Turning to peace

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

The separatist Bodo Liberation Tigers follows the new, promising trend in the northeastern region by signing a peace agreement with the Centre.

in Guwahati

ENDING a decade-long insurgency, the secessionist Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) signed, on February 10, a historic accord with the Centre and the Assam government to pave the way for the creation of a 46-member Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam. A Memorandum of Settlement (MoS), signed in New Delhi in the presence of Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Ministers of State for Home I.D. Swami and Harin Pathak, proposes to abolish the existing Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), formed in 1993, as soon as the autonomous BTC comes into existence.

"The issue was being discussed for quite some time. This agreement will speed up development in the Northeast,'' Advani said after the MoS was signed by R.C.A. Jain, Secretary (Border Management) in the Union Home Ministry, P.K. Dutta, Assam Chief Secretary, and Hagrama Basumatary, the BLT chairman.

The Centre will now move a Constitution amendment bill to include the BTC in the Sixth Schedule. As many as 3,082 villages have been identified to be included in the BTC, which will be divided into four contiguous districts after the reorganisation of the existing districts of Lower Assam within a period of six months. Elections to the BTC will be held as soon as it is granted constitutional status.

It was also decided to set up a committee - with one representative each from the Centre, Assam government and the BLT - to take a decision on the inclusion of another 95 villages and areas under the BTC within three months. Informed sources said the BTC would have four co-terminus districts and include 3,082 villages beyond the Pasnoi river, Bijni town, areas around Dhaligaon, Shrirampur and the Orang and Manas National Parks.

Of the 46 BTC seats to be filled through elections, 30 will be reserved for the tribal people and five for non-tribal people residing in the BTC areas, and five will be in the open category. The remaining six will be filled by Assam Governor through nomination from among those communities that may not get representation in the 40 elected seats. Adequate safeguards have been incorporated to ensure protection of the rights of the non-tribal people in the BTC areas as well as to remove any disadvantages they may face in relation to their rights on land and other privileges. The Centre also agreed to provide Rs.100 crores annually over a period of five years for infrastructural development in the BTC areas. A Centrally funded Central Institute of Technology will be set up in the BTC area.

THE peace initiative was first launched in 1993 by the Minister of State for Internal Security, Rajesh Pilot, when he visited Kokrajhar to meet Bodo leaders. He had then appealed to them to come overground and join the mainstream. On February 20, 1993, an accord was signed between the Centre, the State government, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and the Bodo People's Action Committee (BPAC) to pave the way for the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) covering nearly 2,300 square kilometres in the Lower Assam districts of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari, Darang, Mangaldai and Sonitpur.

The BAC accord, according to political observers, was a faulty one. The signing of the accord was done in unusual haste owing to the pressure from Rajesh Pilot. It was literally forced on the then Chief Minister of Assam, Hiteswar Saikia, despite his reservations on many points particularly on boundary demarcation. In the name of contiguity, a section led by former ABSU chief S.K. Bwismutiary demanded that 515 more villages be included in the BAC area, over and above the 2,570 villages agreed to by the government. The Assam government contended that these villages could not be given away since they had Bodos constituting less than 2 per cent of the population. Before signing the accord, Saikia wanted the BAC boundary to be clearly demarcated. If it was not done, he said, tension would continue and ethnic clashes were bound to recur.

Saikia's fears were confirmed immediately after the accord was signed when extremist groups such as the Bodo Security Force (BdSF), later renamed the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) surfaced. They vehemently opposed the accord and moved ahead with their brutal plan of attacking non-Bodos - particularly the Bengali settlers from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Muslim minorities, and Koch Rajbongshi and Santhal communities - and getting the areas belonging to these people vacated. Armed Bodo militants demanded a "liberated'' Bodoland "for Bodos only''.

Since 1994, the extremist groups have been drawing up an action plan for "cleansing'' Bodo villages of non-Bodo settlers and changing the ethnic composition of these areas. The Bodos in the so-called Bodoland or in areas under the BAC do not constitute more than 40 per cent of their total population of about 20 lakhs. The extremist groups also had plans to grab the vast lands cultivated by non-Bodo settlers over the years. Most of these lands were sold to them by the tribal Bodos 30 to 40 years ago. The Bodos readily responded to the militants' slogan that "Bodoland is for Bodos and no outsider has right to the land in their territory''.

The issue of land ownership was a major factor behind the ethnic clashes. The 1996 riots, in which over 100 Santhals were killed by Bodo militants in the BAC area, forced a large number of Santhal families to move into relief camps set up at several places in Lower Assam. The continuing ethnic violence was also behind a large number of non-Bodo families in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts choosing to stay in relief camps.

Non-Bodos soon started organising themselves to resist the onslaught of Bodo extremists. And as they began to hit back, the BAC areas, where law and order had virtually gone out of control, began witnessing frequent bloodshed.

FROM the outset, the BAC has almost been a non-functioning body. An election to the BAC to replace the nominated administrative unit has not been held in the past 10 years. The BAC has also failed to check the ongoing clashes between different ethnic groups in the region under its control. The so-called BAC areas have remained under the rule of insurgents belonging to the BLT and the NDFB and the militant outfits floated by non-Bodos.

However, in a significant turn of events, the BLT, the most dreaded militant outfit operating in the Brahmaputra Valley, announced in early 2000 its decision to bid "farewell to arms'' for peace in the Bodo-inhabited Lower Assam. The banned outfit, which had launched its movement for Statehood "to fulfil the aspirations of the Bodo people'', came to a ceasefire agreement with the Centre on March 29, 2000. Subsequently, the Centre, the Assam government and the BLT finalised the "ground rules'' to end the insurgency, with the BLT vowing to abide by the Constitution and the laws of the land.

