The August 5 attack by suspected Bodo militants on a market in Assam’s Kokrajhar district tore apart the calm that descended on the state in the aftermath of the assembly elections that brought the Bharatiya Janata Party to power.
It also came when the state government, under a chief minister who has been just three months in the saddle, was struggling with one of the worst floods that Assam has seen in recent years.
Both situations underscore the vulnerability of rural communities, as well as the fact that these are issues that government after government, no matter what party is in power, will have to contend with for a long time to come.
In the eyes of the government, there are no good terrorists or bad terrorists; in the eyes of the latter, the same holds true vis-à-vis those in power, unless they are able to inveigle a deal and benefit from the process.
In this case, the message to the newly minted and largely inexperienced Assam government as well as the BJP leadership in Delhi was loud and clear: That the group can’t be ignored and can strike at vulnerable groups.
Yet, it is a reflection of the statist view of media and the security prism of governments that the flood disaster went immediately to the backburner despite the fact that nearly two million people in a swathe of districts are affected. This is to be expected for the very nature of terrorism detracts attention from key economic, political and social challenges.
The Bodo group suspected to be involved in the killings is the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit group). It is no stranger to acute forms of violence and is held responsible for a series of brutal killings, where its primary targets and victims have been civilians. Some news reports have said such violence was unprecedented: Nothing could be further from the truth.
The demand for a separate Bodo nation by armed groups is splattered extensively with blood.
In two incidents, both in 2014, more than 100 persons were killed when heavily armed Bodo attackers gunned down not less than 62 tribals in one incident and over 30 Muslims, mostly women and children, in their villages.
The Bodo movement, which first sought a separate state to be carved out of Assam, was initially peaceful as it called for the protection of rights, identity and land.
However, when hardliners took over, it lurched towards separatism in the1990s, demanding ‘independence’. That drew both young men and women into an armed movement led by the founder of the NDFB, Ranjan Daimary, who was based – as was the leadership of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), another major armed group fighting Indian forces – in Bhutan and Bangladesh.
The Centre created up an autonomous council that gave basic powers of funding, political patronage and development to the local leadership but this did not appease the hardliners.
In 2003, Bhutanese royal troops routed insurgent groups based in the southern part of their country. Hundred died. Some leaders were captured, others escaped to Bangladesh and Myanmar.
A few years later, the Bangladesh government handed over a clutch of militant leaders including Dairmary, who was named in a massive explosion that shook Guwahati in 2008, as well as ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, dealing a stunning blow to the groups.
As Daimary’s influence waned, power shifted to his one-time aide, Songbijit. Although Songbijit and his lieutenants are often based in camps near the Indo-Myanmar border, and have access to weapons and explosives, a number of hit squads are said to be located on the India-Bhutan border which is close to Kokrajhar, enabling a quick getaway.
The killings highlight a number of issues: for one, the armed groups have asserted that they cannot be ignored, no matter who is in power.
It has drawn attention away from stressful conditions in the Bodoland Territorial Council for non-Bodos. It demonstrates the extreme vulnerability of this beautiful yet politically broken region. The real issues, not just floods and livelihoods, but also of encroachment on land, forests and living spaces which have affected ordinary Bodos and others living in the region are lost sight of.
(Sanjoy Hazarika is the director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. Views expressed are personal.)