The States Reorganisation Act of 1956, which came with the 7th Amendment to the Constitution, led to the formation of linguistic States in India. Though the State boundaries reform was undertaken in response to various people’s movements demanding synchronisation of languages and States, the work of the States Reorganisation Commission had to be carried out within the framework of the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.
The 8th Schedule, generally known as the Schedule of Languages, had listed in it 14 languages when India became a republic. Therefore, consideration of Statehood remained in the 1950s confined to only the languages included in the 8th schedule. Sindhi was added to the list in 1967. Konkani, Manipuri, and Nepali were added in 1992; and in 2004 were added Maithili, Santali, Dogri and Bodo.
The inclusion of Bodo has in its background a long struggle organised along the ideas of Bodofa U.N. Brahma. Given the chequered history of the few districts in Assam on the borders of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan inhabited by the Boro- or Bodo-speaking people, it was natural that the emotions of the Bodo people often took violent expression.
The shift from violent resistance to peaceful agitation was a slow and difficult one. It was the leadership of the writer-politician U.G. Brahma that created space for Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals in the turbulent minds of the Bodo youth. Pramod Bodo, who presided over the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) for over a decade, walked the path of transformation with a tremendous visionary energy. At present he is the Chief Executive Member (CEM) of the Bodo Territorial Council, a remarkable triumph of the Bodo people’s will to autonomy and progress.
In order to appreciate the silent and unarmed revolution of the ABSU and its allied organisations in Bodoland, it is helpful to know how different this part of India is from the rest of the country. While in all other parts of India, urbanisation has increased several folds over the last seven decades, just about 3 to 4 per cent of the people live in urban environs in the area of the five districts constituting the Bodo territory. The rest continue their lives in their rural surroundings.
The 2011 population of the territory was just a little over 3 million. Today, it may be about 3.5 million, much less than the population of cities such as Pune and Jaipur. Even today, half of the people are still not out of illiteracy. It is not an enviable responsibility to have to take charge of the affairs of a people whose economy, health care, education, and employment trail behind the rest of the country, a people who had to participate in violent resistance to the imposition of rules from Guwahati and Delhi and who had to carve out a path of progress by themselves. Pramod Bodo has been doing this with an exceptional grit and forward-looking social and cultural attitudes.
I was first introduced to the situation of the Bodo people by U.G. Brahma, who founded the United People’s Party (Liberal). He was a Rajya Sabha MP when I met him. This was at the Murari-Bapu Ashram in Gujarat’s Morvi town. I was there on an invitation to speak about Adivasis and their cultural rights. I noticed that Brahma listened carefully to my lecture. In his own lecture, he lauded the ideals of truth and non-violence and paid glowing tributes to Mahatma Gandhi. He made a deep mark on my mind by the sincerity of his language and his unassuming nature.
We exchanged addresses, though I would not have imagined much interaction between us considering that I was working in Gujarat and he in Assam. Several years later, I received a call from him telling me that the ABSU had decided to bestow on me their highest regarded award of “U.N. Brahma Soldier of Humanity”. A year earlier, I had published my report on the languages of Assam, with Boro language given its full proper due; but I did not think that made me deserving enough for the honour. I later learnt that the Gandhian ideas that I had integrated in my work with Adivasis had prompted the Bodo people to recognise my work. The award function was held that year in Guwahati. It was superbly organised and Bodo friends made me feel part of the family.
It was here that I met Pramod Bodo, ABSU president at that time, and took to admire his unusually high organisational management abilities. Later, I met him again at Panchgani at the Peace-building Centre established by Rajmohan Gandhi. After he was elected as the CEM of the Bodo Territorial Council, he invited me to Kokrajhar. I must say I was a bit hesitant as I like to stay away from people in power; but his invitation was too affectionate for me to decline it.
In our meeting in Kokrajhar, he expressed two of his wishes and asked for my participation to fulfil them. The first was to hold a festival of poetry dedicated to peace and love. The second was to create a rather unique institution for promoting knowledge. It was impossible for me not to associate myself in organising the poetry festival. It was held with great joy and pride. Poets from over 100 languages came down to Kokrajhar to recite songs of love, peace and hope.
The inauguration of the poetry festival over, we met late in the evening. I asked him why he wanted to spend on poetry. His answer was: “If I have to lead people from a past filled with mindless violence, is this not the path?” I have not come across a politician in recent decades who understands so well both his people and the magic of word. The institute devoted to knowledge that he wished to create was not just a college or a university. Those he has already been creating. He wanted an institution like the William Jones Asiatic Society, or R.G. Bhandarkar’s Oriental Institute. He said that if there were various institutes of Indology, why can the Bodo people not have their own institute of Bodology? U.G. Brahma, who is now a Minister in the Assam government, has given a building and a piece of land for the proposed institute.
The Bodos would like to make it an International Bodology Institute. I am aware that academics and scholars may look at this dream with a degree of contempt. However, in discussions I had with local scholars, I noticed that their yearning is genuine. Out of such wild dreams come up unusual experiments. I have placed before the Bodo scholars a high horizon of expectations to strive for. They must make this the institute that will inspire all north-eastern States to investigate their past, host long-term archaeology explorations, collect their oral traditions and construct a comprehensive picture of the Brahmaputra civilisation.
Throughout the last two centuries, the north-eastern region has remained neglected as far as the construction of its prehistory and history is concerned. If the Bodos have struggled to get their language recognised, to get their autonomy accepted, should they not strive to recover all their history as a cogent narrative? The city of Kokrajhar is even today much smaller than even small district towns in larger Indian States. Yet, it is India on the march ahead, despite politically and economically disturbing times. Readers, watch out, great visions are emerging for sure from India, this side.
Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and chairperson, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India.