The ground rules were chalked out following a tripartite meeting on March 28 and 29, 2000, between representatives of the Union Home Ministry, the Assam government and the BLT. For starters, they held that armed operations would remain suspended for a period of six months and this period might be extended with "mutual agreement'' subsequently. According to a Home Ministry statement issued at the end of the two-day meeting, the ground rules "mutually'' agreed on were that the BLT will abjure the path of violence; it will not engage in violent or unlawful activities such as killings, abductions, extortions, intimidation, carrying of arms in public and causing injuries; and it will agree to abide by the Constitution and the laws of the land. The two sides also agreed to set up a joint monitoring group, on the lines of the ceasefire monitoring group operating in Nagaland.

The BLT, with a dedicated cadre of about 1,000, created terror in Assam in 1995 by exploding bombs on the Brahmaputra Mail near Kokrajhar. It blew up railway tracks, bridges, oil pipelines and other strategic installations. It also killed a good number of security personnel and civilians.

Since March 2000, the Centre has been watching the actions of the BLT. After satisfying itself that the underground outfit was sincere in its peace motives, it suspended operations against BLT militants. A day after the signing of the March 29 agreement, BLT leaders organised a public meeting at Debargaon near Kokrajhar to apprise the public of the ceasefire accord.

AFTER signing the February 10 accord, the upbeat BLT leaders promised peace, unity and rapid socio-economic development for both Bodos and non-Bodos living in the proposed BTC region. Addressing a huge rally in Kokrajhar on February 11, Hagrama Basumatary said: "If the BTC accord signed yesterday in New Delhi is executed in letter and spirit, the Bodos will not have to go for another accord in future to assert their rights and development. The BTC is capable of fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of Bodos."

The ABSU, which supported the BLT in its peace efforts and played an important role in helping it reach an agreement with the Centre, also took out a procession in Kokrajhar. ABSU president Rabi Ram Narzary told Frontline that with the signing of the BTC accord, Bodos had stepped into a "master era'' which would ensure overall development. He said there was no reason for non-Bodos living in the BTC areas to fear that they would lose their legitimate rights and privileges.

However, the non-Bodos, under the umbrella of the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samiti (SJSS), have opposed the BTC accord and threatened to launch an agitation to demand the scrapping of the accord. The SJSS observed a 24-hour bandh in Lower Assam on February 14, and issued a statement, which said: "The accord has been drafted without taking into consideration the genuine fears of non-Bodos, whose population is more than that of the Bodos, even within the proposed BTC.'' SJSS convener Brajen Mahanta asserted that under no circumstances would the accord be allowed to be implemented. The SJSS also described the Congress government in the State as "anti-Assam'', for signing the accord "despite giving assurance to the non-Bodos that no BTC would be created and for failing to hold discussions with the SJSS representatives". Non-Bodos constitute 80 per cent of the population in the area. The SJSS central committee, at its meeting in Pathsala near Guwahati, threatened to a call a 100-hour State-wide bandh if the government issued a notification for the implementation of the accord or introduced a Bill in Parliament for the purpose.

Reacting to the accord, the Communist Party of India (CPI) accused the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre and the Congress(I) government in Assam of betraying the non-Bodos living in the proposed BTC territory. "In the original draft as per the consensus of the all-party meeting called by the Assam government, it was decided that 10 seats out of the total of 40 will be reserved for the non-Bodos. But the quota was reduced to five, and by this the political rights of almost 60 per cent of the people in the proposed BTC are being denied,'' said State CPI leader Promode Gogoi.

After the signing of the accord, the BTC's publicity secretary, Mainao Daimary, said the BLT would formally surrender arms and ammunition within one week of forming the interim council of the BTC. They will be surrendered before Advani, Chief Minister Gogoi and Assam Governor Lt.-Gen. (retd) S.K. Sinha at Kokrajhar.

Meanwhile, the outlawed NDFB, which was opposed to the creation of the BTC as it believed that such a development would render its armed struggle for a "sovereign Bodoland'' redundant, is said to be changing its stance following the accord. With the BLT coming to the limelight, the NDFB is feeling alienated from the movement for Bodoland, informed sources said. It had repeatedly rebuffed the overtures of the Centre and the Assam government, but now appears to be headed for the negotiation table, with its chairman Ranjan Daimari giving his associates the green signal for a political dialogue with New Delhi. Intelligence sources said Daimari had directed two of his deputies, both in judicial custody at present, to prepare the ground for such talks.

The NDFB's willingness to resolve the Bodo issue through dialogue was confirmed during the interrogation of its arrested vice-chairman, Dhiren Boro. It had constituted a three-member committee comprising Boro, general secretary Gobinda Basumatary and publicity secretary B. Erakdao to explore ways to reciprocate the Centre's offer to hold talks.

In the 16-point MoS, it has been stated that a special rehabilitation programme will be taken up for the people affected by ethnic disturbances over the years. "The Special Rehabilitation Programme for the people affected by ethnic disturbances in Assam, who are at present living in relief camps in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, etc., shall be completed by the Government of Assam with the active support of the BTC. Necessary funds for their rehabilitation shall be provided by the Government of India and lands which are free from all encumbrances required for such rehabilitation shall be made available by the BTC,'' it says.

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