Promises and problems

Print edition : March 14, 2003

The agreement to create a Bodoland Territorial Council, the second one of its kind to be formed, is received by various sections of Assamese people with both scepticism and hope.

in Guwahati

BTC supporters at the Guwahati airport on February 11.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

THE signing of the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) in New Delhi on February 10 on the creation of a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) is likely to mitigate at least for a while, if not bring to an end, the violence associated with the prolonged agitation for the creation of a `Bodo homeland'.

The agitation for the creation of such a structure, though not necessarily under that nomenclature, spearheaded by the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) with its provocative slogan `Divide Assam fifty-fifty', began in March 1987. However, Bodo nationalistic assertion predates the ABSU agitation, manifesting itself in varied forms of struggle for greater autonomy within or total separation from Assam, over a much longer period.

While the signing of the MoS may rein in Bodo militancy, as articulated in words and deeds by the ABSU and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), at least for a while, with the leaders busy in forming a political party and taking over the reins of administration, opposition to the MoS, with a potential for militancy and violence, remains alive and active within the envisaged BTC area itself. The opposition is on two fronts: one, that the MoS does not go far enough; and the other, that it gives away too much.

Leading the opposition from the latter perspective is the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samiti (SJSS), an alliance of 18 non-Bodo organisations, which has for long opposed any concession to the Bodo nationalists. While the 36-hour `Assam Bandh' called by the SJSS, beginning on the evening of February 12, did not draw widespread support in the State, it did evoke response in the areas proposed to be included in the BTC. The bandh was marked by some incidents of violence, with unconfirmed reports of three youth being killed in sectarian violence.

The SJSS derives its support from an important section of the Assamese people, the Koch Rajbongshi, whose own relations with the Bodo people, to whom they bear close `ethnic' links not to speak of sharing and contending for with them in a complex linkage a common physical, political and cultural space, with land being the most contentious element is marked by both distance and closeness. This relationship is scarcely comprehensible to those outside the specific cultural milieu.

Reservations and anxieties about the BTC have also been expressed by organisations representing other non-Bodo populations living in the area the Adivasis, the Nepalis and the tea garden labour communities. Another important segment of non-Bodo population in the envisaged BTC area, the Muslim peasantry of East Bengal ancestry, has on occasion been at loggerheads with the Bodoland agitation, ending up more often than not as victims of violence.

The most significant opposition to the MoS from the other perspective, that the MoS does not go far enough, is the one articulated by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), an armed outfit tracing its origins to the very beginning of the ABSU agitation. The NDFB remains committed, at least in its rhetoric, to the attainment of a `sovereign Bodoland'. It has sent conflicting signals about its reaction to the settlement. In the days to come, other voices, yet unheard, are bound to make themselves heard on both sides of the divided perspective on the promises and prospects, the traps and pitfalls, of the envisaged BTC. More problematic, however, is the `constitutional conundrum' that the MoS poses by providing for the application of the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to the BTC.

The MoS was signed by BLT chairman Hagrama Basumatary and senior officials of the Union Home Ministry and the Assam government. Present at the signing ceremony were Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and other Union and State government officials and political leaders. The BLT was proscribed in July 1997 on grounds of being a terrorist organisation. The ban was in force for two years. The notification was not renewed at the end of the period and the BLT made an announcement that it was suspending its armed struggle. Since then it has been holding talks with the State and Union governments.

This is the fifth MoS (all the earlier ones were tripartite, involving leaders of agitating and insurgent (real or bogus) organisations and political leaders or administrators from New Delhi and various State capitals) signed in the last 17 years with a view to resolving various agitations in the northeastern region; and the second in respect of the Bodo agitation. The earlier ones were the Assam Accord (August 14, 1985), the Mizoram Accord (June 30, 1986), the Tripura Accord (August 12, 1988) and the Bodoland Accord-I (February 20, 1993). Of these, given the inherent limitations of such accords and the complexity of the issues involved, only the Mizoram Accord worked, bringing an end to a turbulent era and a two-decade-long insurgency. The outcomes of the rest of them have been, to say the least, mixed. One of them, the Tripura Accord, was simply dictated by the narrowest of partisan considerations on the part of the Congress(I), then in office in New Delhi, to cut the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to size in Tripura and win an impending election to the State Assembly.

The ABSU leaders, along with the leaders the Bodo People's Action Committee (BPAC), a creation of the ABSU like the BLT, signed the Bodoland Accord-I providing for the creation of a `Bodoland Autonomous Council' (BAC). However, ABSU and BPAC leaders, though they were present, did not sign the latest MoS. Having been signatories to an earlier accord that is yet to be annulled, they obviously could not sign another accord.

The BAC did not work for various reasons, especially the limitations inherent in the Accord that gave birth to it. Further, the agitation of which it was a product got mired in the rivalries between the Congress(I) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government, which was in office in Guwahati when the agitation began. In fact, the conviction continues to be widespread in Assam, and not merely among die-hard supporters of the AGP, that the Bodoland agitation was created, encouraged and even financed by the Congress(I) at that point of time, with a view to creating problems for the AGP government, the first seemingly coherent and viable regional political formation to challenge successfully the near-unbroken historic hegemony of the Congress(I) in Assam.

