Bodo Accord

The third Bodo accord: A new deal

Print edition : February 28, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance Himanta Bishwa Sarma and senior Bodo leaders attend an event to celebrate the signing of the Bodo accord, in Kokrajhar in Assam on February 7. Photo: ritu raj konwar

Govinda Basumatary (centre), president of National Democratic Front of Boroland, and Mihiniswar Basumatary (right), president of the United Bodo People’s Organisation, signing the accord with the Central and State governments in New Delhi on January 27. Photo: PTI

NDFB cadres at a public rally to celebrate the signing of the accord, in Kokrajhar on February 7. Photo: AFP

The third Bodo accord envisages a new model of power sharing and governance for the Bodoland Territorial Council and seeks to redraw the BTAD for lasting peace.

A TRIPARTITE accord signed in New Delhi on January 27 by representatives of Bodo organisations with the Central and Assam governments, presents a new model of power sharing and governance in Assam under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The Bodo parties to the agreement include the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the United Bodo People’s Organisation (UBPO) and all the four factions of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB). 

This model reduces the dependence of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), constituted under the Sixth Schedule, on the State government for funds, provides scope for expansion of the territory, and empowers the BTC to have a say in the appointment of Deputy Commissioners and Superintendents of Police although the Home and Police departments will continue to be with the State government. The augmented area and powers of the BTC, under the new accord may trigger fresh aspirations in the nine autonomous councils in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram to graduate to the new model. That is likely to have an impact on the existing power-sharing arrangements between the governments and the autonomous councils constituted under the Sixth Schedule in these States. 

The peace accord has brought the curtain down on over three decades of insurgency in Bodoland areas, which is critical for the return of peace in the Bodo heartland. However, the opposition to the accord voiced by organisations of non-Bodo communities, including Koch-Rajbangshis, Adivasis and religious and linguistic minorities, has given rise <FZ,1,0,29>to fears that if their grievances are not addressed, the ethnic fault lines in Assam will deepen.

The jubilation of the Bodo people on the signing of the accord reflected fresh hope for permanent peace returning to areas under the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), which is administered by the BTC. The accord seeks to rename and redraw the BTAD. Protest programmes by non-Bodo organisations in the BTAD against the accord, on the other hand, reflected the mixed reaction and complexities involved in finding solutions to territory-linked ethno-nationalist identity assertions. Naba Kumar Sarania, the Member of Parliament representing Kokrajhar, has criticised the government for not holding consultations with him and organisations representing non-Bodo communities before signing the accord.

Salient features

As per the accord, the BTAD will be renamed the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). The number of seats in the BTC will be increased from 40 to 60 “without adversely affecting the existing percentage of reservation for tribals”. A key objective of the accord is to augment the area and powers of the BTC and streamline its functioning. The accord promises more legislative, executive, and financial powers to the BTC in respect of 40 subjects already transferred to it and eight additional subjects. Denial of assent by the Governor to laws passed by the BTC was one of the key reasons for the ABSU rejecting the 2003 accord and reviving the statehood demand.

The BTAD comprises the districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri and covers 3,082 villages. However, the issue of inclusion of 95 contiguous villages from Dhubri, Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Nalbari and Darrang districts in the BTAD, mentioned in the previous accord, has remained unresolved for more than 17 years. A committee will be appointed under Paragraph 14 of the Sixth Schedule to examine and recommend the inclusion of villages contiguous with the BTAD and having a majority tribal population, as demanded by the Bodo organisations. It will also examine and recommend the exclusion of villages currently under the BTAD, which are contiguous with non-Sixth Scheduled areas and have majority non-tribal populations. The committee will have representatives of the State government, the ABSU and the BTC as members and will submit its recommendations within six months from the date of notification.

The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), a constituent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government in Assam, is holding power in the BTC. Hagrama Mahillary has been its Chief Executive Member (CEM) for the past three consecutive terms and is looking to win a fourth term. Mahillary signed the second Bodo accord as the chief of the erstwhile insurgent outfit Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). 

