Territories of fear

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

The Assam government's notification on the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council has given fillip to fears among the non-Bodo communities, portending a resumption of sectarian violence.

in Guwahati

THE Assam government's notification enabling the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and the prompt and entirely predictable response of one of the major organisations opposed to the creation of any kind of an autonomous political structure covering areas claimed for such a Council suggests that even after nearly two decades of violent agitation on the issue of Bodoland, the confronting forces on all sides, constitutional and extra-constitutional, militant and moderate, in the government and outside the government, have learnt nothing, forgotten nothing.

Such anxieties are being expressed, and threats of disruption are being held, despite the fact that the BTC, like the earlier Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), falls well short of the original demand for a full-fledged separate State of Bodoland, articulated way back in March 1987 when the Bodoland agitation began, with a strikingly provocative slogan, `Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty'. Things have now moved so far ahead that it is fruitless to dwell on the rationale, or the necessity and feasibility, of a separate political structure for the Bodo people. The Bodo people are one, if not the largest, of the eight plains tribal people of the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam (nine, if one includes the Barak Valley districts), let alone the rest of the plains tribal people who themselves are deeply divided on the issue.

The main protagonists and antagonists on the issue of Bodo nationalistic assertion, however, remain the same, though the precise nature of their roles or the names under which they operate and the alliances they have forged may have changed somewhat. The first Memorandum of Settlement was signed on February 20, 1993, with the All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU) as the `principal signatory' representing the Bodo nationalistic aspirations. The Bodo People's Action Committee (BPAC), a structure created by the ABSU itself in replication of the creation of the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) during the anti-foreigner agitation, with a view to maintaining the fiction that the AASU was a `non-political' organisation, was the co-signatory. In contrast, the latest MoS does not bear the signature of any representative of the ABSU. The principal, indeed the sole, signatory representing Bodo nationalistic aspirations is the Chairman of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), formerly Bodo Liberation Tiger Force or BLTF, a once clandestine structure banned by the Union government as a terrorist outfit, whose relationship with the ABSU remains tangential and obscure.

The notification, issued on October 31, came nearly nine months after the signing of the MoS on February 10, 2003, between the representatives of the Union and State governments and leaders of the Bodoland agitation (Frontline, March 14, 2003) - itself a telling comment on the pace of `progress' of the implementation of the BTC accord. The BTC is to come into being at a date yet to be announced, possibly after the elections to the Guwahati Municipal Corporation scheduled for December 1, according to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

To no one's surprise, and in a repetition of a pattern of reaction and resistance that has followed every stage of confrontation and compromise during the prolonged Bodoland agitation, the issuance of the notification has been promptly and predictably followed by the announcement of a programme of agitation by the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samity (SJSS), an apex body of several non-Bodo organisations opposed to the creation of political structures of any kind making concessions to Bodo autonomist/nationalistic aspirations. The SJSS has threatened to launch a 100-hour bandh from the day the Interim Council assumes office - to be followed by other agitational programmes in a manner that has now become the norm, following the precedents and patterns set by the Bodoland agitation leaders themselves.

Pending elections to the BTC, an Interim Executive Council is to be appointed by the Governor of Assam. These elections, according to Article 14 of the MoS, are to be held within six months of the Constitution of the Interim Executive Council. It is widely expected that the chairman of the BLT, Hagrama Basumatary, who signed the MoS on behalf of the BLT, will head the Interim Executive Council - though the little problem about the cases pending against him on criminal charges, part of the baggage he carried from his days as the leader of the BLTF, is to be sorted out before he can assume office.

There is still some lack of clarity about the total area of the BTC, the number of villages and towns that will come within that area, its total population and, above all, the `ethnic mix' of that population. Very broadly, this `ethnic mix' comprises, apart from the Bodo population, the caste Hindu Assamese who historically belong to the same `ethnic' stock as the Bodos, the Adivasis and the immigrant Muslim communities, every one of whom has reason to be apprehensive of the political and economic consequences of a formal acknowledgement of Bodo hegemony in areas which they view, equally, as their home. The setting up of the BTC without clarifying these issues, and removing these apprehensions, is likely to be one of the most problematic aspects of the functioning of the BTC.

First, the physical area of the BTC. The BTC, which will comprise four new contiguous districts - Kokrajhar, Baska, Udalguri and Chirang - on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, is being carved out of eight districts of Assam: Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup, Darrang and Sonitpur. The area of these eight districts is a little over 27,100 square kilometres, about 35 per cent of the total area of Assam. The area of the BTC, which will comprise about 40 per cent of the total area of these eight districts, will thus fall considerably short of its original articulated demand for a separate Bodoland - 50 per cent of the total area of Assam - but will approximate to the area covered by the tribal sub-plan.

