Earlier this week, a cartoon in an Assamese daily showed two persons standing on a sandbar in the Brahmaputra with one saying to the other: “Thank god, this river hasn’t yet been divided”.
The cartoon was referring to violent statehood agitations across Assam that the UPA’s endorsement of Telangana triggered. It was also a reminder that the river has remained with Assam despite the redrawing of its boundaries several times since 1947.
There was a time when Sylhet, now in Bangladesh, was a part of British-administered Assam. So were present-day Arunachal Pradesh as the North East Frontier Agency, Nagaland (which became a state in 1963), Meghalaya (1972) and Mizoram (1986).
Self-rule, assertion of ethnic identities, denial of the resources and development pie and the indifference of undivided Assam’s ruling class to the problems of tribal groups without the numerical strength to assert themselves in a larger dominion, were the reasons behind the creation of these states.
But in a region with more than 400 tribes, sub-tribes and non-tribal communities, the creation of ethno-specific states has had a ripple effect. Meghalaya, created for three matrilineal tribes — Khasi, Jaintia and Garo — now has a Garoland movement brewing. And in Nagaland, six of 15 Naga tribes are seeking a Frontier Nagaland comprising four eastern districts.
They haven’t, however, been as intense as the Bodoland movement or as violent as the Karbi statehood stir where even hospitals were attacked.
These two sought-after states occupy strategic stretches. Bodoland is the terrestrial bridge between the Northeast and the rest of India while Karbi Anglong holds the key to communication with the south-eastern half of the region.
Pramod Boro, president of the All Bodo Students Union spearheading the Bodoland movement, cites Edward Gait’s 1906 book History of Assam to argue why Bodos deserve a state more than the others. According to Gait, Kacharis — Bodos form the largest component of this group — were the earliest inhabitants of the Brahmaputra Valley.
“The Bodoland movement has its roots in the call for Udayachal in 1967 and later the demand to divide Assam 50-50. We have had a council since 2003 but we won’t rest until we get statehood,” he said.
Leaders in Karbi Anglong, which has an autonomous council, have been spurred by Telangana to demand statehood. Similar is the case with the adjoining Dima Hasao autonomous council, specific to Dimasa tribal people.
“Statehood is no solution. The tribal or political elite catering to specific groups is projecting it as a panacea. If that were the case, Nagaland and Meghalaya should have addressed all pre-statehood problems. The answer lies in gearing up the development process to ensure equitable participation of all groups,” said Guwahati-based social scientist Bhupen Sarma.
Sarma said the creation of new states is likely to have a domino effect on other tribal councils that are currently nebulous. Some of these councils overlap each other and make for a potential recipe for violence.
Bodoland and Gorkhaland face a similar situation. The Koch-Rajbongshis demand Kamtapur which straddles Assam and Bengal. The Kamtapur map has areas under Bodoland and more than half of the proposed Gorkhaland.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has ruled out dividing Assam further. “We’re a family and should work together towards progress,” he said.
The Bodos are not listening. Nor are the Karbis.