All You Need To Know About Bodoland Politics Ahead Of This Year’s Assam Elections

Posted on March 15, 2016 in Politics, Staff Picks

By Minakshi Bujarbaruah for Youth Ki Awaaz:

For much of our population which banks on a certain kind of media for news from the northeastern frontiers of India, ‘Bodoland’ connotes a singular idea: a region that is rife with insurgency and unending violence amongst communities within Bodoland and militant groups fighting against the state. However, deeper explorations of the region reveal a Pandora’s Box of everyday battles, daily struggles and tales of woe that otherwise do not find a platform for expression.

In the run-up to the Assam Legislative Elections 2016, there is an increasing buzz and curiosity about the new political matrimony of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Elections are scheduled to take place in Assam in two phases in April this year.

A Bodo family in one of the villages burnt down during the 2014 conflict.
A Bodo family from a village burnt down during the 2014 conflict. Image source: Minakshi Bujarbaruah

A 13-year-old alliance of the BPF with the Congress party did not yield the much-desired outcome of socio-economic development of BTC to the extent that it expected. The BTC or the Bodoland Territorial Council, comprising the four districts of Baksa, Chirang, Udalguri and Kokrajhar was a result of tripartite talks between the governments of India and Assam, and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), leading to the surrender of BLT cadres (including Hagrama Mohilary, former chief of the organisation) and the signing of a Memorandum of Settlement in February 2003.
The shift in political association of the BPF led by ex-BLT chief Hagrama Mohilary, alias Hagrama Basumatary (currently also the Chief Executive Member of BTC), with a right-wing national party has also made commentators sit up and take note.

Why The BJP-BPF Alliance Matters And What It Means

The alliance faced stormy weather right away. The BPF had sought a package of Rs. 1000 Crore for the development of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) from the BJP. The initial announcement of Rs 50 crore as per the latest Union Budget came as a major blow. However, Mohilary’s immediate arrival in Delhi to clarify the same later resulted in an announcement of Rs. 340 crore as the first installment by the Development of North-Eastern Region ministry. Nevertheless, the initial allotment of only Rs. 50 crore was criticised by the detractors of the alliance, like C.M. Tarun Gogoi.

Many local BJP cadres were not even in favour of the BPF-BJP alliance and wanted the alliance with Bodoland People’s Progressive Front– Rabiram Narzary (BPPF-R), formed in April 2005 after the BPPF split into two factions – BPPF-R (Rabiram Narzary) and BPPF-H (Hagrama Mohilary). BPPF-H later became BPF whereas BPPF-R started to be called BPPF. In an interesting turn of events, Mohilary managed to get BPPF-R to merge into BPF earlier this year.

Many, like Dr. Uddipan Dutta, a research associate at the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development (an Indian Council for Social Science Research funded institute in Guwahati) are highly skeptical of the new shift in the political discourse of Bodoland. Dutta, who has extensively researched the Bodo movement, opines that given the ideological roots of both the BPF and BJP, which are starkly different and opposed to each other, the alliance of the two itself comes as a shock. He told me that the alliance and its compulsions should have been questioned in greater detail and the fact that it wasn’t happening was troubling and even “appalling” for many people.

At the same time, Dutta is also highly critical of the shift in political aspirations of parties like BPF that have now come down to mere ‘developmental’ schemes and how much money can be pooled in from either the state or the Centre.

“As far as the question of the new-found alliance between BPF-BJP remains, the one thing that will be interesting to watch out for is the role of BPF as a pressure group, not only to pool in resources for BTC but more importantly, to emphasise and draw attention to the question of a separate Bodo state,” Dutta says.

Congress Remains In The Game

Monjib Mochahari, an assistant professor at Dibrugarh University, feels it is too early to foresee changes in BTC through these new-found political alliances. He told me that while some improvements might happen, regardless of who came to power, the main question regarding the demand for separate Bodoland was likely to remain unanswered.

According to Mochahari, the ruling Congress should not be ruled out from the contest. “The last minute attempts of the state government to fulfill some of the old demands of All Bodoland Students Union (ABSU) and Bodo Sahitya Sabha (BSS) (like a separate directorate of instruction for Bodo and other tribal languages) is changing the electoral mood within the community in their favour,” he claims.

