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An uneasy calm

Print edition : Jul 15, 2005 T+T-

The ceasefire agreement between the NDFB and the Central and Assam governments brings some peace to the Bodo regions of the State but triggers new power struggles among the political forces representing the community.

SUSHANTA TALUKDAR in Guwahati

AFTER years of bloodshed, there is a relative calm in Assam's Bodo heartland after a ceasefire agreement reached between the militant National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), the Centre, and the Assam government came into effect on June 1. Under the agreement, signed on May 24, the armed cadre of the NDFB will stay in designated camps and refrain from attacking civilians or security forces. In return, all government-sponsored operations against the group will be suspended for a year from June 1. In February 2003, the Centre signed a ceasefire agreement with another Bodo militant outfit, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). Following the agreement, the BLT was disbanded and its cadre laid down their arms.

However, the return of the armed youth to the mainstream has disturbed the equilibrium of Bodo politics and triggered a power tussle between various organisations representing the State's largest plain tribe. Moreover, the results of the dialogue between the NDFB and the Centre and their implications for the existing Bodo administrative set-up, the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), are not yet clear.

The ceasefire agreement came immediately after the formal takeover, by leaders of the erstwhile BLT, of the reins of the BTC, a new administrative body created under amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to ensure autonomous rule of their territories by the Bodos. BLT militants gave up arms and returned to the mainstream on December 6, 2003, after the successful conclusion of their peace talks with the Centre leading to the signing of a new Bodo Accord and the creation of the BTC. The power tussle among the Bodos, triggered by the first election to the BTC held on May 13, has affected the fortunes of the newly formed Bodoland People's Progressive Front (BPPF). The BLT and the influential All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) came together to form the BPPF less than a month before the elections to capture power in Kokrajhar, the headquarters of the BTC. The ABSU spearheaded a six-year-long movement for statehood, from 1987 to 1993, and revived it in 1996. It called off the revived movement following the signing of the peace agreement between the BLT and the Centre.

Leaders of the new party are sharply divided into two camps, one comprising former members of the ABSU and the other comprising those of the erstwhile BLT. The root of the problem in the BPPF lies in the apprehension among former BLT leaders that the ABSU leaders might deprive them of their share of power. This fear made former BLT leader and current Chief Executive Member of the BTC, Hagrama Mahillary, rebel against the BPPF leadership under party president Rabiram Narzary. He fielded his own candidates in the BTC polls and campaigned for their victory. The factionalism in the BPPF also led to group clashes during the BTC polls.

The division in the BPPF has come as a boon for the NDFB as it has given the militant group an opportunity to consolidate its position among the Bodo masses. Besides, the ceasefire agreement has raised hopes among a section of the Bodo people that the NDFB might be able to secure a better deal than the BTC in lieu of giving up the demand for statehood. The NDFB has been waging an armed struggle demanding the creation of a "sovereign Boroland" and is not likely to give it up easily when it formally begins the dialogue with the Centre.

The NDFB has won over large sections of Bodo masses since the signing of the ceasefire agreement. A peace rally organised by the All Boro Peace Forum at Udalguri, a stronghold of the NDFB in central Assam's Udalguri district which forms part of the BTC, on June 17 witnessed an unprecedented gathering of more than 40,000 people who pledged their support to the peace process. A day after the rally at Udalguri, NDFB secretary-general Govinda Basumtary alias B. Swmkhwr said that the group would hold peace talks with the Centre on the basis of its original demand for a "sovereign Boroland" in accordance with the "principle and ideology" enshrined in its constitution. The NDFB (the former Boro Security Force) was formed on October 3, 1986, in Odla Khasibari village, off Udalguri town near the foothills of Bhutan, at the initiative of Ransaigra Nabla Daimari alias Ranjan Daimari. The declared objective of the outfit was to launch an armed struggle against the Indian state for the creation of a "sovereign Boroland". The Boro Security Force was re-christened NDFB in 1993.

The huge turnout at the June 17 rally prompted feuding BPPF leaders to try to patch up their differences in order to prevent the NDFB from weaning away their supporters. They worry that the NDFB will play an important role in the next Assembly elections, which are due in May 2006, notwithstanding its pronounced stand that it will discuss only "sovereign Boroland".

The apprehension of BPPF leaders is rooted in past experience involving the now defunct People's Democratic Front. The PDF, a Bodo political party formed at the behest of the NDFB, secured control of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) in lieu of the support its legislators gave to the ruling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The BPPF is worried that the NDFB might try to revive the PDF, especially since the former is no longer concentrating on armed struggle in the wake of the ceasefire agreement. The BAC was created in 1993 when the ABSU signed the first Bodo Accord to end its six-year-long struggle for statehood. The BAC was replaced by the BTC in 2003.

Importantly, the BPPF's worry seems to be the factor behind its leaders' cautious response to the ceasefire agreement. Rajya Sabha member and former ABSU president Urkhao Gwra Brahma, considered an important ideologue of the BPPF, welcomed the agreement but urged the NDFB to take all sections of the Bodo people into confidence during the peace talks. Similarly, the BTC chief welcomed the ceasefire agreement and offered his help, but cautioned the Central and State governments against disturbing the existing administrative set-up.

All eyes are now on the Assembly polls as the Bodo community can play a major role in deciding the outcome in 12 seats in the 126-member House. The figure may go up to 14 if the proposed delimitation of constituencies comes into effect before the next Assembly elections. While the formal negotiation between the NDFB and the Centre is not likely to reach a decisive phase before the Assembly polls, the NDFB and its arch rivals, the ABSU, the former BLT and their allied forces, are likely to engage in a turf war ahead of the polls in order to secure the support of the Bodo masses. Much will depend on the overall political alignment as all major political parties are expected to woo the influential Bodo political force to capture or retain power at Dispur. The political activities of various Bodo groups, however, indicate that a political storm is likely to precede the formal truce between the NDFB and the Centre.