WILL this accord and its outcome, the envisaged BTC, work, unlike the BAC? ABSU and BLT leaders are confident that it will, despite the dissenting voices. A point repeatedly being emphasised by the leaders is that they have learned from their past mistakes and will not repeat them.

Specifically, this means that they will neither seek nor provoke a confrontation with the broader Assamese society whose people literally surround the Bodo people, who also constitute a substantial component of the population of the BTC area. Rather, now that a measure of autonomy and self-government has been promised, they will emphasise the commonality of interests.

A banner under the BLT imprint displayed at Guwahati airport welcoming the leaders returning from New Delhi said: "The Victory is not for Bodos only. It is for all communities living in the BTC area." Among other organisations that the BLT spokesperson thanked after the signing of the MoS were the AGP, the Assam Sahitya Sabha and the All Assam Students Union, all representing or claiming to represent the political and cultural aspirations of the Assamese people.

More important, the present MoS has secured support in some cases, cautiously qualified from a cross section of political parties, though significant opposition to the very creation of the BTC remains. A positive point is that unlike the earlier accords, which were signed with both the State and Central governments under the same political dispensation (Congress-I), the present accord has been more of a bipartisan, indeed a `multi-partisan', affair, with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, itself a coalition of numerous political parties, and Congress(I) governments in Delhi and Guwahati actively cooperating in the crafting of the accord.

All this, however, in no way assures that the MoS and the BTC will have a smooth passage to their implementation, let alone their future functioning. The impending problems and obstacles (Frontline, August 2, 2002) are still to be resolved, though a settlement has been reached. While the `political aspirations' of the leadership of the Bodoland agitation may be met by the BTC and the powers bestowed upon it, other obstacles arising out of the `constitutional arrangements' provided in the MoS deserve to be noted. The most fundamental of these is the ambiguity of the relation between the proposed BTC and the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, described as the `main provision of the MoS' in the Press Information Bureau's press note issued on February 10.

The note said: "The main provisions of the MoS relate to creation of an Autonomous self-governing body to be known as Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) within the State of Assam and provision of constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India to the said autonomous body; to fulfil economic, educational and linguistic aspirations... ." It is interesting that the passage does not unambiguously state that the BTC, referred to as an `autonomous self-governing body' which, when the delimitation process is completed, is to comprise four contiguous districts, will be created under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule. Rather, what is promised is that this autonomous self-governing body will have the "provision of constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule".

In other words, without being created specifically under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule, in which case the new body would be invested with constitutional rights, which is what other structures mentioned at the end of the Sixth Schedule have, the BTC will have the "provision of constitutional protection under the Sixth Schedule". There is bound to be more verbal jugglery and legerdemain as the process evolves over the next six months, one of the two timeframes mentioned in the MoS. In another respect, however, the existing provisions of the Sixth Schedule too will be affected by the creation of the BTC. According to the Home Commissioner of the Assam government, the Sixth Schedule will be amended to enable the BTC to have a membership of 46, up from the present 30. Clearly, the linkages, such as they are envisaged, require to be clarified and fine-tuned further.

One of the trickiest issues that was a constant in the demands of the Bodoland agitation related to the status of the Bodo Kacharis in Karbi Anglong district. The ABSU's charter of demands invariably included the demand that the Bodo Kacharis be recognised as Scheduled Tribes - a demand rejected with equal consistency by the leadership of the Karbi Anglong District Council. The demand and its rejection are related to the curious anomaly in the position of the Plains Tribal people whose tribal status is not recognised if they happen to move to the Hill areas - though the reverse is not the case. The MoS simply acknowledges this problem, promising it only `sympathetic consideration'.

There is a genuine problem here, given the history and evolution of the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. As is well known, the Sixth Schedule, comprising "Provisions as to the administration of Tribal Areas in the States of Assam, Meghlaya, Tripura and Mizoram", is in practice applicable only to the so-called Hill Tribes in these States, that is, tribal people inhabiting the hilly regions of the northeastern region, known historically under colonial administration as `excluded', or `partially excluded' areas. The Sixth Schedule is not applicable to the tribal people living outside these Hill areas, the so-called `Plains Tribes', who are not seen to be dwelling in any compact `tribal area', but are rather loosely spread among other non-tribal people in the plains of the northeastern region.

In other words, while an element of isolated territoriality, reinforced by other components such as difficulty of access, physical, mental and emotional distance from the plains, is integral to and inseparable from the universe of the tribal people inhabiting the Hills, such an element is absent in the universe of the tribal people living in the plains, and in close proximity with the other non-tribal people of the plains.

Although the Sixth Schedule has a provision Para I (2 /c) empowers the Governor to `create a new Autonomous District' in practice (as was the case with the creation of the Tripura Tribal Areas District) such districts have always comprised the so-called Hill Tribes of the region.