State Finance Minister Himanta Biswas Sarma described the new accord as “win-win for Bodos and non-Bodos”. Reacting to the opposition to the accord by non-Bodo organisations, he said that the accord would facilitate inclusion of tribal majority villages contiguous with the existing BTAD and give the option to non-tribal-majority villages in the BTAD to petition before the committee for exclusion. However, a large number of villages with non-tribal people in the majority will remain in the core area of the BTR as they were included for contiguity of the existing BTAD areas. Non-Bodo organisations view the creation of the BTR, the expansion of the BTAD and grant of more powers and functions to the BTC as a prelude to the creation of a separate Bodoland.

Under the new accord, the Deputy Commissioners and Superintendents of Police will be posted in consultation with the CEM of the BTC. The Deputy Commissioners will report to the CEM through the Chief Executive Officer in respect of all development departments in their districts with regard to the responsibilities assigned to them by the BTC.

The Assam government will set up a Bodo-Kachari Autonomous Council, which will be a satellite council for the focussed development of Bodo villages outside the BTR on the lines of the existing six councils for plains tribes. The accord also promises Scheduled Tribe status to Bodos living in the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Student bodies of the hill districts have opposed this provision in the accord on the grounds that it will “infringe upon the rights enjoyed by Karbis and Dimasas”. 

Assam has autonomous councils for Rabhas, Deoris, Misings, Tiwas, Sonowal-Kacharis and Thengal Kacharis. The council bodies as well as organisations representing these communities have been demanding the upgrading of the autonomous councils to territorial councils under the Sixth Schedule.

The objection of non-Bodo groups to the new accord is based on the argument that Bodos, who account for less than one-third of the population in the BTR, have been given the political power to rule over other communities, which together account for two-thirds of the population. Bodo leaders, however, consider “non-Bodos” to be “a political identity construction”. They claim that Bodos were the majority in the region but their percentage declined owing to encroachment of the tribal belt and blocks that form part of the BTR by migrant population and, therefore, there should be constitutional safeguards to protect their identity, language and culture.

Persisting differences among Bodo leaders, however, indicate that the new accord is not likely to be a closure of the Bodos’ struggle for statehood. On the eve of signing the accord, Mahillary said it was unfortunate that the ABSU had surrendered the statehood demand. He claimed that the new accord, when implemented in letter and spirit, would automatically lead to the creation of a separate State of Bodoland. He alleged that the ABSU did not play a role in the signing of the accord and tried to hijack it from the NDFB factions to claim credit.

On the other hand, ABSU president Pramod Boro accused the BTC chief of trying to hijack the accord. Asked if the ABSU had given up its statehood demand after the signing of the accord, Boro told Frontline: “Statehood demand and other political demands were taken into consideration while working out the provisions of the BTR accord. It will depend on the approaches adopted by the government and the stakeholders in the implementation of the accord in right earnest to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the people. The statehood demand was revived as the previous accord failed to fulfil the aspirations of the people.”

Comprehensive solution

Describing the accord as the “final and comprehensive solution”, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said Assam’s territorial integrity was assured as every single Bodo group had come on board. Speaking at the accord signing event, he said that over 4,000 lives had been lost during the Bodoland agitation. The accord promises that the Assam government will provide a compensation of Rs.5 lakh to the next of kin of those who lost their lives in the agitation.

Hailing the accord, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “The accord between the Bodo groups and Govt will strengthen the unity and integrity of Assam. I welcome decision of my Bodo friends for leaving violence and reposing faith in democracy & Constitution.”

The Prime Minister said: “After signing this historic agreement with Bodo organisations, foremost priority of our government is development of Bodo areas. Work has begun on a comprehensive Rs.1,500 crore package. Our special focus will be on ease of living and ensuring that Bodos benefit fully from government schemes.” 