Mochahari believes that the BJP and BPF have failed Bodo political aspirations. He pointed out that in the last 20 months that the BJP government has been in power, “not even a single peace dialogue on Bodoland issue was held.”

The entry of this year’s new player, the United People’s Party (UPP) backed by the All Bodo Student Union (ABSU) might also cause some surprises in the electoral arena. In March, the UPP entered into an alliance with the Congress.

Headed by U.G. Brahma, ex-president of ABSU, the announcement about the formation of this party was made in August 2015 in Dotma in Kokrajhar at a special convention of the People’s Co-ordination for Democratic Rights (PCDR).

The UPP, also backed by National Democratic Front of Bodoland-G (Gobinda faction) is likely to win in four to five seats within BTC area and Congress expects to gain Bodo votes outside.

General Secretary of All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), Lawrence Islary claimed that the “BPF has lost local people’s support due to misgovernance and the level of corruption that the party has indulged in over time. If people vote for the newly formed UPP backed by ABSU, there is still hope for Bodoland as people can still hope to bring peace and development in the region.”

Supporters of Bodoland People's Front (BPF), a local political party, with their faces painted attend a rally at Kokrajhar in the northeastern Indian state of Assam August 4, 2013. Thousands of the supporters on Sunday held a rally to protest against the Indian government in their demand for a separate Bodoland state carved out of Assam, BPF supporters said. REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX12A30
Supporters of Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), a local political party, with their faces painted attend a rally at Kokrajhar in the northeastern Indian state of Assam August 4, 2013. Image source: REUTERS/Stringer

Common People’s Demands Yet To Be Fulfilled

Pranab Brahma, a middle-aged social worker told me that the there was hardly anything he expected to undergo “drastic change” as far as the impact on the lives of common people was concerned, no matter the alliances. While claiming that the BPF ruled BTC single-handedly through “dubious” means, he noted that they had still managed to create a reasonable amount of infrastructure in Korajhar, by constructing roads and bridges. However, he added that other areas in BTC still suffered from a lack of infrastructure and the entire BTC faced issues related to the quality of education and health facilities, among other concerns.

Jobs for young people are also scarce. I spoke to Pronoti Basumatary, a law graduate who has completed her studies in Bangalore. She is eager to return to her homeland and contribute to the development of the region. However, Pronoti feels that there is nothing much that she can look forward to in terms of a job. “This is a major problem for many like me who wish to return but do not find the best employment opportunities. Political parties need to seriously think about the youth leaving Bodoland for better opportunities elsewhere,” she told me.

Fear Of Hinduisation Post BJP-BPF Alliance

Some like Solomon Narzary, Assistant Professor, Bodoland University, believe that there might be a polarization of votes in the name of religion, and ethnic terms within Bodoland post the BPF-BJP alliance. “The BPF-BJP alliance may not necessarily be viewed favourably by Muslims and tribal Christians in BTAD. For the right-wing BJP and its Hindutva ideology, beef eating tribal Christians and Muslims might become a soft target and there are high possibilities of political strain on religious lines,” Narzary told me.

Fearing a new wave of Aryanisation/Hinduisation of Bodos through the new alliance, many commentators believe that more than the political impact it is the religious influence that needs to be feared in Assam. What is now being referred to as a new wave of Hinduisation could possibly happen by way of forceful imposition of food practices, imposition of Hindutva’s dogmatic principles, intolerance towards non-Hindus in both manifest and latent forms, among other means, all possibly leading to a Sanskritisation of the Bodo identity which necessarily will not indicate any upward mobility in the real sense of the term.

That said, issues related to recurring violence are yet to be comprehensively addressed by any political formation.

No Compromise On Separate Statehood?

On the question of separate statehood, the struggle will continue, many believe. The aspiration towards this end continues to dominate Bodo people’s imagination although the question of minorities in BTC needs more critical deliberations. Irrespective of the government in power and whether Bodoland develops or not, separate statehood is one demand that is unlikely to wither away from people’s thought process.

Image source: Minakshi Bujarbaruah

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