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IDSA COMMENT

Violence in Bodo Areas: The Risks of Conceding ‘Exclusive’ Ethnic Homelands

September 12, 2012

The violence in the Bodo Territorial Areas District (BTAD) in July and August 2012 claimed 96 lives and displaced more than 400, 000 people till September 11, 2012. The situation continues to remain tense, especially in two of the most affected districts, Kokrajhar and Chirang. Presently, the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) has agreed to resettle around 11,066 Bengali speaking Muslim families who have been verified as bona fide land-owners with legal documents to prove their ownership.

Media reports claim that over 50,000 Bengali speaking Muslim families that had moved to relief camps in the neighbouring Dhubri district of Assam have, on their own accord, returned to Bodo districts but are now in danger of being evicted since they do not possess land documents. The BTC is also utilizing the electoral rolls of the BTAD areas to resettle migrant families. This process will take time as the verification of so many families is not easy and it also stands in danger of being manipulated.

One of the negative fallouts of the present situation in the BTAD areas has been the idea of an exclusive ‘ethnic territorial homeland’. The BTC, as an ethnically oriented territorial council, has failed to provide security to people other than the Bodos, whose lives were under severe threat in July and August, 2012. And this is not the first time that these areas have witnessed such violence under the BTC. In 2008, under similar circumstances, Bodo-Bengali Muslim violence has left 100 people dead, while 200,000 more were displaced.

The 2008 violence against ‘outsiders’ occurred in the aftermath of the 2003 Bodo Accord which committed to safeguard Bodo language, land, socio-cultural rights, and ethnic identity. The Accord clearly stated that an autonomous self-governing body will be constituted, known as Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) within Assam in order to “fulfill the economic, educational, and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land-rights socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos”.1 Despite these provisions, the Bodos continue to fill insecure with regard to their land, ethnic identity and language vis-à-vis the minority communities.

On the other hand, the minority communities like the Bengali Muslims (12 to 13 per cent of the population), the Santhals (6 per cent), and the Rajbonsis (15 per cent) feel insecure under a BTC clearly dominated by the Bodos. In terms of composition, the BTC has 46 seats of which 30 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Read Bodos), five for non-tribals, five are open to all communities and the remaining six seats are to be nominated by the Governor of Assam from communities that are not represented.

In a Council, where policy decisions in terms of development packages, land revenue, business tax, and so forth are based on majority voting, it is clear that the Bodos are the privileged lot. The BTC is also vested with powers of the Panchayat Raj system. In an event when the Panchayat Raj ceases to exist it would give the BTC extensive powers over the villages in the BTAD areas. While the Accord explicitly states that non-tribal population will not be disadvantaged by the provisions of the Accord, it seems to have had the opposite effect in reality, where their rights are not duly regarded by the BTC creating enormous apprehensions and counter-apprehensions. The All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) and the All Bodoland Minority Student’s Union (ABMSU) have accused the BTC of instigating the Bodo-Muslims tensions. In turn, the Chief of the BTC, Hagrama Mohilary has accused the minority representative in the BTC, Kalilur Rehman of the Congress, of instigating the minority Muslim community against the Bodos.

The recent violence in the Bodo areas indicates the risks associated with the formation of exclusive ethnic homelands, especially in the North East, based on the demands of majority population of an ethnic group inhabiting a particular geographical area. Another case in point is the demand by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isaac Chisi Swu (NSCN-IM) for a separate Naga homeland or Greater Nagalim. The idea of Nagalim— seeking unification of all Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh into a common politico-administrative unit— has created enormous insecurity in the neighbouring states of Assam and especially Manipur.

Under pressure from the NSCN (IM), in a joint statement issued on June 14, 2001 in Bangkok, the Indian government and the NSCN (IM) had extended the Naga ceasefire ‘without territorial limits’ to the hills of Manipur. This led to violent protests in Manipur, with the state assembly building being burnt down and 13 protestors being killed on June 18, 2001. Meitei, Kuki and Muslim civil society organizations in Manipur were united in a mass movement against the decision to extend the Naga ceasefire to the Naga-dominated hill districts of Manipur— Chandel, Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong.

Finally, New Delhi was forced to reconsider its decision, and on July 27, 2001, it revoked the ceasefire arrangements, and restored the status quo of a territorially restricted ceasefire with the NSCN (IM) in Nagaland. A similar story is being repeated in the hill districts of Assam where the demand for separate exclusive territorial states based on ethnic identities by the Dimasa armed outfits, Dima Halam Daogah (both Nunisa and Gorlosa factions) and the United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity in Karbi Anglong stretches over overlapping territories thereby creating a conflict prone situation. Manipur is crisscrossed with demands for ethnic homelands by conflicting armed groups on both sides of the ethnic divide: the Meiteis and the Nagas. The Kukis are also very much in the race.

The most feasible solution to the demands for exclusive ethnic homelands in the Northeast can come through focused development of basic needs like health, food, education, and transportation in the affected areas by the existing states. The minorities in multi-ethnic states like Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, etc, must be offered a good deal within the current states they inhabit. Physical security is an utmost priority which can only be achieved by effective community policing.

The time has also come for the Union and state governments to get serious about ensuring the implementation of cease-fires signed with armed groups. The groups outside the cease-fire framework must be offered incentives attractive enough for them to come to the negotiating table. Most importantly, the only viable means by which issues like the Bodo violence and the demand for separate states can be met is by implementing in letter and spirit the provisions of India’s liberal pluralistic constitution by capturing its most eternal ethos: respect for human dignity. There is perhaps no other way.