India: Assam Continues To Sit On Ethnic Tinderbox – Analysis


By Dr. Veronica Khangchian*

Adivasi or tribal families, several of them Christians in Sonitpur district of Assam bordering Bangladesh were preparing for Christmas when heavily armed militants allegedly belonging to the Ingti Kathar Songbijit faction of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS), began their attacks on the evening of Dec 23, 2014.

The district, situated on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra river, was the worst affected in the massacre followed by Kokrajhar and Chirang districts. Heavily armed militants attacked the remote Adivasi villages of the three districts killing innocent villagers – men, women and children, including infants. The violence unleashed by the militant group and retaliatory violence claimed 81 lives. Three Adivasis were also killed in police firing in Sonitpur district on Dec 24. In Kokrajhar, retaliatory violence by some Adivasis claimed the lives of three Bodos.

Assam’s Inspector-General of Police (Law and Order) S.N. Singh said the NDFB-IKS had attacked the Adivasis, who were “soft targets”, to avenge the killing of the outfit’s cadre in counter-insurgency operations. In the latest incident, two of its cadre were killed on Dec 21. “Deeper reasons” for the Dec 23 incident, however, cannot be ruled out.

The Songbijit group was also linked to the Bodo-Muslim bloodshed in the Bodoland Territorial Administered Districts (BTAD) in July 2012 and during Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) elections in April-May 2014 in which a non-Bodo independent candidate, Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira Sarania, emerged the winner, defeating all the three Bodo candidates in the fray in the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency. Unofficial sources in Kokrajhar asserted that the villagers may have been targeted because they had apparently not voted in favour of a particular party and its candidate.

The non-Bodos had also suspected the involvement of political party Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) leaders (former Bodo Liberation Tigers-BLT militant leaders), who had signed the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) in 2003 which led to the creation of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), to be behind the incident. Hira Sarania’s candidature was backed by the Sanmila Janagosthiya Aikya Mancha (SJAM, an umbrella organisation of most of the non-Bodo organisations of the BTAD areas). A conflict has been raging between Bodos and non-Bodos in the aftermath of the Lok Sabha polls.

Nevertheless, whatever the immediate cause or the “deep seated grievances” of the concerned parties may be the fault line of BTC 2003 created under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution remains the major reason for recurring violence in the recent period. There have been growing demands for review of 2003 Bodo Accord, from both Bodos and non-Bodos, particularly after the ethnic conflagration of 2012. There have also been clashes between Bodos and Adivasis, and Bodos and Koch-Rajbongshi in the mid-990s and late 1980s as well as early 90s respectively. The Bodo agitation, which started in 1987, led to the formation of Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) with the first Bodo Accord in February 1993, but collapsed due to the failure to demarcate the boundary of the Council’s jurisdiction. The accord “faultily” stipulated that all villages with a 50 percent Bodo population would come under the jurisdiction of a newly created Bodo Council.

The new 2003 Bodo accord led to the formation of a BTC with a “fixed boundary”, but at the same time preserved the rights of non-tribal landowners in the tribal area. The BTC Act 2003 thus read: “The existing rights and privileges of any citizen in respect of his land at the date of commencement of the act” are retained. Further, the provisions of the BTC Act do not “disallow any citizen from acquiring land either by way of inheritance, allotment, settlement, or by any other way of transfer, if such citizen is otherwise eligible for such acquisition”; provisions questioned by Bodo leaders. The accord without a well-defined arrangement has clearly failed to empower or protect the Bodos. A large number of people also reportedly entered the BTC area between 1993 and 2003, occupied lands, and changed the demographic profile.

Meanwhile, the non-Bodos complained of discrimination and insecurity in BTAD. Oboro Suraksa Samiti [OSS, Non-Boro Security Committee] in July 2014, while demanding exclusion of non-Bodo villages from BTC governed BTAD to ensure the security of lives and properties of non-Bodos, argued that militants were targeting non-Bodos in BTAD in a bid to drive them out and establish a Bodo majority in the area.

It is important to note that no ethnic group has a current majority in Bodoland. Publicly available data pegs the Bodo population at 28 percent; Muslims, 20 percent; Adivasis 15 percent; while the remaining 37 percent include Assamese, Bengali Hindus and non-Bodo tribes. However, the actual numbers may be somewhat more disturbing. A secret report of the Assam police in 2012 indicated that the Kokrajhar District, [the capital of BTAD and political seat of power in BTAD] had a Bodo population of 310,000, or 30 percent of the total, and Muslims, at 236,000, or 25.15 percent of the total, something the tribals have repeatedly been pointing out as a cause for worry and evidence that illegal migration from Bangladesh into Bodo areas continues.

A turf war is then clearly evident. Earlier in July 2012, Adivasi militant outfits also reiterated their demand for the creation of an Adivasi land to be carved out of the BTC area.

Currently, the NDFB-IKS is the only faction of NDFB [Bodo militant group which remained active in the Bodo inhabited areas after Bodo Liberation Tigers-BLT signed the Memorandum of Settlement in 2003] that has refused to sit for talks with the government. The outfit vowed to “work and fight together with vigour and determination to liberate Boroland” and “Western South East Asia (northeast India)”. The undivided NDFB was originally fighting for a ‘sovereign’ Bodoland comprising the present BTAD areas as well as tribal inhabited other areas on the north bank of the Brahmaputra river. The other factions, NDFB-Progressive and NDFB-RD (headed by Ranjan Daimary), in talks with the government are demanding Bodo statehood.

The government of India, following the Dec 23 incident, has declared that there will henceforth be no talks with any outfit that is involved in killing of innocent civilians. Even as the incident of attacking innocent people can never be justified, unless the tribal and illegal migrants’ issues are genuinely addressed, tensions, particularly between Bodo people and Muslim settlers and Adivasis, and indeed indigenous populations and illegal migrants across Assam which have simmered for years, will continue to escalate into bloody confrontations again and again.

*Veronica Khangchian is a Delhi-based independent researcher. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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