Numbers matter in politics, yet they do not tell us everything. This is evident in the just signed Bodo Accord — the third such tripartite agreement within a span of 27 years — among various factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the governments of India (GoI) and Assam, on January 27. Within three days of the Accord, 1,615 NDFB cadres surrendered and are now waiting rehabilitation.
On the face of it, transforming over 1,600 rebels to stakeholders in the Indian state and democracy presents an impressive arithmetic. The NDFB, in its avatars as the Bodo Security Force (BSF) from 1986-1994 and as NDFB from 1994 to 2005, had been opposed to any negotiation within the ambit of the Indian Constitution.
The Rs 1,500 crore committed by the GoI for the next three years to develop infrastructure and the devolution of 12 additional subjects to the new entity, the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), make for good optics. It may augur well for the electoral prospects of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and BJP in the BTR Council elections due in six months.
Although the political will displayed by the BJP and BPF to settle this vexed issue is commendable, the Accord is the culmination of a complex and long drawn process, where multiple factors were at play. The protracted fratricidal war NDFB fought against Bodo Liberation Tigers (1996-2003), internal dissensions, GoI’s counterinsurgency during the Congress-led UPA (2004-2014) and BJP-led NDA rule (1998-2004, 2014-20), and the Bhutanese army operation against the ULFA and the NDFB’s Sonbhijit faction in 2003, considerably weakened the Bodo insurgency and compelled the NDFB to enter into ceasefire agreements with the GoI.
A consensus had emerged among various Bodo armed groups and civil society organisations that waging war against the Indian state is futile. This consensus has also made these groups amenable to an expansive autonomous framework within the state of Assam to protect the political, social, cultural and ethnic identities and interests of the Bodos. There has been a tacit understanding between the BPF and the BJP since 2016 as partners of the NDA — two years after the BPF left a 13-year-old alliance with the Congress over slow progress of the implementation of the 2003 Accord. The focus has since shifted to augmenting Bodoland’s autonomy. The success of the BJP-BPF alliance in the 2016 Assam assembly elections also created a favourable political climate for this Accord.
The Accord envisions a more expansive “self-rule” and provides for novel “shared-rule” provisions by creatively broadening the area, scope of power and autonomy enjoyed by the Bodos, albeit in vague generalities. Unlike the 2003 Accord which clearly identified 3,082 villages to be included in Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), this Accord ambiguously points to the inclusion of contiguous tribal majority villages outside BTC area within BTR while simultaneously excluding non-tribal majority areas that are not contiguous with the Sixth Schedule area within BTC. It is thus clear that the Accord seeks to perpetuate Bodos’ “self-rule” and territorial control in BTR by exclusively privileging their political, social, cultural and identity interest over everything else.
Again, unlike the two tripartite accords signed by the Bodo rebels in 1993 and 2003, the 2020 Accord specifically seeks to invest BTC with “legislative” power in addition to “executive, administrative and financial” powers on 12 additional subjects including trade and commerce, welfare and development of minorities/indigenous faith. While five of the 12 subjects devolved under this Accord only reiterate what was said in the 2003 Accord and hence amount to mere window dressing, the current deal continues to put premium on the Assam government to provide legislative safeguards to land rights of tribals (read Bodos) outside tribal belts and blocks. This makes Bodoland autonomy model less robust than the Nagaland model, which has extensive control over “land and resources” under Article 371A of India’s Constitution. Clearly, the Bodoland autonomy model continues to pivot on development, not land.
An interesting aspect of this Accord is the way in which it extends the territorial remit of ethnic conflict regulation. While the change in the nomenclature of Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) to Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) is tailored to reflect this intent, the provision of Bodo-Cachari Welfare Councils outside the existing BTAD to cater to the development and welfare needs of the Bodos in other parts of Assam is a novel institutional experiment envisaged by this Accord. By envisioning an institutional framework under this rubric, where Bodos outside and within BTR define and regulate their developmental priorities in concert with the Assam government, it is likely to institutionalise a multilayered “cascading autonomy” — to borrow Jyotindra Das Gupta’s term — where powers and responsibilities are being negotiated within the framework of “shared-rule”.
The Accord also enlarges the scope of representation by increasing the strength of BTC from 40 to a maximum of 60 members. However, unlike the 2003 Accord which clearly reserved 35 of the 40 elected seats for tribals (read as Bodos), this agreement does not specify the seat share of Bodos and other non-Bodo communities. If the first Bodo Accord of 1993 is any useful guide, the BTR might yet set apace a conflictual inter-ethnic relationship where the local minority, the politically dominant Bodos, would exploit this vague provision to gerrymander constituencies to consolidate their dominance.
The failure to envision a power-sharing arrangement with non-Bodos makes the BTR a very weak “shared-rule” model of autonomy. This weakness could induce violence and deepen ethnic fractionalisation. The conspicuous absence of reference to legal safeguards to land extended by the 2003 Bodo Accord to non-Bodos on matters pertaining to, inter alia, land settlement, ownership and inheritance of property would make them more vulnerable. Riding on the tide of an increasing sense of insecurity and powerlessness, Bodoland recently witnessed intense segmental electoral mobilisation that deeply polarised Bodos and non-Bodos. The overwhelming consolidation of the non-Bodo population around Naba Sarania, a former ULFA leader and a non-Bodo who won the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat in 2014 and 2019, is a clear pointer to this. This coincided with the electoral fragmentation of the Bodos within the BTC itself, a case borne out by the electoral decline of the BPF, whose seat share in the BTC fell from 31 out of the 40 elected seats in 2010 to 20 seats in 2015.
The entry of yet another cluster of NDFB factions into Bodoland’s electoral fray is likely to further fractionalise the Bodo electoral base. Thus it is plausible that inter/intra ethnic outbidding may take complex and conflictual turn unless robust power-sharing arrangements within and across Bodo/non-Bodos are institutionalised. The complexity of intra-ethnic outbidding within the Bodos itself is apparent if we carefully scrutinise how this Accord seeks to distribute various infrastructural projects across the four districts of Baksa, Chirang, Kokrajhar and Udalguri. It would be interesting to see how infrastructure projects and delimitation of electoral constituencies in Bodoland will drive the power dynamics and redefine not only the arithmetic of autonomy and power, but also of inter and intra-ethnic relations.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 7, 2020 under the title ‘Self-rule and shared rule’. The writer is professor of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.