The demand for a 33% reservation for women in urban and local bodies in Nagaland has once again fuelled the debate on women’s rights to hold positions in decision-making bodies. Although the issue is not specific to Nagaland’s politics, it must be acknowledged that India’s male and ‘family-controlled exclusive political clubs’ have failed to accommodate the political aspirations of women over the years. After all, isn’t it ironical that despite having a population of over two million spread across India’s northeastern states, the Bodo community has produced only two women lawmakers in the 21st century?
In a free nation like ours, women are yet to be liberated. “It’s not just enough to worship women as goddesses. Women must be allowed to share equal political responsibilities”, says a tribal woman activist who works in a non-governmental organization in Assam’s Udalguri district.
Like other states in India, electoral politics in Assam is also strictly dominated by the patriarchy. Therefore, women here have to confront this reality while making their political choices. A majority of the women are assigned or ‘relegated’ to positions which are not associated with political activities. They are now a ‘silent majority’. At the same time, they are also expected to be the custodians of their ethnicities and identities.
In the Bodo community, which is recognized as the largest tribal group in northeast India, no woman – apart from Pramila Rani Brahma, the present forest minister in Assam’s first BJP government, and Kamali Basumatary, a member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) who is currently associated with Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) – has negotiated for a better political deal till date.
It is argued that women are not allowed to enter the political arena, even though a large number of women participated during the agitation for a separate homeland in the late 1990s. Pramila Rani Brahma happens to be the first Bodo woman lawmaker, followed by Kamali Basumtary. The Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC), the nodal political outfit during this period, has also made no such effort of note. Bodo women are now practically invisible when it comes to occupying positions in party politics which is currently controlled by the BPF (formed in 2005).
Martina Daimari, a school teacher in Udalgiri who had also participated in an agitation led by All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) in 1987, says: “Isn’t it ironical that a community despite having over close to two million populations spread across the northeastern states has produced only two women lawmakers in the twenty-first century? We don’t know when will see the new faces of women leadership in our community. It’s a serious point for reflection for the entire community.”
Such narratives abound the landscape. In the present 46-member Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), formed in 2003, there is not a single Bodo woman councillor. In the past three council elections (the latest one was held in April 2015) not a single woman was elected. Interestingly, there are only eight women candidates in the present Legislative Assembly in Assam – six less than the figure in the previous installment.
In the Assembly polls held in Assam in 2016, a transition was witnessed in Bodo politics. After a gap of several years, two prominent women activists braved the odds to take up the banner of political struggle. Human rights activist Dr Anjali Prabha Daimari, who is also the president of the All Bodo Women Justice Forum, contested as an independent candidate from the Udalguri Assembly constituency against Rihon Daimary, who is now a cabinet minister in present Assamese government. Another activist, Pratibha Brahma, fielded by United People’s Party, a newly formed local political party sponsored by ABSU, contested from the Kokrajhar East assembly constituency. However, neither of them could strike the ballot boxes.
“We were happy about their decision to embrace a new political life. We have been waiting for capable women to enter into politics to give proper directions to our community and thousands of young Bodo girls who do not see any role model today”, says Bibari Daimary, who works in a private junior college in Baksa district. “Whichever party and ideology they represent represented, it was crucial to give them a little political space to script a new political innings in Bodoland”, adds Philista Mochahari, who lost her only son due to fratricides in 2002.
The Bodo community has been engaged in series of statehood agitations since the late 1960s. The movement got its momentum in the later half of the 1980s, after ABSU became its vanguard and engineered the “Divide Assam: Fifty-Fifty” demand for the complete bifurcation Assam into two states.
It is evident that this uprising provided a crucial platform for the involvement of women in their statehood struggle. In fact, a large number of women participated in the agitations between 1987 and 1993. Women have been an integral part of the movement for autonomy, throughout.
Influential ABSU leader Upendra Nath Brahma, who is recognized as the Father of the Bodos, visualized that the political struggle under his command would not make much headway without the mass support, especially of women who constituted nearly half of the Bodo population.
Against the backdrop of this reality and other pressing socio-economic concerns, the All Assam Tribal Women Welfare Federation (ATWWF) was formed in May 1986. It was renamed as the All Bodo Women Welfare Federation (ABWWF) in 1993. Its primary goal was to look after the interests of women in social spheres such as civil rights, livelihood, and the overall development of all tribal communities such as the Bodo, Rabha, Mishing, Tiwa, Lalung, Garo and others. However, after the name of the organization was changed to ABWWF, active support from the women of the other tribal communities also disappeared.
