Bodos are minority on their turf

Bodos are minority on their turf

The economy in the rather sleepy town of Kokrajhar, at the heart of Bodoland, is mostly controlled by the Bengali-speaking Hindus. They form the local traders’ associations, most shops are run by them and have a significant presence in local trade marts. None of them keep beards.

While this might seem like a cursory observation, almost meaningless in nature, facial hair makes all the difference. In Assam, a person with a beard, who speaks in Bengali, usually is the sign of a Bengali Muslim, who, in retrospect, could mean an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. This also provides an insight into the deep-set ethnic differences that plague the Northeastern state.

The extent of ethnic tension on display in Assam, a state not stranger to violence, brings to fore the ineptitude of the state machinery. But, the more important aspect is the lack of will to find a political solution to the long standing social unrest.

In the state’s continuous cycle of violence, looking at the death toll has become a clinical process and what matters more is how many people managed to escape the carnage. The situation led to more than two lakh refugees living in a handful of camps across the districts of Kokrajhar, Chingra, Udalguri, Baksa and Sonitpur.

What lies at the core of these intermittent clashes is that even at the region earmarked as Bodoland, Bodos happen to be a minority at just 23 per cent of the local population. The rest 77 per cent are from a mixed bag of Adivasis, Bengali Hindus, Bengali Muslims and Assamese Hindus. Even at times when there are no clashes, undercurrents of ethnic tension have remained.

Prominent academic Bhaskar Nandi, who has been studying the Bodoland crisis since its inception, noted that the problem dates back to the Bodoland Accord, signed in 2003. He pointed out that Adivasis were brought down to Assam and were settled by British rulers after the Santhal uprising in 1855. They were brought in to work as agricultural workers and in tea estates.

Extortions, kidnappings

“The British gave them the right to live in forests under the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act, which the Assam government later repealed. These tribals were also not given status as Scheduled Tribes, mainly to accommodate Bodos, who fall under ST category. Bodos fear that if ST status is given to the Adivasis, they (Bodos) will be left in the lurch,” Nandi said. He called for a need to take a re-look at the accord, which led to the autonomous administrative region of Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD). His words were echoed by Kokrajhar MP Heera Saraniya, BJP state president Siddhartha Bhattacharya and others.

Nandi pointed out that it was unconstitutional to disregard the aspirations of 77 per cent of the population just to make space for the 23 per cent. Saraniya said, “The problems intensified since the accord was signed and Bodos were given a free hand, without taking into account aspirations of the other communities. Bodoland should not have been formed.” Both Nandi and Saraniya agreed that clashes that took place in December were much controlled, compared to what happened in 1996.

While the official death toll for the clashes 18 years back stood at around 8,000, Nandi observed that it would be upwards of 20,000. “There are regular attacks on Adivasis, Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus. Extortion and kidnappings are regular features,” Saraniya stated. Similar clashes also took place in 1998, he said.

Even Ripun Bora, media cell chief of Congress in Assam, admitted that clashes have continued because Bodos are a minority in the area, ruling over a multi-ethnic majority.
While the MP said that Adivasis living in BTAD area are more backward than those in other parts of Assam, Nandi believes that developmental work the Bodoland Territorial Council takes up are mostly in Bodo-dominated areas, ignoring the non-Bodo parts. “This leads to anger among non-Bodos, who despite being a large majority, is ruled by a minority,” he stated.

Rafael Kujur, president of the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam, said, “There is no foreseeable solution to the crisis. All tribal issues are poll fodder. Even what the BJP is doing is an eye wash,” he said. He also alleged discrimination against Adivasis. “The government has treated Adivasis like second class citizens. We’ve received repeated assurances but nothing has happened,” he said.

Whatever the leaders might say, for a large section of people on both sides of the divide, violence is being seen as a solution to the problem. While killings have continued unabated and lakhs of people have been displaced, Assam is sitting on the proverbial powder keg, the situation waiting to explode yet another time. For now, it is clear the solution is not an easy one.