Arms surrender

Altogether 1,615 cadres of the four NDFB factions formally laid down their arms before Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal at a ceremony held in Guwahati on January 30. The NDFB cadres deposited 178 weapons and 4,803 pieces of ammunition. In 2003, 2,603 BLT cadres laid down 508 assorted weapons and 17,137 different pieces of ammunition following the signing of the second accord.

Former Rajya Sabha member and United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) chief Urkhao Gwra Brahma, who played a key role in the drafting of the accord, said the 34-year-old political struggle of the NDFB had come to an end with the “honourable political agreement”. Improvement of the funding system and strengthening of grass-roots-level democracy by introducing village councils and urban councils in the BTR was another key provision of the accord, he said. This, he claimed, would facilitate equal participation of non-Bodo communities in BTR governance through elected village councils and urban councils. The UPPL has seven members in the BTC.

This is the third Bodo Accord signed by Bodo organisations. The ABSU and the erstwhile Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC) signed the first Bodo Accord on February 20, 1993, to end their six-year-long movement for a separate State, which was launched in 1987. This accord led to the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) under an Act passed by the Assam Assembly, but the experiment failed as its territory could not be demarcated. The ABSU denounced the accord in 1996 and revived the statehood movement, alleging that the accord failed to fulfil the aspirations of the Bodo people for the protection of their language, identity and culture. The BLT launched a parallel armed campaign demanding statehood. 

On February 10, 2003, the BLT signed the second Bodo accord with the Centre and the State government and settled for the BTC under the amended provisions of the Sixth Schedule in lieu of their demand for statehood. The NDFB, however, rejected the second accord and continued its insurgent activities for a “sovereign Boroland”. Since its formation in 1986, the NDFB has split into four factions. All the factions gradually joined the peace process seeking a separate State. The ABSU rejected the second Bodo accord and revived the statehood movement on March 2, 2010.

The new accord has triggered fresh hopes as peace has remained fragile in the Bodo heartland for over three decades. The BTAD and neighbouring districts witnessed ethnic violence in 1993, 1996, 1998, 2008, 2012 and 2014 which claimed thousands of lives and led to forced displacement of several lakhs of people belonging to different communities. The displaced people have been living in subhuman conditions in makeshift relief camps for years. During this period, the BTAD also witnessed a series of fratricidal killings, with gunmen murdering hundreds of supporters of the ABSU, the NDFB, the BPF and workers of other Bodo political forces.

The BTR presents a complicated situation of territories of ethnic homeland demanded by organisations of different ethnic communities overlapping. As reservation of seats in the BTC under the new accord is for Scheduled Tribe communities, the possibility of power equilibrium in the BTR getting offset remains alive when Koch-Rajbangshis, Adivasis or any other community are granted S.T. status.

The Constitution (S.T.) Amendment Bill, 2019, tabled in the Rajya Sabha on January 9, 2019, seeks to expand the list of S.Ts in Assam and grant S.T. status to Koch-Rajbangshis, Tai-Ahoms, Morans, Mataks, Chutiya and 36 Adivasi/Tea-Tribe communities. Opposition to the new accord is expected to give fresh momentum to the movement for S.T. status by organisations of Koch-Rajbangshis and Adivasi communities in the BTR.

New Delhi, Dispur and the signatories of the accord will have a daunting task in securing the support of the organisations and groups representing non-S.T. communities and will be under pressure to find a way out to ensure the successful implementation of the accord.

The economic package that forms part of the new accord, when implemented, is expected to usher in a new era of development in the BTR region. The package includes a Central university, a national sports university, a North East Regional Institute of Medical Sciences and a National Institute of Technology.

The new accord has come when election to the BTC is just a couple of months away. New aspirations of Bodos are expected to influence the election. The BJP’s ally, the BPF, will face a tough challenge from the UPPL. The BPF was a constituent of the Congress-led coalition government headed by Tarun Gogoi. It entered into an electoral alliance with the BJP in 2016. The results of the BTC election may give rise to new political equations in the State ahead of the next Assembly election in 2021.