Initially, the federation was intended to unite all tribal women groups under a common platform and ideology to fight for ensuring human dignity, rights and justice in socio-economic, political, educational and cultural spheres. It also aimed at the emancipation of these women from the ills of social practices. This organisation also enabled them to render positive services for the promotion, welfare and preservation of indigenous self-identity. Moreover, the organisation found it crucial to fight the barbarism, atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated by the state forces against the Bodo agitators.
Later, a small section of women joined the Bodo Volunteer Force, but their activities were restricted to carrying messages and the dissemination of secret information to male counterparts and providing basic nursing to injured cadres. However, their wholehearted support to men did not garner attention. Their sacrifices are yet to be written in the chronicles of the Bodo movement.
In the early phases of the agitation, thousands of people, especially the women and children, were trapped in clashes between the law-enforcing agencies and the revolutionary group. Women often became easy victims. Many young girls and women lost their dignity due to sexual molestation.
It may argued that this group of females was formed as a result of this situation. They eventually became a formidable force to counter the brutal state forces, who posed a serious challenge to their male counterparts in the battlefields. They have supposedly even acted as a wall between the repressive state forces and the agitators who were the prime target of the security forces. They organized masses, participated in protest rallies, staged dharnas (sit-in protests) and campaigned against harmful social practices such as alcoholism and polygamy.
Undoubtedly, the most successful achievement of this group was their fight against the Assam police in the Guwahati High Court over the notorious Bhumka gangrape. Eleven Bodo women from Bhumka village in Kokrajhar district were molested in 1988. They also died at the hands of the state paramilitary forces. Gaide Basumatary and Helena Basumatary of Zumduar village in Kokrajhar district were shot dead by the security forces during a peace rally in May 1988. Gaide’s 3-month old baby, Rombha, also succumbed a couple of weeks after her mother’s demise. Helena was a student in the ninth standard when she was killed.
There have been numerous cases of women being victimised either by state forces or by people outside the state. A series of ethnic confrontations in 1996, 1998, 2008, 2012 and 2014 across this region has also caused massive humanitarian crises and displacements.
Against the backdrop of these tumultuous situations, especially with the state repeatedly abdicating its responsibilities, women remain highly vulnerable. In the past ten years, several women have been sexually abused and have not received any justice. Many of these women are widows because their husbands have been killed for unknown reasons.
One may argue that women’s role in the Bodo political movement has been declining since the premature death of Upendra Nath Brahma in May 1990. In his vision, women were essential if political autonomy was to be achieved. Since the first Bodo accord in February 1993, ABWWF’s voice in the community, particularly in politics, has diminished to the extent of being inaudible and non-existent. Post the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) accord, women were expected to relinquish their involvement in public and political activities.
Only a few ‘high-profile’ women like Pramila Rani Brahma have successfully resisted this assumption and held public offices. The majority of women have silently complied and ceased all forms of political activism and leadership.
Soon after the peace accord, the ABWWF’s leadership crumbled beyond imagination. Currently, its status is equivalent to that of a self-help group. Its proximity to the ruling party has further heightened the loss of its significance as a neutral women’s organization.
If the organisation is to revive, it must first regain its neutrality. However, able and educated women must not shy away from shouldering responsibilities for the community.
In 1996, after the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) was formed, only a small fraction of women found reasons to join political outfits. Both ABSU and BLTF were ineffective in reengaging women in their agitation in the later years. It is unknown whether the National Democratic Front of Boroland, an armed revolutionary group formed in 1986 which is currently engaged in peace talks with the Indian government, made any effort to mobilize woman troops.
Two fundamental reasons have been proposed to explain this phenomenon:
Firstly, there was an emergence of women leaders in the region who had no political ideology and no commitment towards the people.
Secondly, women organisations have lacked the support of their parent organisations since 1993.
Many organisations that were formed in the later periods didn’t care to promote women leadership. Nor did they make any effort to accommodate the social and political concerns of the women. They couldn’t foresee that the participation of women was crucial in the battle for autonomy and negotiation for geopolitical space.
It is equally important to note that women’s participation in decision-making bodies and in administration remains highly unsatisfactory, even after the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003. Even though the council created a small political space for women’s participation in grassroots politics, it is yet to be seen.
The Bodo leadership created a formidable ‘woman force’ in the late 1980s, even when there was high illiteracy among the women folk. How can the Bodos reclaim this lost strength and transform it for the socio-economic and political emancipation of women of the community in the 21st century?
As it stands, it’s a long walk before Bodo women can create their own political space to participate in the democratic processes and fight for justice. Right now, this is a million dollar issue in the contemporary political discourses and deliberations in the region.