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What’s The Government’s Agenda On Bodoland?

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“No Bodoland, No Rest, Do or Die for Bodoland, Give us our Constitutional Rights, Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty, these slogans, among other political slogans, continue to echo Assam’s Bodoland region. Such voices deeply reflect the quest for political autonomy of northeast’s largest Boro (Bodo) tribal community. They have been fighting for a separate homeland to be carved out of Assam since the late 1960s.

In an exclusive interview, B. Sungthagra, the President of one of three factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, NDFB (Progressive), an armed revolutionary group in Assam, talks about the ongoing peace dialogue with the government of India and the fragile political situation in Assam. Since its formation in 1986, the outfit has come a long way in its fight for a separate Boro homeland.

After 2008, the outfit split into three factions two of which are engaged in peace talks, while the third faction is yet to come over ground. Over, 3,000 members of NDFB (P) are currently housed in three government approved designated ceasefire camps in Udalguri, Baksa and Kokrajhar districts of Assam.

Here is an excerpt of the interview taken on September 25, 2017: 

B. Sungthagra, president of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (P) at Udalguri ceasefire camp, Assam. Pic: B Bilirthi

What is the status of the ongoing peace talks with Indian government?

The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) entered into a formal ceasefire with the government of India and agreed to find a peaceful solution on Bodoland demand in 2005. However, after its split into two factions in 2008, the political peace dialogue between NDFB (P), which I represent as president and the Indian government started only in 2009. So far, we have completed eight years in the negotiation process seeking a permanent and sustainable solution to our demand for a separate Boro homeland by bifurcating Assam into two states – Assam and Bodoland (Bodoland).

Considering the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) peace talk which has been dragging on since 1997, our negotiation with the Indian government is quite young, but we are committed and determined to fulfil the territorial aspirations of the community. After much dilly-dallying, we had a dialogue at the highest political level in October 2016. Again, in April 2017, another round of tripartite talks was held between the government of India, the Assam government and the leadership represented by the NDFB (P), All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and People’s Joint Action Committee for Bodoland Movement (PJACBM) in New Delhi. Although the government expressed its willingness to find a permanent solution to Boro political debacle in the last tripartite talks, we are yet to be invited for the next round of tripartite talks.

How many rounds of peace talks have been held in the past and why hasn’t it moved in the right direction?

At least 15 rounds of peace talks and 27 informal talks were held since 2009. What surprises the party is that although several rounds of talks were held with us and other Boro groups such as ABSU, the government has not spelt out any solution on our political demand. The government has only shown its unwillingness to bifurcate Assam into two states. I feel, the problem also lies in different Boro leaderships who fail to bury their skin-deep narrow political differences. Due to the lack of unity and political consensus among the Boro organisations engaged in the nationalistic struggle, we are failing to exert strong pressure on Union and Assam government.

It is alleged, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government at the Centre is not willing to start peace talks at the highest political level to find a peaceful solution to political demand. Why?

The BJP promised to address the demand for Bodoland during the last general elections in 2014. However, its seriousness on the issue disappeared after the party came into power. One high-level talk was held between the government of India, Assam government, Bodoland Territorial Council and NDFB (P) held on 26 October 2016. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Assam cabinet minister, Hagrama Mohilary who is the Chief of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and other top-level bureaucrats were presented during the meet. This was a much-needed dialogue to take the peace process forward.

However, since there is a stiff opposition coming from the Assam government and a section of Assamese ruling elites, the Central government doesn’t want to touch the question of bifurcating Assam into two states. As a result, the entire political negotiation is moving at a snail’s pace. It must be noted that this struggle is a continuous process. We will continue to raise our voice “No Bodoland, No Rest” till we see it on the Indian geopolitical map.

Can we expect unification of the three factions of NDFB and other Bodo organizations engaged in the nationalistic struggle? 

