and as the Bodos form the largest group of plains tribes in Assam enjoying widespread influence in nine districts of the state, any further delay in solving the issue may hold out a threat towards India’s security scenario in its Northeast. In 2012 Bodo militants were able to carry the light of insurgency to far flung districts like Darrang and Sonitpur which are gateways to the strategically vulnerable Arunachal Pradesh, not to speak of their traditional bases in districts like Kokrajhar and Udalguri, the latter one lying close to Bhutan border.
But, the crisis has thrown up several questions. The most important of them concerns the utility of creation of autonomous areas as panaceas for solution of ethnic identity crisis in the Northeast. As far back as in 1927, the Bodos, also known as the Bodo-Kachharis, had submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission through the Kachhari Yuva Sammelan demanding independent identity and establishment of a Kachhari regiment. In independent India, they first drew wide attention in 1986 when the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) launched a powerful agitation demanding self-determination rights for the Bodos. After a series of violent clashes and bloodbath, the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) was established in 1993.
The latest attack by the NDFB (Sangbijit) may have been spurred by two reasons. The first is to send a message to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of Assam where the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), a bête noir of the NDFB, is a coalition partner. The second probable reason is more fundamental in nature – a reminder to the state government to detect and deport ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’ from the Bodo dominated areas.
It is better to admit that not just Assam but almost the whole of India’s Northeast has been suffering from a policy paralysis on the part of successive union governments in New Delhi. So the Bodoland Autonomous Council was bound to crash as it had no power over law and order, security and financial matters. As a result, the ABSU lost control of the situation and a new force named the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) raised its head. Arson and killing continued till 2003 when the Government of India, the Assam government and the BLT signed a new agreement creating a Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) which would be governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
There is a palpable lack of understanding in government circles about the nuances of the inter-ethnic relationships in Assam. Both the BAC of 1993 and the BTC agreement of 2003 provided for creation of autonomous council in areas where the Bodos constituted 50 percent or more of the population. But in the BTAD comprising the districts of Kokrajhar, Udalguri,Baska and Chirang the Bodos constituited only 30 percent of the population with the rest 70 percent comprising Adivasis like Santhals and other non tribal communities.
Curiously, I.K. Songbijit, the leader of the secessionist group among the Bodos, is a Karbi and not an ethnic Boro. It proves that the existence of autonomous units has failed to provide any homogeneous leadership or identity among the Bodos which is wedded to the idea of remaining within India. The BPF, in spite of winning 12 seats in the last assembly election, is incapable to shape up and influence ethnic aspirations of the Bodos which has been whetted by continuous but unwise use of the term Bodoland by the Government of India in several agreements and administrative arrangements. It has stoked a fire of hope among the Bodo leadership that the idea of Bodoland, independent or a state within India, is on its way to fruition.
Over the years the Bodo imbroglio has assumed a communal overtone as in 2012 the main target of the Bodo insurgents were the Muslim settlers of the Kokrajhar district. It is an undeniable fact that constant immigration from Bangladesh has altered inter-community population balance in many parts of Assam and the BTAD areas are no exceptions. However census data indicate a gory possibility. Between 1971 and 1991, Muslim population in Assam had a 77.42 percent growth. But in Kokrajhar, the nerve centre of the Bodo movement, Muslim population grew by only 17 percent in 1971 and 19.3 percent in 1991. There was no census in Assam in 1981. In 2001 the Muslim growth pattern remained more or less same- 20.4 percent. Then why did the NDFB (Songbijit) faction had let loose a reign of terror on the Muslim population while the latter’s rate of growth is comparatively low?
According to some observers this low growth rate as shown in 1971, 1991 and 2001 census reports is due to outmigration of the Muslims and violence by the Bodo insurgents is the result of a calculated game plan – to accelerate the process of outmigration only to make the Bodos numerically superior in the BTAD areas. Therefore, not only the Muslims but the Santhals and other non tribals are also facing attacks.