Eluding solution

The 2014 violence is only a work in progress in ethnic cleansing. With territorial council elections coming up in 2015, violence may rise.

Eluding solution

Menaka was planning a Christmas celebration when the bullets hit her brother and sister. She escaped, running through jungles to another village, the sound of gunshots following her. Adivasi houses around her were being set on fire, women and children were lying dead.

In 30 years of Bodo militancy in Assam, people have lost count of the dead and the missing. Lakhs of residents have lost their home and are displaced. Another few thousands will be forced out of their homes this winter.

This is not the first massacre in Assam and unfortunately, this may not be the last either. The story of Bodoland (a homeland for Bodos) has been a violent assertion of identity. For those who haven’t followed the story of Assam, the Bodo assertion has a trajectory; it started in the ’80s and was followed up by an accord, an autonomous council and then a territorial council in 2003. What does that imply?

Under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, educational, economic and linguistic aspirations, land rights and socio-cultural and ethnic identity of Bodos were secured. The other ethnic groups inhabiting the area were not taken into consideration. The debate on the 6th Schedule in the Constituent Assembly was originally oriented towards hill tribes.

But which ever way it is interpreted, it never granted reservation to just one community.
The Bodos, however, extracted this from the government and reserved 75 per cent of the seats in the Territorial Council, thus denying the area’s other residents their legitimate rights.

Thus was born the controversial Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), which claimed 35 per cent of Assam’s land. The Bodos need another 15 per cent to raise the pitch for their long-standing demand of halving Assam, a demand that has been there since 1967.

Besides land, the groups espousing Bodo sub-nationalism have another big problem in their statehood claim: the population ratio.  The Bodos are not in majority in what they assert is their homeland. With repeated attacks on non-Bodos and ethnic groups displaced forever, it has now assumed the proportions of ethnic cleansing.

The late ’90s witnessed the bloodiest phase, pushing Bodos, Adivasis and Bengali-speaking Muslims into hundreds of relief camps. While the Bodos made their way back, the others lost their land and continue to live in “relief camps” or have dispersed in search of livelihood.

In 2012, the guns were trained on Bengali speaking Muslims residing in Bodoland and months of rioting continued with the government clearly out of control.

The 2014 violence is only a work-in-progress in the cleansing of other communities from the area. With a significant population, the Adivasis have been at the receiving end again and if they are granted ST status, they may have to confront another round of violence. In Assam, it is the dangerous politics of ethnic identities and ethno-exclusivism that has resulted in such divisiveness. The government’s policy of ceasefire, talks and appeasement has made the situation more explosive.

Just days before the attack, all government departments involved in Bodoland management met in New Delhi to discuss the ongoing “peace process” which is only a term used for an indefinite period of lawlessness. “Peace process” has almost always granted immunity to the groups engaged in violence before absorbing them into the political process. For example, the party governing the Council, emerged from the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) which was formed in 1996.

They were involved in mass murders, blowing up trains (they control the strategic chicken’s neck to the rest of the country), abduction and extortion. When they surrendered, 2,600 cadres gave up less than 1,000 weapons and the government did not insist on disarming them. There are just too many guns floating around and the presence of an unlimited firepower in these districts ensures that the bloodletting continues.

Ceasefire agreement

The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) was formed in 1986. One faction today is on a ceasefire agreement but again, its cadres continue to carry arms. It is one of NDFB’s splinter groups that is suspected to have carried out the recent attack. It was NDFB again that had struck in 2008 with serial blasts across the state even when the government was in a ceasefire with them.

Does the government have anything to offer really or will they continue to buy peace as it were? The art of negotiation may be as protracted as the insurrections but in that “process”, hundreds of lives are being snubbed out, hundreds more written out of existence.  Perhaps, the stakes are not high enough, perhaps the victims just do not matter.

With the territorial council elections coming up in the spring of 2015, ethnic and fratricidal violence is expected to rise. Each group would like to tell their constituency that they are not ready for a compromise.

The only option before the government is a dramatic army crackdown that may induce some temporary calm but the problem will stay alive. Each operation means counter attack and loss of more lives. The NDFB will have the advantage of choosing the time and place of its retaliation. That is why this war may be far from over.

(The writer, a former TV journalist in the Northeast, is Director, Reachout Foundation)

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