Bodo agitation exposes Assam’s faultlines
The resurrection of the demand for the state of Bodoland can have dangerous implications and the Centre should immediately sit in discussion with the agitators
The revival of the demand for Bodoland by the All Bodo Students Union shows that despite the assurances of the Central government and the alliance between the BJP and the Bodoland People’s Front, the 30-year-old issue has not died down. The agitation had been suspended before the Lok Sabha elections after the BJP assured the Bodo parties of support in creating a separate Bodoland. Aspirations of sub-nationalities linger and find expression in protests, agitations and, tragically, killings as had been seen when 70 Adivasis and Muslims were murdered by Bodo militants in December 2014. This showed the problem lay exactly where it was in 2012, when about the number had died in ethnic riots.
During the assembly election campaign this year and also the canvassing for the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP gently stoked some old animosities in Assam by raking up the ‘foreigner’ issue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Lok Sabha election campaigns had said foreigners must be prepared to leave India. In doing so the matter showed a regressive trend by going back almost to the point where the problem started. By all accounts the earliest settlers in the present-day Northeast, the Bodos, a scheduled tribe, form the region’s largest tribal group with an estimated 1.5 million people. They are scattered across Assam and some adjoining states, but the bulk of the Bodos live in the districts in the jurisdiction of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). Clashes between Bodos and Muslims took place as early as in 1952. Three factors were mainly responsible for them: Struggle for control over land, vote-bank politics and demographic fears. The Bodos were a majority in the BTC area until the Muslims began coming in from the 1990s as farm hands and construction workers. In less than two decades, the Muslims came to outnumber the Bodos in certain pockets of Kokrajhar district. Fears of a demographic invasion from Bangladesh gripped Assam in 1979, triggering an anti-foreigner agitation that led to March 25, 1971, being set as the cut-off date for detecting and deporting aliens. Rapid changes in the demographic pattern in the BTC areas bred mistrust among both the Bodos and Muslims, though other non-Bodo communities have also suffered from time to time.
Paul Brass in his book The Politics of India since Independence has written “several sets of ethnic confrontations” intersect in Assam: Between Hindus and Muslims, plains people and hill tribals, plains tribals and non-tribals, etc. In this context the resurrection of the demand for the state of Bodoland can have dangerous implications and the Centre should immediately sit in discussion with the agitators.
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