The three `Parts' in the Table appended to the Sixth Schedule have evolved over several amendments. At present, Part I comprises the two Hills districts of Assam (North Cachar Hills and Mikir Hills, now Karbi Anglong); Part II comprises the Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills districts, all once part of Assam and now constituting Meghalaya; a sub-section under this head is the Tripura Tribal Areas District, incorporated under the 49th Amendment, part of the process to provide greater autonomy to the tribal people of Tripura living in the `hill areas' of the State; and Part III comprises the Chakma, Lakher and Pawi districts, all part of the erstwhile Lushai Hills District when it was a part of Assam and now part of Mizoram.

This distinction between the Hill Tribes and the Plains Tribes, anchored in the geographical, indeed the topographical and altitudinal, location of the people concerned, and the administrative arrangements in respect of them, was based on two related perceptions of the history, the past and the future, of these people as charted by the colonial rulers. Put simply, while both the categories of people were categorised as tribal people, those living in the hill areas of the then undivided Assam were considered to have lived always in a distant and loose connection with the majority of the non-tribal people in the plains of Assam, and would continue to live so far into the foreseeable future.

Given the paternalistic and deeply contemptuous perceptions of the colonial rulers towards all the subject people of their empire, tribal and non-tribal, a humanitarian and romantic gloss, deeply influenced by the disdain and revulsion of the native faiths of the majority of the subjects, Hinduism and Islam, was put on to this perception. Thus, the tribal people in the hills, by virtue of their isolation from their distant non-tribal neighbours, had somehow escaped from being tainted by the more vicious and repellent beliefs and practices of those in the plains, tribal and non-tribal. This `innocence' and `purity' of the tribal people in the hills, ever under the danger of being swamped under by the `contaminated' beliefs, superstitions and practices of the people in the plains, both tribal and non-tribal, had to be protected.

THE other side of this romantic and paternalistic rationale was that some of the people in these hill areas, having shown themselves to be beyond the taming or civilising missions of the colonial rulers, and also not having proven material resources that would have justified more single-minded punitive and civilising missions of conquest, subjugation and exploitation of their material wealth, could well be left alone, for the good of the colonial rulers themselves. Thus, the designation of these areas as `excluded' and `partially excluded' areas - not to speak of the more candid admission in respect of other even more turbulent people on the periphery of this periphery as inhabiting `unadministered areas'.

In respect of the tribal people in the plains, however, none of these considerations was found applicable. Rather, since the colonial administrators found them living with and sharing physical and spiritual space with their non-tribal neighbours, with no constraints on physical access between neighbours, it was assumed that over a period of time the differences between the tribal people and the non-tribal people would weaken and even disappear.

Thus, the classic process of acculturation, given a theoretical construct and rationale as the so-called `sanskritisation', supposedly influencing and informing the relations and, more crucially, the movements between higher and lower castes, with the lower castes trying to approximate themselves to the one above them. Whatever may be the rigidities of caste identities and the crudities of such a process in the rest of India, especially rural India, insofar as Assam is concerned, the movement within the caste spectrum, generally though not always necessarily to the higher layers of the system, was an all too real one, as can be seen in the growth and expansion (and in recent times, the diminution) of caste identities, the switch and traffic between and across castes and communities among Assamese Hindus and, to some extent, also among the Assamese Muslims, who together constitute the overwhelming majority of the Assamese people.

Following from this was an envisaged trajectory of the growth and development of the tribal people of the hills and the tribal people of the plains in two entirely different, parallel and not meeting each other, ways.

Those in the hills, the `simple tribal people with a unique way of life', would continue to remain isolated, underdeveloped, and so deserving of special protection, especially against the `cleverer and unscrupulous' people from the plains who, given half a chance, would overwhelm and inundate them, reducing them to insignificant non-entities in their own land. Thus, the special provisions, the Fifth and the Sixth Schedules of the Constitution.

THE tribal people in the plains of Assam, however, would willy-nilly get absorbed, initially at the lower end, but with possibilities of incremental advancement within the caste hierarchy over a period of time, into the larger and more powerful spiritual - and though unsaid, the more materially advantageous - universe surrounding them, of which they were indeed physically an inseparable and indistinguishable part. Social reality, by and large, followed this understanding for long. But not now.

Whatever validity these assumptions and the social and economic reality underlying them may have possessed during colonial rule, these are no more valid now. The hill areas are no more isolated. The transactions between the people of the hill areas and the rest of Assam, indeed the rest of the country and the wider world, are varied, vigorous, vibrant. Nor are the tribal people in the plains of Assam gradually, and in a process that was once considered natural and desirable, getting `Hinduised'. Few if any Bodo Kacharis become Saranias, the historically established first step in the process of `Hinduisation'. Half a century of democracy, despite the flaws in its practice, with its powerful, even if highly compromised, component of `one-person,one-vote', has put paid to these assumptions. However, other kinds of interventions, some of them driven by genuine humanitarian concerns, some dictated by market forces, others informed by a highly sophisticated agenda of re-colonisation, continue to be active in this contested terrain.

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