In the January of 2020, the central government made a ‘historic’ decision, announcing that it has signed an accord with the four factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The accord reportedly includes a number of political and economic measures designed to strengthen the autonomy of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), now renamed as Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), as well as mechanisms to rehabilitate the members of each armed group into everyday life. The accord was lauded for ushering in “a golden future for Assam and for the Bodo people.”
The Bodos, an ethno-linguistic group believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Assam, are one of the Indo-Mongoloid communities belonging to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. At the zenith of their thriving civilisation, they ruled vast territories encompassing almost the entirety of northeast India, parts of Nepal, Bhutan, North Bengal and Bangladesh.
It isn’t news when I say that many Indian tribes have lost their authenticity, their values, their culture, their homes because of the way we choose to live, but for centuries, the Bodos survived sanskritisation without giving up their original ethnic identity. However, in the 20th century, they had to tackle a series of issues such as illegal immigration, encroachment of their lands, forced assimilation, loss of language and culture. The 20th century also witnessed the emergence of Bodos as a leading tribe in Assam which pioneered the movements for safeguarding the rights of the tribal communities in the area. Since then, this tribe has faced many challenges, they have been consistently deprived of their basic rights in all fields of life. The Bodos have not only become an ethnic minority in their own ancestral land but have also been struggling for their existence and status as an ethnic community.
In the 1920s, a delegation of educated Bodos, the Bodo Plains Tribal, met the Simon Commission requesting for the reservation of seats in the Legislative Assembly of Assam. This marked the beginning of political awareness among the Bodos. Since then, the Bodos have been struggling to keep their culture alive, fighting against everything that threatened to interfere with their identities, like migration of a huge number of people East Pakistan, then Bangladesh, all while not receiving any support from the central or state government.
During the peak of insurgency in northeast India, a small group of educated Bodo youths formed an armed militia called the Bodo Security Force (BSF), following the example of their Naga and Mizo counterparts. This was later renamed as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) whose objective was to establish a sovereign Bodo homeland. However, the vigorous non-violent movement of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) came to a halt with the formation of Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC) in 1993. The Council proved to be futile. With the failure of the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC), a violent armed movement surfaced when the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), a rival group of the NDFB started agitating for a separate state within India.
The four districts under the BTC made minimal progress for the first decade after its formation. However, it could not fulfil the aspirations of the Bodos as issues like illegal immigrants, protection of tribal belts and blocks remained unresolved.
After the formation of Telangana, there was a revival of statehood demands across the country. Bodo organizations followed suit and relaunched their statehood demand.
On January 27, 2020, after years of violence, there was finally a ray of hope when the third Bodo accord in the series – the first being signed in 1993 that led to formation of Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) and then the second one in 2003 that led to creation of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was signed.
The accord marks a series of fast-paced developments in January 2020 in what had otherwise been a drawn-out peace process dating back to 2008. The NDFB-S was one of the last remaining anti-peace talks insurgent groups in Assam and a key group in the anti-talks umbrella front. The new deal offers more hope than the 1993 and 2003 accords; some of the most potent factions of the National Democratic Front of Boroland that had stayed away from earlier agreements are now on board.
More significantly, the stakeholders have agreed that the updated political arrangements would remain confined to the realm of wider autonomy within the State of Assam, giving statehood and Union Territory demands a final burial. The generous terms promise an expanded area to be renamed as Bodoland Territorial Region, a ₹1,500-crore development package, and greater contiguity of Bodo-populated areas. There is also an offer of general amnesty for militants, with heinous crimes likely to be benignly reviewed, and ₹5 lakhs each to the families of those killed during the Bodo movement — it claimed nearly 4,000 lives.
Thousands of lives have already been lost in ethnic clashes in the area in the past three decades. Further, other Scheduled Tribes (Hills) are opposed to the Bodos being granted the same status as this will further eat into their reservation quotas. Then, there is the issue of political aspirations of other ethnic groups in the area like the Koch Rajbangsi’s, whose demand for Kamatapur overlaps the Bodos.
Further, with the kind of powers being conferred on BTR, whose previous avatar as BTC was already under Sixth Schedule, it will undoubtedly become the most powerful tribal council of its kind. This might further fuel demand for similar powers by other councils in Assam and some North-eastern States, which could complicate the State-council relations.
The new accord thus could further complicate the already fragile socio-ethnic, economic and political equations in the area. It’s thus clearly a tightrope walk and hence maybe it’s too early to celebrate. Given the fractured history of the Bodo movement, the prospect of recalcitrant elements remaining in Myanmar is not an unrealistic one, underlining the importance of efforts both by New Delhi and the NDFB-S leadership to reach out to these remaining elements. Such an approach would need to consist of rehabilitation offers to remaining cadres still active along the Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Myanmar border areas, combined with continued efforts to disrupt the activities of cadres still aligned with UNLFWESEA. This is particularly important considering the possibility of anti-talks insurgent groups projecting the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act as a threat to the ‘indigenous’ communities to garner support and recover the lost ground.
It remains to be seen how the 2020 Bodo Accord addresses the structural factors that have driven ethnic violence against the non-Bodos and fuelled subsequent counter-mobilisations in the past.