A BLEEDING SHOULDER – INDIA’S NORTHEAST

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The Kashmir insurgency having taken centre-stage for many years now, the insurgencies of the Northeast no more occupy significant spaces of newsworthiness. Nevertheless, they aren’t dead as yet, lingering on preventing the region from going full steam on the road to development. This is an attempt to trace the histories of these insurgencies until 5 years ago when this study was undertaken. Nothing has changed drastically since then, with the insurgencies still existing or claiming to exist, with the formal burials yet to take place. Even the one notable development of the Government of India entering into a peace accord with NSCN (IM), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muviah) in 2015, is yet to draw any dividends because the exact terms of the accord are yet to be made public and implemented. This is the fourth episode of a 9-blog serial (which has been on hold for a month for the hectic schedule of events) on the various ethnic insurgencies of the North-East.

4 Bodoland – An Insurgency within Another

Bodos are the largest plain tribe of Assam – population of nearly 2 million forming almost 6 percent of the state’s population – inhabiting the area identified as Bodoland that falls north of the river Bramhaputra. The insurgency that sprouted among them in mid 1980s was born out of resentment against the possession of their tribal land by Bengali settlers and non-Bodo Assamese, and neglect of the Bodo language – factors that bred a sense of exploitation. The Bodos had taken up the issue as early as 1930s when they represented to the Simon Commission for a separate political setup for the tribal people of Assam; but they never got a hearing, either from the British or from the successive post-independence governments in Delhi.

Then in 1967 an organization called the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) came into being, which began a struggle for statehood, albeit by peaceful means. The agitation turned violent towards late 1980s when the ABSU set up a militant outfit, the Bodo Volunteer Force (BVF). The BVF called off its armed struggle within a couple of years, following the signing of an agreement – the Bodo Accord – with the Government of India in 1993, whereby the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) was set up. The accord however failed to usher in peace, as not all Bodos were happy with it, principally for many of the contiguous areas with substantial Bodo population not being included in the council’s demarcated territory. This led to acts of ethnic cleansing by them in such areas to ensure a demographic ratio of more than 50 percent Bodo population, so as to meet the condition stipulated by the accord for an area to be merged with Bodoland. It caused the displacement of a large number of immigrants, Bengalis and other Assamese including Adivasi tribes’ people.

The BVF split, with a rebel faction rejecting the accord and forming a new group that called itself the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), which went on a spree of violence in the Bodo heartland of Kokrajhar and neighbouring districts. Meanwhile another group called Bodo Security Force (BSF) raised in 1986, but had been remaining on the sidelines, began to gain prominence, having renamed itself the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The NDFB raised the pitch of the insurgency by demanding a sovereign Bodoland; although the organization, being Christian-dominated, doesn’t really represent the indigenous Bodo majority. Even where the language is concerned, the Bodos use the Devanagari script whereas the NDFB promotes the Latin one.

The BLT on its part laid down arms following a ceasefire agreement with the government in 2000, which led to negotiations and the formation of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003. The NDFB too declared unilateral ceasefire in 2004 and signed a formal ceasefire agreement with the government in May 2005. The agreement stipulated that the cadres of the NDFB would disarm themselves and live in camps protected by the army for a year while peace is negotiated. A radical faction of the outfit led by its founder-president Ranjan Daimary didn’t fall in line with this and broke away to continue with the insurgency, promptly forging alliances with ULFA and NSCN-IM.

The Daimary-led faction, which called itself the ‘real’ NDFB, went on to create general mayhem all over Assam colluding with ULFA and other terrorist groups. The insurgency within Assam soon assumed horrific proportions with rampant acts of terrorism that targeted civilians. In July 2008 NDFB triggered off massive violence in the northern districts of Udalguri and Darrang, leading to clashes between Muslim immigrant settlers and Bodo tribesmen that claimed 49 lives and displaced over a 100,000 people.

[The communal divide between the indigenous people of Assam – who are mostly Hindus or Christians – and Muslim immigrants is a tinderbox waiting to be ignited ever since the 1970s when large-scale immigrations from Bangladesh began. The locals fear of being overwhelmed by the Muslim population. In February 1983 central Assam witnessed unparalleled butchery in clashes that left over 2100 – mostly immigrants – dead. The immigrant problem has other dimensions than the communal divide and the political parties seemingly manipulate the problems to suit the demands of their electorate (No wonder the current NRC issue has become such a hot topic). For one thing, the immigrants are cheap labour, which most indigenous people all over the Northeast are happy to exploit, except the tribal population who fear of losing their land. From farms to shops and kitchens to factories you can find the Bangladeshis working all over the region. (These people have actually migrated far beyond the Northeast and one could find them in places as far as Kerala, where people are generally averse to manual work and may not care much about the nationality of a worker.) Identifying and deporting them is going to be no easy job. Even the Assamese agitation was precipitated by the alleged attempts of the government in power to include the names of illegal immigrants in the voters’ list, rather than the immigration per se. The illegal immigration from Bangladesh, or erstwhile East Pakistan, has been going on since the nineteenth century because of the abject poverty in that part of the subcontinent that made people migrate to Assam seeking work and livelihood. An average Bangladeshi who seeks greener pastures in India often has no other choice if s/he is to survive. It’s yet another legacy of the partition. May be if the governments of India and Bangladesh can jointly address it as a humanitarian problem and keep the politics out of it some solution might emerge.]

In October 2008 the NDFB joined hands with ULFA and other outfits to carry out serial blasts in an unprecedented scale in the state. This however proved the last straw for Daimary’s leadership of the outfit. In December 2008 the moderate NDFB leadership removed Daimary from the post of the president, electing Dhiren Boro as the new incumbent. Daimary was subsequently apprehended in Bangladesh and handed over to India in May 2010.

Even while Daimary languished in jail his followers continued with their terrorist acts. But the outfit was stumped when their Deputy Commander-in Chief, George Boro, was nabbed by the security forces in Aizawl the following month. Within a month, in January 2011, the outfit sued for peace, declaring a unilateral ceasefire. Meanwhile Daimary, who has been expressing his willingness to talk and assuring his co-operation to get the cadres to surrender, has been granted conditional bail in April 2013 as part of the governments’ peace initiative; a move much resented by the victims’ families. It’s too early to visualize what future holds since, on the ground, Daimary-faction of the NDFB have still not shown signs of turning truly peaceful. The policy of ‘zero tolerance’ the Assam government professes does not seem to work on the ground.

To be continued. Next:
North Cachar & Karbi Anglong – A Devil’s Cauldron
(Karbi, Dimasa, Adivasi and Other insurgencies)

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past.
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