 The path to revolution is never an easy task. It is unfortunate that NDFB split into three factions in the past. We have witnessed similar situations in other revolutionary groups in northeast and other parts of the world. Since the goal is only one i.e., the creation of Boro homeland, I have a strong faith that even if we are not united politically, we can develop some political consensus and unity of efforts among different groups engaged in the revolutionary struggle, so that the long political dreams of the community can be fulfilled at the earliest. If we love the community, there is no question that we can’t be united in future. But every party must learn to see the goal post and play the game harmoniously.

Peace Dialogue: A tripartite talk was held between the government of India, the Assam government, the Bodoland Territorial Council and the NDFB (Progressive held in New Delhi on 26 October 2016. Pic: B. Bilirthi

 The geographical map of Bodoland is perceived to have been reduced to “BTC Area” since its formation in 2003. Why is the discourse on Bodoland changing in recent times?

The political demand raised by the NDFB-P, the ABSU and other organisations is not limited to the four districts of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) – Udalguri, Baksa, Chirang and Kokrajhar. The BTC was created after Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF), an armed group formed in 1996, signed the second Bodo peace accords in February 2003. The territorial map of the proposed Bodoland spreads from the Sankosh River in Kokrajhar district to Sadiya, the easternmost region of the state covering over half of Assam. We never

We never demanded for BTC, but technically speaking this was imposed on us by the government only to fulfil the basic economic needs. It was created to accommodate a section of leaders who have no seriousness about Bodoland. Today, because of this dysfunctional autonomous council, Bodo as a community has been divided into two halves – those within the BTC jurisdiction and others outside of it. As a largest indigenous community having close to two million people, we want to live under one political administration. We are equally concerned about the rights of other communities living in the proposed Bodoland.

Boro people living outside BTAD have started to agitate for a separate autonomous council. Why?

Boro as a community has just one definite goal i.e., to live in Bodoland, a separate homeland. They are significantly contributing to realizing this political dream since its inception. Unfortunately, the peace accords signed with a section of Boro leadership in 1993 and 2003 have hyphenated this dream. Today, the number of Bodo people living outside the BTC is region is much higher. But not a single provision was included for them in both the accords. I strongly feel that this is a major failure of Boro parties as they couldn’t negotiate the larger political aspirations of our community and the region. As a result, currently, the Boros living in Sonitpur, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Dibrugarh districts etc are forced to demand for a separate autonomous council. They is a very genuine fear whether the ongoing peace talks with NDFB factions and other Boro organisations will again betray their political aspirations. We shouldn’t repeat our previous mistakes in the future.

What are other major demands of NDFB-P?

Apart from Bodoland, we have other genuine sociocultural and economic demands. Some of these include – protection of land rights and political rights of Boro people outside the proposed Bodoland area, Inner line permits, reorganisations of districts, delimitation and reservations of Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies, preservation and promotion of Boro culture, tradition and language, establishing of institutes of higher learning such as central universities, medical and engineering colleges, creation of Boro regiment and paramilitary forces, special development package, general amnesty to all revolutionaries, setting up of legal institutions, strengthening of air, rail and road transport system, setting up industries and employment generation, etc.

NDFB-P Cadres at a ceasefire camp in Udalguri town, Assam. Pic: B. Bilirthi

The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which shares power with BJP government in Assam, has remained silent on Bodoland issue. Why?

There is no fault in demanding for democratic rights under the Indian Constitution. As an influential regional player in Boro politics, Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) has some serious political responsibilities towards the region and people. It is an irony that the party has contended with their newfound political power as it involves little or no accountability and responsibility. Looking at their activities, we are forced to believe that BPF’s priority is politics rather than the territorial aspiration of the community. I believe, the party must redefine and redesign its political strategy considering the political agenda of the community for which hundreds of people continue to sacrifice their lives.

How do you look at the ongoing peace talks with other armed insurgency groups in the northeast?

