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Violence in the Bodo Areas: Deciphering the Causes

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 09, 2012

    After a brief lull last week, violence has returned to the Bodo Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) in Assam. On August 6 and 7, four more people were found dead and two injured in Kokrajhar and Chirang districts raising the figures of the number of people killed to 78. The BTAD districts, namely, Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, and Udalguri, remain tense with nearly 400,000 people displaced and at present taking shelter in the 300 or more relief camps across these districts. The violence that has disrupted life in the BTAD areas over the past few weeks started on July 19 and July 20. On July 19, two student leaders belonging to the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) and the All Bodoland Minority Students’ Union (ABMSU) were shot at in Kokrajhar district. This allegedly led to a retaliatory attack by the minority community, killing four former members of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). This in turn led to an escalation of violence in the BTAD areas and the nearby Dhubri district.

    While complex, the causes of the present round of violence can be deciphered. First, the political empowerment of minority communities in the BTAD areas in recent years has resulted in growing unease among the Bodo community. In May 2012, the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) Chief, Hagrama Mohilary, had accused the minority representative in the BTC, Kalilur Rehman of the Congress, of instigating the minority community against the Bodos. What further led to tensions between the two communities was the demand by the ABMSU and ASMSU for dissolution of the Bodo-dominated BTC for its alleged involvement in Bodo-Muslim tensions. Second, these political tensions have been further compounded by the perception in Bodo areas that illegal migration from Bangladesh is relegating the Bodos to a minority status in their own land. The Bodos at present constitute 29 per cent of the population, followed by the Rajbonshis (15 per cent), Bengalis immigrants (12 to 13 per cent), and Santhals (6 per cent). Third, the ‘perception’ of massive illegal migration has generated a fear psychosis among the Bodo community that their ancestral lands will be illegally taken away by the migrants. The lack of any reliable data on the number of people coming in from Bangladesh into Assam aggravates this situation. Fourth, the inclusion of illegal migrant names in the voters list is viewed as a deliberate ploy by some outside force to empower an outside group vis-à-vis the Bodos, so that the latter lose their sense of distinct indigenous identity. This has created a siege mentality among them. Fifth, the existence of armed groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (anti-talk faction), the Bisra Commando Force representing the Santhals, etc., further contributes to a situation of violence.

    What is occurring in the BTAD areas is not new. Similar violence had occurred in the past. In 1993, the first large scale massacre occurred when 50 migrants were killed in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. In 1994, 100 migrants were killed in similar violence in the Bodo areas. In 1996, another minority community in the Bodo areas, the Santhals, were targeted by Bodos leading to the death of 200 people and displacement of thousands. In 2008, in an exact replica of the present violence, Bodos-minority community violence killed 100 people and displaced nearly 200,000.

    The state response to the present violence has been lacklustre at best. There were telling signs since April-May 2012 that the BTAD areas were tense and violence between the two communities could erupt. Hence, the first step that the Assam state government should have taken is to increase the police presence in these districts. Also, these areas are designated “Disturbed Areas” where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 as amended in 1972 has been imposed. This meant that the army is already stationed in the nearby Rangiya and Goalpara districts. Under the circumstances, the army should have been alerted much earlier by the state government so that the necessary permissions required to send troops to conflict areas were obtained from Delhi in time. What happened instead was that since no prior request was made by the state government, the army had to wait until the Ministry of Defence issued orders to respond to the crisis. This issue of procedural delays also brings into stark focus the aspect of civil-military relations in conflict areas and the need for decentralization of command and control.

    For the near future, the BTAD areas will be prone to violence given the long drawn out political complexities there. In 1987, the Bodos under the NDFB, originally named the Bodo Security Force, demanded the creation of a separate Bodoland state outside of Assam. While the Bodoland Accord of 1993 managed to persuade the BLT to give up violence and join politics, the NDFB is not involved in peace talks with the Centre despite its chief, Ranjan Daimary, being handed over by Bangladesh to India in 2010. Thus, the group continues to be fully armed. Also, the general perception in Assam and in the Bodo areas in particular that their land is being horded by illegal Bangladesh migrants who one day will become the political rulers does not help mitigate the situation. The lack of state government mechanisms to control illegal immigration as well as failure to release official data on the exact numbers of migrants exacerbates the issue. Given that migration from Bangladesh will continue because of the economic opportunities available in Assam for such unskilled labour, the only way out is to issue work visas to keep track of the people coming in. Also, the core reason for the violence is insecurity over land. According to the Bodo Accord, no outsider can settle in Bodo lands. But this provision has not been implemented in letter and spirit. Moreover, community records on landholdings are weak and not written down. Hence, a Bodo whose land has been taken by an outsider has no papers to claim ownership of his/her land. The need of the hour therefore is to activate a clean and transparent record keeping of land by the state so that violence based on the fear of outsiders forcibly taking away the most precious commodity, land, is effectively averted.