The Kokrajhar cycle

A polarising election has played into the old insecurities of a region riven by ethnic strife

Updated: May 5, 2014 7:11:02 am

In the Kokrajhar and Baksa districts of Assam, a grim rewind to the images of 2012: mass killings, houses torched to the ground, hundreds displaced in a matter of days. Since Thursday night, Bodo militants — alleged by the government to be members of the NDFB (Songjibit) — have targeted Muslim villagers in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), killing at least 29. The provocation, according to victims of the violence, was that in the recent Lok Sabha poll, a large number of votes were rumoured to have gone to a non-Bodo candidate contesting from Kokrajhar, a reserved constituency which has traditionally sent a Bodo representative to Parliament. In a region with a long history of ethnic strife and crisscrossed by competing ethnic demands, a polarising election has brought dormant tensions to life again.

The Bodo impulse for autonomy coalesced into a formal statehood demand in 1987. The militancy of the 1990s would leave hundreds dead in periodic clashes, often between Bodos and Muslims. When the Bodo Peace Accord of 2003 was signed by the Centre, the state government and the Bodo Liberation Tigers, and the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) came into being, it was believed that these animosities would be laid to rest. They were not. The BTAD contained a large non-Bodo population and ethnic conflagrations continued. Several Bodo groups, including factions of the NDFB, continued to agitate for statehood and in 2013, the Centre’s assent to Telangana galvanised these demands once again. The ethnic demand for complete autonomy, and its edge of communal hatred, have also been kept alive by the fact that the districts of the BTAD remain backward. With a growing population and increasing pressures on land, tribal anger has been directed at Muslims living in the area. Fears about Muslim migration from Bangladesh, notions of a Muslim “infestation” spreading across the Bodo homeland, abound and have been happily encouraged by certain political parties. Bodo anxieties have been compounded in these elections by the prospect of losing clout at
the Centre.

This latest eruption of violence in the BTAD also speaks of government abdication and neglect. The NDFB (Songjibit) had struck earlier this year, targeting Hindi-speakers in Kokrajhar. Nothing can explain the Tarun Gogoi-led government’s failure to anticipate and guard against a similar attack during a fraught election season. The continuing tragedy of Kokrajhar also reflects the deficiencies in the government’s go-to response to ethnic demands — setting up autonomous territorial councils. Unless the developmental needs of the region that largely motivated such demands are addressed, its story may remain trapped in the old cycles of violence and mistrust.

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