Equally, there is still no finality about the number of villages that will fall within the territory of the BTC. Indeed, disagreements and prolonged wrangling over this issue was one of the factors that delayed the issuing of the notification. According to the MoS, the BTC is to comprise 3,082 villages. BLT leaders signed the MoS even though they had reservations over this number and demanded that an additional 95 villages be included in the BTC territory. In the negotiations that have followed the signing of the MoS, it was agreed that a further 13 villages (or a further 25 villages, according to other reports) would be included in the BTC area, thus bringing the total number of villages in the BTC area, as of now, to 3,095 (or 4,002).

Further discussions over the inclusion of the remaining 82 (or 70) villages in the BTC are to be held after the formation of the Interim Territorial Council. Such vagueness and imprecision is hardly surprising given the imprecision in land revenue records, or even on the ground, regarding the classification, locational identification, or even the names of the villages in Assam, and indeed in much of rural India.

However, there is less ambiguity about the major towns (though some of these are at present little more than villages) that will fall within the BTC territory. The most important of these are Kokrajhar, the Bodo heartland as it were and the home of the earliest Bodo autonomist/nationalistic assertion, the major part of Bongaigaon, including the refinery and petrochemical complex, Bijni, Sidli, Tamalpur and Udalguri, the last another historical seat of Bodo autonomist/nationalistic assertion.

What about the population of the BTC area and, even more crucially, its `ethnic mix'? The MoS wisely, and perhaps unavoidably, remains silent on this crucial question. At the height of the Bodoland agitation in the late 1980s when only the 1971 Census was available (there was no Census in Assam in 1981) its leaders claimed that in `Assam alone', the Bodo population was `forty lakhs' - a piece of understandable rhetorical exaggeration. According to the 1991 Census, the total Bodo population in the whole State, which would include areas outside the BTC area, including cities like Guwahati, was 12,67,015. Further, the total population, the total Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) population and the total Bodo population of the eight districts from which the BTC area is being carved out, according to the figures of the 1991 Census; the S.T. figures of the 2001 Census are not yet available .

These figures show that the Bodo population in these eight districts amounts to a little over 11 per cent of their total population. What is less clear is whether all the 11,39,194 Bodo people enumerated in these districts in 1991 live in the areas that have been (or are being) demarcated as BTC territory - the 4,000 +/- villages and the half a dozen cities and towns; and whether this population clearly constitutes more than 50 per cent of the total population of this BTC territory.

Indeed, central to the yet to be resolved dispute over the inclusion of the contested 95 villages in the BTC territory is the crucial criterion (Article 3.2 of the MoS), that the `tribal' (not specifically Bodo) population of these villages should be not less than 50 per cent.

Thus, the formal launching of the BTC and the impending assumption of office by the Interim Territorial Council has given fillip to fears and anxieties of the considerable non-Bodo population in the BTC areas to mobilise once again an agitational programme. Given the violence that marked the agitation in all its phases, a resumption of similar sectarian violence is very much on the cards.

For, though the confrontation has always superficially taken a so-called `ethnic' dimension and the MoS speaks high-mindedly about the BTC fulfilling the "economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of the land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos", the more material issues relating primarily to land and forests, but increasingly also to other areas of ambition and aspiration in respect of shrinking job market, the thriving area of contracts, educational opportunities (such as they are), in all of which the relatively advanced sections of the non-Bodos had a virtual monopoly until now, are likely to be exploited on all sides.

Finally, as an illustration of the extreme ad-hocism that has again and again characterised the piecemeal social and political engineering that has been going on in this region in response to any and every kind of agitation, the BTC has been created as an `autonomous and self-governing body' under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. This Schedule, as is well known, has its origins in the colonial conquest of Assam; and the discovery by the colonial rulers that there were territories beyond the boundaries that they had been able to `stabilise' and about which they knew little, and were even less interested in `governing', except to secure them against other predators. They had little expectation of revenue from these `excluded and partially excluded' territories, anyway.

Thus, the identification of the `hill areas' of Assam and the outlying lands, difficult to access (locational uniqueness) and inhabited by a people markedly different culturally and socially, and maintaining a distance from the more numerous and relatively materially advanced people of the `plains', principally the Hindus and the Muslims. When the Constitution of independent India was drawn up, this distinction was further legitimised, with the broad support of the members of the Constituent Assembly from the region (though there were some dissenting voices) by the provision of a measure of autonomy, guaranteed under the Sixth Schedule.

For over 50 years, the Sixth Schedule has been applicable only to the hill areas of Assam; and even when the States of Nagaland and Meghalaya were created, the provisions of the Sixth Schedule continued to be applicable to them - and only to them. The only other area of the State where its provisions are applicable are Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, the two residual hill districts of Assam that refused to become part of Meghalaya.

For the first time, the `locational uniqueness' of the territories and the people coming under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule has been modified, with the amendment of the Sixth Schedule to satisfy and accommodate the autonomist / nationalistic aspirations of the Bodo people, a people self-defined as `plains tribes'. It is yet to be seen whether this concession will be challenged by the people and the political structures of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills; until now they were the only ones in the State to come under the umbrella of the Sixth Schedule.

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