The Untold Story

The Bodo Massacres

Bhaskar Nandy

Large scale massacres of Adivasis and Muslims by Bodos during the last two decades is frequently in the news, but as is usual for much that passes for news in the media, there is no clear understanding of the causes and processes that explain this phenomenon. Three different forces, Delhi, Dispur and the various factions of the Bodo terrorists, have all been equally involved since the beginning of this process.

From the early sixties of the last century, the Bodos, especially of the Kokrajhar District, began a genuine mass movement for their linguistic rights. This movement had been built up on decades of work by organic intellectuals within the community. This movement was suppressed brutally by the Assam government. But of course, as always, suppression of genuine mass demands strengthened the movement and gave rise to various demands for autonomy. But as yet there was no thought of violent activities. That came later, in the early eighties.

During the Emergency, the outward expression of the movement was very limited, but its subterranean energy was getting augmented by the day. As part of a great anti-Congress alliance, the political party representing the Bodos and their movement, the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTC), won a Lok Sabha seat (Kokrajhar) in 1977 and 4 Bidhan Sabha seats in 1978. Of the two main leaders, Charan Narzary and Samar Brahma Chowdhury, the former was in the Lok Sabha and the latter became a minister in the first Janata Dal cabinet in Assam.

The PTC, as its name suggested, had the ambition to represent all the plains tribals of Assam and included within its leadership representatives from the Mising tribe, the second largest group among the plains tribals, residing mostly at the eastern end of the north bank of the Brahmaputra river whereas the Bodos were concentrated in the western end. This alliance (or the attempted alliance) of the two tribes "justified" the PTC (1967) slogan for a Union Territory called Udayachal whose southern border would be the north bank of the Brahmaputra. The PTC's hold among the Misings was always weak and more or less vanished by the late sixties, turning the PTC into a party of the Bodos.

PTC's approach was always mass based and within the available democratic framework. The alliance with the Janata Dal had given it the hope that parliamentary processes and a peaceful mass movement would secure a solution to the question of autonomy in some substantive form. But the Janata Dal disintegrated in 1980. A Hajarika ministry, supported by the Congress, followed the Borbora ministry and very shortly thereafter President's Rule and a succession of Congress ministries interspersed with President's rule followed. In the mean time Assam was burning due to the unprecedented violence of the Assamese chauvinist movement.

It is at this juncture that Mrs Gandhi's government intervened in the Bodo movement decisively. The central government was not particularly interested in granting the Bodos their demands. But it was clearly interested in a militant Bodo force that could at some point act as a countervailing force to the Assamese chauvinists. This is of course to a certain extent ill-documented, but the facts on the ground attest firmly to the raising of a militant force of the Bodos. A central government run paramilitary force trained Bodo youth inside the dense jungles of the Manas game reserve and then let them loose with modern weapons, initiating the transformation of the Bodo movement into a vile terrorism. The main faction of the terrorists has always received the patronage of the Congress.

Nowadays the characteristic feature of Bodo terrorism is the killing of innocent, non-Bodo poor people en masse. But it didn't start that way. It began by intimidating and sometimes killing the activists and supporters of the PTC in a massive covert campaign that reached a peak with the murder of Samar Brahma Chowdhury, an ex-minister in the Borbora cabinet and one of the most prominent leaders of the PTC, at his house in Kokrajhar town. This campaign managed to silence the Bodos, a largely poverty stricken, peaceful people, and of course the non-Bodos. But the campaign soon became all about extortion and coercion; not just about money but about the possession of Adivasi and Muslim lands and of course large scale deforestation and illegal timber trade. To meet those demands police and forest guards were often attacked and ordinary businessmen killed at the first hint of reluctance. After the split in the Bodo terrorist camp, largely along religious lines and along the contradiction between early and later settlers, both groups started to derail passenger trains and disrupting both railway and road links with Assam and the rest of the North East. Massacres of innocent people became a habit of both terrorist factions.

One strong force against the Bodo assertion was the Assamese chauvinist movement. This movement was led by the Assamese proto-bourgeoisie consisting of upper caste people. Apart from the vile caste interests and views of these people—the tribals and dalits are considered as less than human—they always upheld the banner of "Assamese in Danger" in order to indulge in the "wholesale plunder of the exchequer" (Hiren Gohain) through hegemonic control over political society. These hegemonists were genuinely disturbed by the fact that unlike other tribal groups, the Bodos had a very substantial stratum of feudal and semi- feudal landlords (thanks to the Permanent Settlement in the old Goalpara District which was a part of Bengal since 1757) that could take advantage from a strong political thrust to cut into the loaves and fishes of the exchequer.

The Assamese chauvinists led a two-pronged attack on the Bodo masses in the guise of fighting terrorism. First, there were many mass killings of Bodo villagers by chauvinist mobs, sometimes killing hundreds of innocent Bodo villagers. But on coming to power, the government of the chauvinists, the AGP government, launched large scale state terror on the Bodo masses. But the Bodo terrorists could not be defeated or even contained.

In 1991, the central government constituted a three-member committee in which two specialists on tribal affairs in the Home ministry and a famous anthropologist, Kumar Suresh Singh, were members. This committee studied the tribal predicament in the whole of Assam and made recommendations on the question of self-rule for the tribals, especially of the Bodos. The report of this committee was very thorough, but it came a cropper on the Siamese twins of demography and territoriality. "Divide Assam Fifty-fifty" is a catchy slogan for impressionable, ill-educated tribal youths and an illiterate mass but the committee noted that the 1991 census shows that the total tribal population north of the Brahmaputra river, including the Bodos, comes to less than 17 percent. Rightly, they rejected the demand for territorial home rule for the Bodos and the Misings, the second largest tribal group on the North Bank of the Brahmaputra.

