History seems to be caught in a tragic loop in Assam. In Kokrajhar, part of the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD), and in Sonitpur district, bordering the BTAD, militants belonging to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songjibit) are alleged to have launched attacks on Adivasis, the toll already touching 70. The violence has been read as retaliation for the recent government crackdown on NDFB(S) militants. Tripartite talks between the Centre, Assam government and NDFB (Progressive) may also have fuelled the anger of the NDFB(S), which has resisted dialogue so far. This week’s killings point to the limits of the fragile status quo that has existed for about a decade now.
The Bodo demand for statehood, officially articulated in 1987, was always accompanied by violence. But it was after 1993, when the contours of an ethnic homeland began to form under the proposed Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC), that militant action started targeting non-Bodo groups that occupied parts of this imagined homeland. The BAC fell through, but the ethnic clashes continued; around 250 were killed in Bodo-Adivasi violence in 1996.
When the BTAD was formed in 2003 under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord, there were two hitches — its territories still contained large non-Bodo populations and it was signed only by the Bodo Liberation Tigers, which benefited politically. Groups that were left out of the agreement fell back on violence to articulate their claims. A decade later, the Bodo movement continues to splinter into various groups and demands, and the government still engages with it piecemeal. The creation of Telangana has revived the statehood demand, backed by the Ranjan Daimary and Progressive factions of the NDFB as well as mainstream Bodo parties. As the other NDFB factions joined the talks table in 2013, the Songjibit group emerged a grim outlier, demanding sovereignty and positioning itself against peace talks.
The latest spate of violence should not have caught the government unawares, given that the BTAD has reportedly seen 37 militant attacks this year. While stemming the flow of violence must be the government’s first imperative, curbing militant groups will not be enough. The fraying of the BTC Accord must lead to a more imaginative addressing of ethnic demands in Assam.