As much for land as for votes: Kokrajhar killings more than an election issue

A call for bifurcation of Assam Bodoland. ( Source: IE Photo By Dasarath Deka ) A call for bifurcation of Assam Bodoland. ( Source: IE Photo By Dasarath Deka )

Amid all the rhetoric of revenge by the ballot in these elections, it was revenge by the bullet that played out on May 2 in two villages in Assam. Some 40 Bengali-speaking Muslims were massacred by armed Bodos in Kokrajhar, part of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD). The victims were “punished” because they had voted for Naba ‘Hira’ Sarania, a former ULFA militant popular among the non-Bodos, in the election to Kokrajhar constituency on April 24.

Kokrajhar is a constituency reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, and has always elected a Bodo MP since the first Lok Sabha polls in 1952. But this year, the fight is tough. Sarania is a formidable candidate, and the non-Bodos, who make up more than 70 per cent of the population and are unhappy with the “autocratic” Bodo rule, are supporting him. A-Boro Suraksha Samiti (ASS) and Sanmilita Jangosthiya Oikya Mancha (SJOM), which comprise all ethnic groups of BTAD except the Bodos, have officially endorsed Sarania, contesting as an independent. The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) candidate is senior party leader Chandan Brahma. The other Bodo candidate in the fray is U G Brahma backed by the All Bodo Students Union and four other groups. Support for the two Bodo candidates may split among the Bodos who form about a fifth of the population.

The day before the massacre, Pramila Rani Brahma, a former state minister and a senior BPF leader, said at a press conference that Muslims had voted for Sarania. “In Muslim villages where once we used to get 80 per cent votes, we will hardly get 50 per cent,” she said. The largely poor, ghettoised Muslims, including many illegal migrants, were soft targets for the attack, says Assam DGP Khagen Sharma. “We had information that the Songbijit faction of the proscribed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) would target security forces. If they didn’t succeed, they would hit out at the Ranjan Daimary faction of NDFB. And if both didn’t work, the cadres would look for soft targets,” he says.

The BPF insists the violence was not communal. “It is not Bodo vs Muslims. No Bodo villager has attacked his Muslim neighbour. The NDFB(S) militants are hitting soft targets to make their presence felt,” says BPF’s Chandan Brahma, minister for tourism in the Congress-led government in Assam.

The Muslims are not the only community targeted by Bodos. “Several thousand non-tribals have been forced to quit their original homes in these districts. About 14,000 persons belonging to the Nath and Koch-Rajbangshi communities have been ousted from Kokrajhar between 1989 and 2001. Koch-Rajbangshis have virtually disappeared from the Gossaigaon assembly segment too. Moreover, at least 150 Bengali Hindus have been kidnapped in the last two years, 40 of whom have been killed,” says Samsher Ali of the BTAD Citizens’ Rights Forum.

Sarania seconds Ali on the “systematic ethnic cleansing”. “Hundreds of non-Bodo families have been forced to go, leaving behind land and property. Hundreds have been killed. And those still there have to pay ‘tax’ even for every betel-nut or mango tree. Those who raise their voice are silenced with the bullet,” he says.

The ethnic conflicts began in 1987, when the ABSU launched an agitation for a separate state for the Bodos. Later, another group Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) led an armed struggle until it was disbanded in 2003, when a Bodoland Accord was signed between the Centre and the rebels. Under the accord, the BLT would surrender its arms in exchange for autonomy in four districts — Kokrajhar, Baksa, Chirang and Udalgiri — that together make up the BTAD, and are governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), which has legislative powers in 40 subjects and has 12 executive members.

But that arrangement seems to have been shortsighted. For one, the Bodos are not a majority in all four BTAD districts. Though there is no official ethnic and community-wise breakup of the population, one unofficial estimate counts 3.2 lakh Bodos among the 14.92 lakh voters of Kokrajhar. Muslims are the largest group with 3.5 lakh voters, while Assamese non-tribal communities including the Koch-Rajbangshis are about 3.1 lakh. Bengali Hindus come next among non-tribals, at an estimated 2.10 lakh. The Adivasis of Chhotanagpur origin are about 80,000, while the remainder comprise other indigenous ethnic groups like Saraniya, Rabha, Garo and Modahi, as also Bihari settlers and Nepali migrants.

But the Bodos, thanks to the BTC, enjoy the power to govern the districts. “It is a dispensation where about 83 per cent of the population have a minority status in a territory where about 17 per cent of the population have a political and economic power over the majority,” says D N Bezboruah, a veteran journalist and former president of the Editors’ Guild of India.

The Bodos feel further threatened by increasing migration from across the border. Bezboruah blames the Congress for this. “In the ultimate analysis, it is a case of the nation having to reap as the Congress has sown over the decades. It is futile for leaders to pass the buck and look for scapegoats. It is the Congress that sowed the seeds of illegal immigration from Bangladesh for electoral gains, and now it does not know what to do with an explosive situation,” he says. The BPF and the Congress are allies at the state and the Centre.

The Muslim-Bodo tension took a bloody turn in 2012, when over 100 people, mostly Muslim, died in the violence. Though the trigger was the killing of four former Bodo militants by a Muslim mob, the larger reason was that the Muslims were buying land in the BTAD and were outnumbering the Bodos. For the 2014 killings, local Muslim leaders blame the BPF. Siddique Ahmed, Assam Minister for Border Areas Development, says, “It is beyond doubt that the attacks were carried out by ex-BLT cadres who are now members of the BPF. After all, who are the BPF leaders? Aren’t most of them leaders or cadres of the erstwhile BLT?”

Another factor contributing to the violence is the easy availability of illegal arms. These had trickled into Kokrajhar during the first phase of the ABSU-led agitation for a Bodo state in the late 1980s, and later, the NDFB acquired large quantities of weapons both from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM) and through large-scale snatching from security forces. The BLT signed the peace in February 2003, but it was only in December that year that 2,641 of its cadres formally surrendered and laid down 615 weapons.

That illegal arms are in rampant use even after the surrender can be gauged from the fact that in the 2012 violence, BPF legislator Pradip Brahma was arrested on charges of possessing some, besides rioting. “How can the government seize the illegal arms? After all, the BPF and the Congress are partners in the state as well as at the UPA,” says ABSU president Pramod Boro. Only last week, Assam Police IGP S N Singh revealed that of the 160 illegal arms seized in Assam in the current year so far, 90 were from the four Bodoland districts.

“Failure of the government to confiscate all the arms is the biggest problem. Besides the 40 Muslims killed this month, over 200 Bodos were killed by those possessing illegal arms in Bodoland in 2008 and 2009,” says the ABSU’s Boro.

Former IPS officer R S Mooshahary, who contested from Kokrajhar on a Trinamool ticket, feels “insecure” in BTAD. “Bodoland is an arsenal, a bandook-land. There are weapons everywhere. Everybody, Bodo or non-Bodo, is insecure here,” he says.