Instead they recommended multi-layered autonomies for the two tribes: Governing bodies with jurisdiction over large village clusters with tribal majorities and village bodies with lesser powers; above these two tiers, there would be a central council with considerable powers. The committee also recommended the changing of the unicameral Assam legislature into a bicameral one with an upper house with adequate ethnic representation such that bills concerning the autonomous regions would have to be mandated by the upper house.

Justice has not been done to the report and its very sensible and well worked out recommendations. And that for a very good reason. The three-man committee report became irrelevant when in the same year of the report (1991) the Government of India signed the Bodo Accord and formed the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC) over a region where the Bodos were an absolute minority of less than 20 per cent ! The BAC was constituted by a guaranteed majority for the Bodos by reserving seats for them (ostensively for STs) on it. This was a travesty of all democratic norms. To this travesty was added a constitutional fudge that ran roughshod over the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

The intentions of the Constitution-makers were expressed through a committee chaired by B R Ambedkar. After long deliberation in sub-committee and in plenary, the Constitution came to divide the tribal population in Assam as it then was, viz. the whole of the North East except Manipur and Tripura, into Hill Tribes and Plains Tribes. To state it briefly, the Hill Tribes i.e. those which had enjoyed considerable autonomy under the Raj as excluded and semi-excluded and who had overwhelming ethnic/national majorities in their habitats, were allowed to exercise some autonomy in specified territories under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Those autonomous powers were extremely meagre, especially as they were administered by the expansionist, upper caste Assamese hege-monists. The Sixth Schedule could not ultimately hold Assam together.

But then who were the Plains Tribes of the Constitution? These were precisely the tribes, like the Bodos, who in their totality make up way less than 10 percent of the population of the now truncated Assam. They live in the plains and command no territory where they are the majority except in some villages and village clusters that compare, population-wise, very poorly against such clusters of that are non-tribal. This question of territoriality and homogeneity differentiated these tribals from the Hill tribals and hence the Constitution refused to grant territorial autonomy to them. Dr Ambedkar's committee could not decide otherwise, were commonsense and democratic principles to be upheld. In the process of forming the BTAD, the central government amended the Sixth Schedule to grant territorial autonomy for the Plains tribes and formed a governing council with a guaranteed majority for the Bodos, throwing both democracy and the Constitution to the winds. One Home Department honcho told an important interlocutor that he agreed that they had done the unthinkable but they had no choice but to "buy peace" and he was sure that no[expletive] Supreme Court judge would dare to throw out what the government was constrained to do lest the judges get their robes splattered with blood! So much for democracy and the constitution.

Has the BTAD stemmed the flow of innocent blood? It is easy to forget the 1996 massacre of the Adivasis and the Muslims in which hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered and nearly five hundred thousand people were displaced. Thousands of these people still languish in camps where neither the state government nor the central government supply anything other than a plastic sheet for a whole family. Hunger, malnutrition, malignant malaria and enteric fever have taken a terrible toll. The inmates do not get local work because the Bodo terrorists threaten to kill them if they are found working in the vicinity of the camps. The memory of these dead during the BAC regime was like a festering sore when the BTAD was formed. In the run up to that event, Muslims and Adivasis continued to be slaughtered. After that event, now for nearly eleven years, the killings have continued, sometimes reaching levels of savagery that words cannot describe. More such savagery will surely come.

It is interesting that the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have both curried favour with the Bodos, Congress persisting for years on end as a parliamentary ally and the BJP offering the Bodos full statehood. Even the AGP which is against any autonomy for the Bodos got aligned with the most savage operatives of the NDFB which, much weakened now, is perpetrating many of the recent mass murders. Such are the magical results of Indian parliamentary governance. Even the CPI(M) supported the formation of the BAC.

This decade has seen the full flowering of goonda raj that extends over all non-Bodos but also reaches out over the poor Bodos. The ordinary Bodos have not yet organised themselves well against these Bodo predators but the resulting splits in various Bodo organisations will soon amount to a full scale revolt against those predators who always profess to act in their name. Then there is the bold pressure that is building up among the non-Bodos who have won the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat and who are beginning to give shape to mass resistance whenever attacked.

No solution of the Bodo problem will be in sight until and unless the huge Adivasi population in the area and the Rajbangshis are scheduled as tribes immediately. These people are scheduled in all states other than Assam. Their demand for scheduling is gaining momentum. The huge numbers of tea workers who are largely Adivasis and live mostly outside the so-called Bodoland had not really taken up the demand for scheduling in right earnest over the years. But now that working class is stirring very strongly and their struggles will pave the way for this ill-conceived Bodoland to vanish. The ST reservations in the governance of this area, and which now means a reservation for Bodos only, will pave the way for the other tribes to uproot this Bodo hegemony. This writer's estimate is that not more than a handful of Bodos could get seats in the Council in such an eventuality. The Adivasi tea workers of Assam, the oldest and the largest group of workers in India will definitely emancipate the masses of Bodoland in the long battle for their own emancipation.

When the three member committee came to Assam, this writer wrote a memorandum on behalf of the United Revolutionary Movement Council of Assam (URMCA) and submitted it to the committee. Vaguely acknowledging this memorandum, the committee came up with a solution to the Bodo problem substantially no different from what URMCA had proposed. Those proposals should have been accepted and could have stalled the dynamic of ethnic cleansing in the search for a majoritarian status. Sooner rather than later, the Adivasis and the Rajbangshis will become scheduled tribes. Then the Bodos will not even be the largest tribe in the region. It is high time for the Bodo proto-bourgeoisie to return to the path of democracy and peace in order to ensure the justly proud identity of the Bodos.

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015