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Explained: Why are BJP and ally BPF fighting each other in Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Council polls?

The outcome of these local council elections — powered by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution — could also be crucial in the Assam Assembly elections next year.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati | Updated: December 10, 2020 12:14:59 pm
Home Minister Amit Shah, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal and Bodo leaders after the signing of the Bodo peace accord in January. (Photo: PTI/File)

Elections to the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam began on Monday, with the second phase to be held on December 10. The elections follow the Bodo Accord signed earlier this year and described as the “final and comprehensive solution” to the longstanding Bodo issue. The outcome of these local council elections — powered by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution — could also be crucial in the Assam Assembly elections next year.

What is the Bodoland Territorial Council?

The BTC is an autonomous self-governing body under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, a special provision that allows for greater political autonomy and decentralised governance in certain tribal areas of the Northeast.

The Bodos, a plains-dwelling tribe, make up the single largest community with Scheduled Tribe status in Assam, accounting for about 5-6% of the state’s population. They have long struggled for Bodoland, a sovereign ethnic homeland (subsequently, a state within India). Beginning the mid-1980s, this demand led to an armed insurgent movement, fought by several militant groups. To broker peace, three accords have been signed among the Centre, state and the Bodo groups — in 1993, 2003 and the latest, in January 2020, which has ostensibly led to the end of armed insurgencies and suspension of the statehood demand.

The 1993 accord led to the formation of a Bodo Autonomous Council, and the 2003 accord resulted in the BTC. The BTC would have under its jurisdiction four Bodo-inhabited districts of western Assam (Udalguri, Baksa, Chirang and Kokrajhar), together known as the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), which has now been renamed as the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).

According to the Assam government website, the objective of the BTC is to “fulfil economic, educational and linguistic aspiration and the preservation of land-rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos”. The BTC — a 46-member council — is headed by the Chief Executive Member (CEM).

This week, a new council and chief will be elected.

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Who controls the BTC today?

Following the 2003 accord, three BTC elections were held in 2005, 2010, and 2015. In all, the Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) — earlier called the Bodo People’s Progressive Front — was elected to power. This group — also an ally of the BJP at the state and centre — has its origins in the Bodo Liberation Tigers, an erstwhile militant group, which joined mainstream politics after giving up arms and signing the 2003 accord. While Mohilary has enjoyed the status of the CEM since 2005, and his party is in partnership with the BJP both at the Centre and state, the two are contesting separately in the upcoming BTC elections. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

What made BJP contest against its own ally?

The BJP is not only contesting all 40 elected seats of the BTC (it has 46 seats, the other six nominated), but has also taken an aggressive stand against its ally, the BPF. In the run-up to the elections, BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and BPF’s Mohilary have engaged in a public takedowns of each other.

According to Rajan Pandey, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Royal Global University, Guwahati, the BJP, which had a minimal presence so far in the BTC (it won only one seat in 2015) is likely to open its tally but unlikely to end up as a major player this election. “Yet it has decided to contest on its own — one, it is banking on its success of the accord which was signed under its rule, and two, it hopes to divide the non-tribal votes (which usually go to the BPF) and in turn, help the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) come to power,” he said.

The UPPL has in its fold Pramod Boro, the former president of the influential All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), which was a key signatory of the 2020 accord. “Many feel the UPPL is poised to increase its tally this election — since it has the support of the ABSU, which was instrumental in the bringing in the accord,” said Pandey, “The new accord is seen as ushering in an era of peace, plus it has a number of provisions for development and more control to the BTC. The Bodo voters would want to credit the people behind it and so, many votes may go to the UPPL.”

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This works for the BJP, which can then take the UPPL’s help in the Assembly elections. Observers say that BTC elections usually have a bearing on the Assembly elections as well. “The BTR region accounts for 12 Assembly seats [out of 126 in Assam],” said Dr Sangrang Brahma, Librarian, Bodoland University, “So, whoever wins in the BTC elections can potentially be kingmaker in the Assembly elections. Moreover, the BTC prefers to be on good terms with those in power at the state level — to ensure that the Council gets funding.”

To what extent can the demography of the BTR districts influence the elections?

The BTR is home to a number of communities, apart from Bodos: Bengali Muslims, Assamese, Adivasis, Koch-Rajbongshis, Rabhas, Garos, Nepalis etc. While official demographics of the non-Bodo and Bodo populations are not available, it is estimated that the non-Bodo communities account for nearly 70% of the population. Rifts (violent clashes in 2012 and 2014) between non-Bodos and Bodos have marked the region — and it often plays out politically during Lok Sabha elections, where one seat (Kokrajhar) coves the four BTR districts. For example, in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the non-Bodo votes consolidated in favour of Naba Kumar Sarania, a former United Liberation Front of Asom militant, who contested as an independent.

The Lok Sabha seat, 6 of 12 Assembly seats, and 30 of 40 seats in the BTC are reserved for STs. However, because of the demographic deficit of the Bodos, the non-Bodo vote if consolidated can be decisive.

Which are the other parties in the fray?

Apart from the UPPL, BJP and BPF, the Congress and the AIUDF have allied and are contesting 19 seats. MP Sarania has launched the Gana Surakha Party (GSP), which is contesting all 40 seats.

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