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Assam: accord and discord

By Wasbir Hussain

If tackling the NDFB is a major challenge for the Government and the Bodo leadership in the days to come, allaying the fears of the non-Bodos with certain visible moves is equally important.

THEY LANDED at the Guwahati airport, flashed "V" signs, received garlands and bouquets from the assembled supporters, boarded a waiting Indian Air Force helicopter and flew into Kokrajhar. As soon as they alighted in Assam's Bodo heartland on February 11, less than 24 hours after signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Centre and the Assam Government in New Delhi, Hagrama Basumatary, chairman of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), and other leaders of the outfit, were accorded a hero's welcome. After all, the MoU is supposed to have formally ended a seven-year-old armed revolt by the BLT to press for more autonomy for the State's Bodo tribals.

The February 10 MoU gives the Bodos a politico-administrative structure called the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) with a total of 3,082 villages and four districts to be carved out of existing districts by a Delimitation Commission. The BTC, that has come up under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, will have 46 seats: 30 reserved for Scheduled Tribes, five for non-tribals, five open to all communities, and six seats to be nominated by the State Governor. It will also have 40 departments transferred by the State Government to its control, receive a Rs. 100-crore assistance a year for five years to develop the socio-economic infrastructure in BTC areas, a Centrally-funded university and a Central institute of technology. The BLT is to be disbanded and disarmed within a week of the formation of the BTC's interim committee that can be in power for a maximum of six months till the first elections to the Council are held.

As much as Rs. 500 crores in five years for infrastructure development, political space in which their leaders could hope to achieve their aspirations, and most importantly a package deemed good enough to withdraw their separate statehood demand were obviously reason enough for the Bodo masses to be euphoric. As Mr. Basumatary said: "The Bodos will not be required to launch another mass agitation if the provisions of the BTC Accord are implemented in letter and spirit." The Bodos are optimistic and as such the influential All-Bodo Students' Union (ABSU) has formally announced the withdrawal of its demand for a separate State.

As expected, the signing of the BTC accord has been received with fear and anger by non-Bodo groups, not necessarily non-Bodos themselves. The Sanmilita Janagosthiya Sangram Samity (SJSS), a conglomeration of 18 non-Bodo groups, has already enforced a 36-hour general strike in non-Bodo strongholds of western Assam in protest against the creation of the BTC. The SJSS claims that the Government has imposed an "ex-parte settlement" on the 80 per cent non-Bodo population in the BTC area. The non-Bodos' fear is perhaps more because the signatory to the new accord is the BLT, a rebel group, unlike the earlier Bodo agreement of February 20, 1993, that was signed by the ABSU. The non-Bodos feel the actions of the BLT or the new dispensation in the BTC could well be unpredictable.

Groups such as the SJSS particularly fear that the land rights of the non-Bodos might be curtailed under an administration that would now be solely controlled by Bodos. There is also an apprehension that if their land rights are infringed upon, it will only be a matter of time before the non-Bodos are forced to pack up and go elsewhere. The Bodo leaders have said the non-Bodos have no reason to fear and that their rights and privileges would be protected.

The MoU on its part has clearly stipulated two things: (1) that the BTC cannot enact any law that will extinguish the rights and privileges enjoyed by a citizen of India in respect of his/her land at the commencement of the BTC; and (2) that the BTC cannot enact any law barring any citizen from acquiring land either by way of inheritance, allotment, settlement or by way of transfer if such citizens were eligible for such bona fide acquisition of land within the BTC area.

Prodded by sundry non-Bodo outfits that have sprung up, mistrust seems to be high among the non-tribals in the BTC area at this juncture. Can this MoU really bring about peace and development? The BLT has the backing of almost all the mainstream Bodo groups, including the influential ABSU. Moreover, the Bodos cannot dream of having a third agreement signed. However, rebel groups such as the banned National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) are still a potent force, capable of carrying out damaging random strikes on rivals such as the BLT-ABSU combine or the new political force that is emerging or, for that matter, the symbols of governmental authority.

Insofar as the NDFB is concerned, there are two possibilities. Either it will be marginalised, now that the dominant mood among the Bodos is for peace and progress, or it could try and stage a

comeback with some desperate strikes. In a communication to this writer, the NDFB chief, D.R. Nabla alias Ranjan Daimary, has said his group "welcomes" the BTC Accord although it is convinced that the new deal cannot fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the Bodos who, he claimed, would like to "live as a free nation". The NDFB chief argued that other ethnic groups in the Northeast, such as the Karbis and Garos, have not been satisfied even after creation of autonomous councils for them, and, therefore, a Rs. 500-crore assistance package over a five-year period cannot be expected to make the Bodos happy. The NDFB would continue with its armed struggle, he said, but added that the outfit was ready for talks with New Delhi on the issue of the Bodos' right to self-determination.

The BLT emerged on the scene in 1996 after the Bodo Accord of 1993 turned out to be a non-starter. In keeping with the popular perception in the Northeast that New Delhi is moved only by the power of the gun, the BLT began a violent campaign, hitting the headlines with the bombing of the New Delhi-bound Brahmaputra Mail near Kokrajhar on December 30, 1996, that killed 33 passengers. Besides, the BLT came into direct conflict with its rival, the NDFB, and a bitter fratricidal feud followed. Finally, in March 2000, the BLT entered into a ceasefire with the Government and began peace negotiations that culminated in the February 10 MoU. This agreement, by giving legitimacy to the BLT, could in fact raise the hopes of outfits such as the NDFB that they would someday be able to achieve their objective of achieving an independent homeland if they keep fighting.

Therefore, the Government as well as the mainstream Bodo leaders must try and make the NDFB see reason rather than embark on any deliberate strategy to push them to the wall. The NDFB has suffered major reverses in recent months with its vice-president, Dhiren Boro, and general secretary, Govinda Basumatary, landing in the security net. If tackling the NDFB is a major challenge for the Government and the Bodo leadership in the days to come, allaying the fears of the non-Bodos with certain visible moves is equally important. That is, if the Bodos really want peace to close a violent chapter in their history.

(The writer is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi.)

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