Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Violence in Bodoland

Unresolved ethnic tensions continue to plague the state of Assam.

Map of Bodoland

For a state that has been mired in recurring forms of violent ethnic conflict, the recent set of incidents in Udalguri and Darrang districts of Assam which resulted in widespread arson and the deaths of 40 people do not come as a surprise.These districts, apart from two other, are part of the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) administered by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The BTAD consists of a majority of tribal people (most of whom belong to the ethnic Bodo community) and was created after protracted struggles and negotiations between Bodo groups and the Indian state.

The recent violent clashes in Udalguri and Darrang have pitted the Bodo-speaking scheduled tribe (ST) community against the Muslims, who have been perceived as “illegal migrants from Bangladesh”, even though many of them are settled migrants born in this region after 1947. Although the brutality was said to be triggered by a case of cattle theft, the root cause of the recurring violence in this region of Assam cannot be grasped unless the problems that the carving of an autonomous district for the Bodos created for the others residing in the BTAD are acknowledged.

The trouble lies in the fact that the ethnic mix of the people living in the area makes it impossible for the Bodo groups to declare the autonomous district an exclusive “Bodo zone”. The population of the Bodo STs in the district accounts for just more than half, but the non-tribal population is substantial. The tribal Bodo speakers have distanced themselves from the others, who have always been perceived as “outsiders”, a feeling accentuated by the allegation that Congress governments at the state and the union levels have “opportunistically allowed large-scale illegal migration of Bangladeshi Muslims into Assam” in order to build a “captive vote bank”. The situation has led to simmering communal tension, creating deeply adversarial relations, eventually resulting in incidents of violence. In the BTAD there has been a campaign by the Bodos to “save” their “exclusive” areas from the “illegal migrants”. Of course, the illegal migrants issue has not yet been tackled effectively by any of the political stakeholders in the state and it is no wonder that this issue afflicts the BTAD as well.

The granting of the BTC-administered BTAD was effected after amending the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to make such a concession for “plains-dwellers” as well. This move had gradually integrated the various Bodo groups into the political mainstream of the state. The lone dissenting voice, the militant National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) had also agreed to a ceasefire with the state government and has signalled that it is ready to work within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Yet, rivalry among the various Bodo groups for primacy has also been a factor in the incidents during the course of the violence. Reports emanate that the NDFB has a role to play in the acts of violence and one-upmanship involving their members and other Bodo legislators, even though the NDFB has denied a hand in the violence.

The failure of the political stakeholders in articulating an inclusive agenda, which stems from their utter insensitivity to the multicultural differences among various ethnic populations in the state is to be blamed for the recurring incidents of violence that have sprouted time and again. The formation of the BtC with exclusive autonomous rights for the Bodos along with provisions of sharing of political power with non-tribal groups was supposed to promote cultural assimilation. Yet, the lack of an agenda of inclusion, an exacerbation of ethnic divisions, the utter failure of the established political leadership, combined with the campaign to “save” the Bodos from the “illegal migrants” have continued to hamper normality in the BtaD and other parts of Assam as well.

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

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