By Monjib Mochahari:
An indefinite mass hunger strike for Bodoland entered its third day on March 12, 2017.
“This fight will continue till we see Bodoland in India’s geopolitical map,” says a youth who is participating in the strike organised in Kokrajhar town. Three influential Bodo organizations – the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and People’s Joint Action Committee for Boroland Movement (PJACBM) – are leading the strike calling for an immediate political solution to the long-standing demand for the complete bifurcation of Assam into two states.
At least 7000 people, including women, from across the region participated on the first day of the strike. Heavy rains didn’t stop people from flocking to the venue. It is still growing in numbers on the third day. Everyone’s faces betray their deteriorating health and physical weakness. They have not had any food or water in the past two days.
However, the people are still firm in their decision. They are willing to fast unto death till the Union government initiates a political dialogue on this 6-decade-long issue in Assam.
However, the regional political player, Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which shares power with BJP in Dispur and also governs the 46-member Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), is not in the vicinity. This, despite the fact that most of the present BPF members were leaders of the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tiger Forces (BLT), an armed group which demanded for creation of a separate Bodo homeland between 1996 and 2000.
Since the late 1980s, over 10,000 people have died in this statehood agitation, but peace still remains elusive. Two peace accords in 1993 and 2003 failed because the demand for political autonomy is not even a part of these peace accords. “The BTC accord with BLTF reached in February 2003 didn’t address this demand for separation of Assam into two states. Instead, it created a dysfunctional territorial council which cannot even fulfill the basic socio-economic aspirations of over four million people living in the four districts under its jurisdiction,” says a former influential leader in Udalguri district.
“After the BJP came to power, not a single meaningful dialogue was held although the party had promised to look into the matter during the general elections in 2014. Nothing has happened yet,” says another activist who has been associated with the ABSU for over three decades. The armed revolutionary group, NDFB, entered into ceasefire with Indian government in 2005.
After 12 years, a political dialogue with the outfit is yet to take off. “The Union government has neither honoured the demand nor is it serious about finding a long term solution to the issue. The government is simply testing our patience in the ceasefire camp. Moreover, successive state governments have only shown their smartness by opposing the peaceful settlement of the demand. We will not give up or surrender to the ill political game plan of the Centre,” says a NDFB leader.
The demand for political autonomy, while being politically and economically significant, is also important in terms of governance. The proposed state consists of areas located in the extreme north along the north bank of the Brahmaputra river in Assam and by the foothills of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. The region is predominantly inhabited by over two million indigenous Bodo people. Currently, the map of Bodoland overlaps the BTC and other parts covering over 25,000 square kilometres.
“This region is one of the poorest regions in India. All communities, tribal and non-tribal one, have been equally deprived by successive State and Central governments. However, the Upper Assam region (which has produced almost all of Assam’s chief ministers since 1947) is better off due to its oil and tea industries and implementation of various government schemes in the past decades. Most development schemes – whether it be the setting up of industries, or of academic institutions and colleges – it is the Upper Assam region which always gets the priority. Lower Assam, particularly the Bodoland region, however, is always placed in the footnote of development map. Look at the recent Assam budget – there is hardly anything for people in the region,” states a assistant professor associated with Bodoland University, Kokrajhar. “It is the only university in the entire region. How can people develop when there is a total abdication of state responsibilities towards this huge region having a population of over ten million,” he argues.
The demand for a separate homeland is often contested in politics and academics as the exclusive demand of the community, which thus overlooks the development aspirations in the entire region. “It is not just the Bodo community, but all communities who continue to experience state apathy when it comes to development. The Bodo community, which is the largest group in the entire northeast India, only gets the blame for speaking the language of development, political autonomy and illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who are endangering the local communities across Assam. This demand is for all. People have to realize it sooner rather than later. Non-tribal communities who oppose our demands have two choices – either they extend support or face the music of illegal immigrants who will one day occupy their lands inch by inch,” says an academician in Gauhati University.
“Every community wants to be recognized as ‘tribal’ in Assam today. But not a single non-tribal community, including the political class, wants to see socio-economic and political emancipation of the current tribal communities in the state,” laments a tribal intellectual. Moreover, the person is also seriously concerned about the demand for Scheduled Tribe status by six non-tribal communities in Assam.
“They can’t keep on forming fragile groups such as Oboros and resist the demand of the region. A political solution to the demand of the Bodos is in the nation’s interest. If this is not fulfilled at the earliest, various forms of agitation will engulf the region in the days to come, like the one taking place in Kokrjahar now,” says another youth who is pursuing his post-graduate degree on peace and conflict studies.
A poster of Gandhi and India’s flag at the front of the hunger strike has its own message. Is the government reading it? Assam is a state where tribal communities have little say in its affairs. The poster, the flag and the message in them therefore aren’t mental illusions but a call for the peaceful liberation of the Bodos from the political entrapment of Assam.
PS: The hunger strike was called off on March 15, 2017, following promises by the state government to take up the issues with the Centre.