On Monday, the Centre, the Assam government and Bodo groups — including all factions of the militant National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) — signed an agreement for peace and development.
Home Minister Amit Shah described it as the “final and comprehensive solution” of the long-standing Bodo issue.
Explained: What is the Bodo issue?
Bodos are the single largest community among the notified Scheduled Tribes in Assam. Part of the larger umbrella of Bodo-Kachari, the Bodos constitute about 5-6% of Assam’s population.
The first organised demand for a Bodo state came in 1967-68 under the banner of the political party Plains Tribals Council of Assam. In 1985, when the Assam Movement culminated in the Assam Accord, many Bodos saw it as essentially focusing on the interests of the Assamese-speaking community. In 1987, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) led by Upendra Nath Brahma revived the Bodo statehood demand. The armed group Bodo Security Force arose, under the leadership of Ranjan Daimary, in October 1986. It subsequently renamed itself NDFB, and later split into factions.
“All NDFB factions under SoO [Suspension of Operations] shall abjure path of violence, surrender their weapons and disband their armed organisations within one month of signing this MoS,” the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) said.
Amid protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, what is the political takeaway from the Accord?
At a time when the ruling BJP is under fire from the large Assamese-speaking community, the Accord underlines its effort to cement its hold among Bodo voters. The Assamese-speaking community had voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in 2016. Now Assamese student leaders, activists, popular singers and actors, and eminent citizens have addressed large, anti-BJP protest gatherings across the state. These have been prominent in Upper Assam in the east, where the Assamese-speaking community is dominant. The Bodoland region is in western Assam, and large sections of the Bodos are already seen as supportive of the BJP. Hagrama Mohilary, who heads BJP ally Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), is the chief executive member of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
What is the BTC?
It is an autonomous body under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. There have been two Bodo Accords earlier, and the second one led to the formation of BTC. The ABSU-led movement from 1987 culminated in a 1993 Bodo Accord, which paved the way for a Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), but ABSU withdrew its agreement and renewed its demand for a separate state. In 2003, the second Bodo Accord was signed by the extremist group Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF), the Centre and the state. This led to the BTC.
What has been settled now?
Primarily, a truce with four factions of the NDFB after decades of armed movement that, according to Shah, claimed over 4,000 lives. “The most significant point is this Accord marks the end of the armed movement. The coming of all factions of the armed groups together to sign the Accord is a very big thing,” ABSU president Promod Boro said.
Asked about the statehood demand, Boro said the ABSU will decide in its next special convention. Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the demand for statehood came to end with the Accord. An ABSU leader, however, said: “It is not mentioned anywhere in the settlement that the ABSU will give up the statehood demand.”
The agreement says: “Negotiations were held with Bodo organisations for a comprehensive and final solution to their demands while keeping intact the territorial integrity of the State of Assam.”
What was agreed on territory?
The area under the jurisdiction of BTC, formed under the 2003 Accord, was called the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD). On Monday, the BTAD was renamed Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).
BTAD comprises Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri districts, accounting for 11% of Assam’s area and 10% of its population. Estimates for the Bodo population in BTAD vary. A 2015 report in The Assam Tribune quoted the then state government as telling the Assembly that “it does not have any information of the break-up of population of Bodo and non-Bodo communities in BTAD”. Also in 2015, an article in Economic and Political Weekly said only 27% of the BTAD population is Bodo. The four districts in BTAD constitute Kokrjhar Lok Sabha constituency, whose MP Naba Kumar Saraniya is a non-Bodo.
The new Accord provides for “alteration of area of BTAD” and “provisions for Bodos outside BTAD”. A commission appointed by the state government will examine and recommend if villages contiguous to BTAD and with a majority tribal population can be included into the BTR while those now in BTAD and with a majority non-tribal population can opt out of the BTR. This, minister Sarma explained, will lead to an increase in the Bodo population in BTR and decrease in non-tribal population, leading to mitigation of inter-community clashes wherever it was happening.
The government will set up a Bodo-Kachari Welfare Council for focused development of Bodo villages outside BTAD — which opens up a way to potentially address the needs of Bodos outside BTAD.
Several of the provisions agreed upon on Monday were an extension of what was already in effect. For instance, it provides for more legislative, executive, administrative and financial powers to BTC; and amendments to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to “improve the financial resources and administrative powers of BTC”. The 2020 agreement says the Government of Assam “will notify Bodo language in Devanagri script as the associate official language in the state”.
What happens to the cases that were filed during the armed movement?
Among the signatories was Ranjan Daimary whose faction is called NDFB(RD). Other factions include NDFB(Progressive) and NDFB(S). Ranjan Daimary and nine others were sentenced to life last year for the killing of around 90 people in serial blasts in Assam in October 2008. The settlement says criminal cases for “non-heinous” crimes shall be withdrawn and those in connection with heinous crimes “shall be reviewed case by case according to the existing policy on the subject”.
In 2014, in Khagrabari in Baksa district, Bodo extremists and others had allegedly gunned down nearly 40 Bengali Muslims. Advocate Aman Wadud, who is representing the victims at the special NIA court in Guwahati , said, “No ‘understanding’ can absolve those accused of heinous mass murders. The MoS says cases of heinous crimes will be ‘reviewed’. Justice should not be throttled in the name of ‘peace’.”
On January 30, 1,500 cadres of NDFB factions will lay down arms before the state government. The MoS states New Delhi and Dispur will take all necessary steps to rehabilitate the cadres, such as ex-gratia, funding economic activities, vocational trading and recruitment in appropriate government jobs.
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