Even as bodies of children, women and men killed in the recent violence in western Assam were being buried, rival politicians jumped in to gain political mileage. The heated exchange among national leaders over the issue has generated more heat than light, and has served to mask the complex reality leading to the current conflict in the region.
This is unfortunate because such irresponsible politicking can sow the seeds of even greater tension in a bewilderingly diverse and geo-politically sensitive region, so close to Chicken’s Neck, a stretch of land just 20 km wide that links the north-east with the rest of India.
The troubles of western Assam just after elections in Kokrajhar sprang from the bitter and messy political battle in that constituency ahead of the elections. Kokrajhar is the administrative headquarters of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), which has historically elected Bodo lawmakers.
BTAD is a special administrative region comprising four districts in Assam, created a decade ago after a tripartite peace accord between the Centre, the state government and former militants belonging to the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), who gave up their demand for a separate state in exchange for autonomy. The political party launched by the former rebels, Bodoland People’s Front, captured power in the region.
Ahead of this election, the four-time member of Parliament (MP) from Kokrajhar, Sansuma Khungur Bwismuthiary, was denied a ticket by his own party. Bwismuthiary had acquired the reputation of a fiery politician among Bodos over the past few years, thanks largely to his uncharitable remarks on non-Bodos of the state. Given that the Bodos are not a numerical majority in Kokrajhar, the BPF probably dropped Bwismuthiary to avoid consolidating the non-Bodo vote, and instead chose another prominent Bodo leader and former state cabinet minister, Chandan Brahma.
Bwismuthiary poured cold water on such calculations and filed his nomination papers as an independent candidate, and weaned a substantial chunk of his supporters away from the BPF fold to campaign for him. To add to this, another high-profile candidate, Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary, former governor of Meghalaya and former National Security Guards (NSG) chief, joined the fray on a Trinamool Congress ticket. The influential All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) extended its support to an independent candidate, Urkhao Gwra Brahma, a former MP and student leader.
Even as Bodo loyalities were getting divided, non-Bodos rallied behind a common candidate, Naba Kumar Saraniya. Saraniya, who uses the alias Heera, is a former commander of a dreaded battalion of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and belongs to the Saraniya Kachari tribe.
The tribe is a sub-group of the umbrella Bodo-Kachari fold, which once encompassed the Bodos and several other plains tribes of Assam. The Bodos are the largest of Bodo-Kachari ethnicity whose sub-groups are spread across a few north-eastern states and neighbouring West Bengal. With the passage of time and changing cultural influences over the centuries, the Saraniyas, along with several other communities, have moved away from their heritage and no longer speak the Bodo-Kachari tongue but a variant closer to Assamese.
Heera Saraniya’s claim of belonging to a scheduled tribe (ST) was contested by Bodo groups even after the acceptance of his nomination papers by the Election Commission. Kokrakjhar is a constituency reserved for STs.
Bodos and non-Bodos have shared an uneasy relationship in the BTAD for long. The non-Bodos, comprising the caste Assamese, other tribes, ethnic groups such as the Koch Rajbongshis clamouring for ST status, Bengali-speaking Hindus and Bengali-speaking Muslims constitute the majority in BTAD, and the experience of being ruled by a minority discomfited many.
Saraniya was able to bank on such sentiments and secured the backing of several influential leaders of non-Bodo communities. The All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU), dominated largely by Bengali-speaking Muslims, and a faction of the All Koch Rajbongshi Students’ Union (AKRSU) came out in open support of Heera Saraniya during the poll campaigns, asking people to vote for someone who could represent the cause of non-Bodos in the region.
There were reports about non-Bodos voting en masse for Saraniya on polling day, making the BPF leadership jittery. Prominent BPF leaders such as Pramila Rani Brahma made inflammatory remarks against Muslims of the region, and the attacks on that community followed a few days later, igniting fears of a repeat of a 2012-like situation, when more than 100 people from both Bodo and Muslim communities were killed and hundreds of thousands of Bengali Muslims fled their homes in panic.
Even in that year, the violence was preceded by sharp exchanges between an aggressive Bodo leadership, which was mobilizing opinion for the creation of a separate state, and the Muslims, who demanded that the BTAD be scrapped as it had not benefited anyone other than the Bodos. While a substantial section of non-Bodos harbour resentment against the BTAD, it is the leaders of the Bengali Muslim community who have been most vocal in their opposition. Already facing flak or failing to deliver on their promises of developing the BTAD region, the BPF leadership became insecure and upped the ante against Muslim settlers.
The politics of competitive extremism in the region and the consequent polarization is a direct product of the history of misguided interventions by successive Central and state governments in addressing the vulnerabilities and insecurities of different communities living in the region. In trying to pacify one aggrieved ethnic group, the state has often ended up making other communities insecure, perpetuating conflict in the region.
When the Bodo movement first sprang up, it was brutally suppressed. By 2003, the reaction to the movement had moved to the other extreme, with a willing Centre amending the Indian constitution to create the BTAD, turning a blind eye to the interests of other communities. Previously, such a body could only exist in hill areas of north-eastern states according to the Sixth Schedule of the constitution.
Creating the BTAD has only served to antagonize the non-Bodos, lending power to organizations such as the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Aikyamancha (SJA), an umbrella grouping of 20 non-Bodo organizations. The chief minister of Assam had to hold out assurances time and again during his election campaign in this part of the state that “there would be no further division of Assam”.
The Bodo peace accord has clearly not led to peace in the region. The other big failure has been the inability to solve the problem of illegal immigration. As a result, all settlers or Bengali-speaking Muslims are tarred as Bangladeshis even though a substantial section among them has been living here since the British Raj.
The Bangladeshi tag, however, makes all of them soft targets whenever conflicts flare up in the region. Other communities such as the ‘adivasis’ have also born the brunt of violence by Bodo extremists in the past but it is the Bengali-speaking Muslims that have suffered the greatest casualties over the past three decades in western Assam.
Unless the mistakes of the past are acknowledged and the perpetrators of violence brought to book, these incidents of violence will only prepare the ground for even bigger conflicts in the future. If the inflamed passions of western Assam are to be doused, both civil society and the polity have to rise above partisanship and petty politicking to bring peace to the region.