The northeast region has witnessed several types of insurgencies whose nature of political struggle, demands and ideologies are different, and often contradictory. However, the demands of the indigenous people whether in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam etc, are the same i.e., for the political autonomy under the Indian Constitution which has been denied even today. I urge that the Union government must pay an equal attention to the political demands raised by several marginalised and exploited indigenous communities in northeast India. As of now, we have seen that the Naga peace process takes the centre-stage in peace discourse of northeast. We expect the same level of political commitment from the Centre so that mutually acceptable solution is achieved with no further violent confrontation.

What is your take on demand for Kamatapur state raised by Koch-Rajbongshi students’ leaders in Assam?

The Koch community in Assam and West Bengal has a deep historical connection with Boro community. Historically, we belonged to the same group and culturally the two communities are similar in every aspect and lifestyle. However, a section of people who designate themselves as the “Koch-Rajbongshi” community has no historical existence. Their history and identity is shrouded in mystery. So, the demand for Kamatapur state by Koch-Rajbongshi leaders in Assam, which overlaps the territorial map of Bodoland, may be termed as a wild political fantasy. Seriously, this demand for Kamatapur is an attempt to thwart the creation of Bodoland designed by a section of Assamese ruling elites and organizations who are diehard opposed to Boro community. Their artistic opposition to our legitimate political demand will remain a futile exercise. I think, instead of chasing a will political mirage, it is desirable they extend solidarity to Boro movement which can help them liberate their socio-economic backwardness.

The proposed map of Bodoland covers districts such as: Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Chirang, Baksa, Nalbari, Barpeta, Udalguri, Darrang, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji and other parts of adjoining districts across Assam.

How do you look at the demands of pro-peace talk faction of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and its possible consequences on Bodoland demand?

 The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) initially cherished the idea of a ‘Sovereign Assam’. Today, this demand has been drained out to Brahmaputra River. Whatever be their sociopolitical demand, say, Sovereign State or a Buffer State, it is doubtful whether the rights of the indigenous people of Assam such as Boros, Rabhas, Sonowal Kacharis, Karbi, Mishing, Tiwa, Deuri, etc will be guaranteed and safeguarded. One of ULFA’s core agenda is the demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six non-tribal communities in Assam who are socioeconomically and political more advanced than existing indigenous and tribal communities. If this demand is granted by the Central government, it will endanger Assam’s tribal communities who continue to live on the periphery of underdevelopment. I strongly believe this unrealistic demand, which is silently supported by Assamese intellectuals and ruling elites is an attempt to finish off the tribal communities socially, culturally, economically and politically. Boros and other tribal communities must liberate themselves politically even before these situations arise in Assam.  

There are some fears among non-Boro communities in Bodoland as regards to their political rights. Shouldn’t Boro leadership take their confidence in the negotiating table?

There are no reasons to fear if the country is ruled by good statesmen. The problem happens when the country is under the custody of unprincipled politicians. If any community or people are feeling unprotected or insecure in Bodoland, then that community or people are not from the region. Moreover, the common fear that some non-Boro communities or people often express is nothing more than a speculative assumption. How can our language of peace be against any community, caste or race? Unfortunately, the fragile solidarity groups such as O-Boros engineered by opportunist non-tribal leaders are creating a climate of fear and hostility in the Boro heartland. It amounts to be called an anti-peace process as they are opposed to the democratic agitation. Their stiff opposition to our political demand is against the idea of democracy and rights of the indigenous communities. It can also be said that the government itself is partly responsible for the frequent eruption of violent situation in Bodoland as it has failed to maintain the law and order situation, particularly Bodoland region.

It amounts to be called an anti-peace process as they are opposed to the democratic agitation. Their stiff opposition to our political demand is against the idea of democracy and rights of the indigenous communities. It can also be said that the government itself is partly responsible for the frequent eruption of violent situation in Bodoland as it has failed to maintain the law and order situation, particularly Bodoland region.

Any other political message?

Boros are the autochthones of Assam, but the community has lost everything today. Despite being one of the largest tribal communities in India, we have been denied our political autonomy. Our demand is within the framework of Indian constitution. If the government fails to honour quest for political freedom, we will continue to fight for it.

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