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Assam polls: non-Bodos may hold the key in multi-ethnic Bodoland

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

There is an unusual calm in Bodoland Territorial Area Districts, the autonomous regional council which comprises of four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa.

Read- Assam Election 2016: Why Bodoland could hold the key to BJP's chances

'Operation All Out' a combined exercise by the military, paramilitary forces, and the police has been underway for the past more than 15 months now. The Union government took the step after NDFB(S) militants massacred more than 70 Adivasis in the districts of Chirang, Kokrajhar and Sonitpur in December 2014. Earlier, in May 2014, NDFB(S) had massacred 38 Bengali speaking Muslims in Narayanguri village on the border of Manas National Park in Baksa district.

The crackdown

“We have been able to nab a sizeable number of NDFB militants, linkmen who were acting as couriers and weapons during course of this operation,” SB Raimedhi, SP Chirang informed this reporter. More than 70 militants belonging to the NDFB have been arrested in Chirang alone, if reliable sources are to be believed. 

Militant Bodo outfit NDFB(S) killed over 70 Adivasis in Dec 2014 & 38 Bengali Muslims in May 2014

In the neighbouring Kokrajhar, Additional SP K Sreejith informed that they have standing instructions to use proportionate force against anybody trying to create trouble. “The insurgency has been controlled. These outfits do not have control over any territory,” Raimedhi pointed out.

While the military is mostly carrying out specific operations, the paramilitary forces have been instrumental in ensuring domination of even the remotest areas, police officials say. Indeed, there has not been any major incident since the operation began.

The militant outfits seem to be losing popular support too.

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Madan Brahma, a contractor, whose brother Chandan Brahma is the Bodo People's Front candidate from the Sidli Assembly constituency, rues the fact that Bodoland is looked upon as an area where violence is routine. “We are peaceful people,” he says. “We want to live in peace with all the communities, be it Muslims or Adivasis,” he adds. “Politicians use us as a tool to create divisions,” Brahma explained.

A similar sentiment is shared by Araitha Brahma, headmaster of a school in Shyamthibary village in Kokrajhar. “People want a dialogue,” he says while adding that the NDFB factions do not enjoy influence over people. “The gun culture has diminished, so has the extortion,” Brahma points out. “The operation is a good step. Elements like the NDFB need to be eliminated,” he says.

While insurgency has taken a backseat, this diverse region, where Bodos just comprise a little over 20% of the population, has a sizeable population of Bengali speaking Muslims and Adivasis, or the tea-tribe people, making the Assembly elections a keenly fought contest.

BPF weakened

Traditionally, the Hagrama Mohilary-led BPF has been the strongest political player in the region. It won 12 seats in the 2011 Assembly elections most of which were from BTAD. It was part of the Congress led government in the state before it pulled out in 2014. However, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections came as a big surprise.

Bodo candidate was defeated by Naba Sarania of the Sanmilita Janagosthiya Aikya Mancha (SJAM). The SJAM was formed ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls largely to protect the rights of the non-Bodos in the BTAD region, who have been at the receiving end of violence by Bodo groups.

Former commander of the elite strike force 709 battalion of the United Liberation Front of Assam, Sarania had won the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat in the last parliamentary polls by a huge margin.

Read more- Assam elections too close to call: Identity only one among many factors

Even in 2015 Bodo Territorial Council elections, the tally of the BPF came down from 33 in 2010 elections to 20 seats, one short of the majority mark. Even this time, the BPF, which has aligned with the BJP, is facing anti-incumbency which could hurt its final tally.

While a section of Bodos may move away from it to the UPP, another section of people from other communities which would vote for it just to ensure that they remain protected. Even the issue of the Central government including six tribal groups in the list of Scheduled Tribes has sharpened divisions. Koch Rajbongshis who have a sizeable population, are on the list which has been promised ST reservations.

“They must ensure that it doesn't hurt the prospects of existing ST communities,” Promode Bodo, President of the All Bodo Students Union says.

Lack of development

 “Come and see any Adivasi area. You will see that no development work has taken place. There is no electricity, no proper roads, no health centres,” says Dilip Rabha explaining how other groups have been ignored by the council in its development work.

“Development work has not happened, and problems like that of gambling and alcoholism are rising in the society,” says Promode Bodo, the President of the All Bodos Students Union, an influential student outfit. ABSU has extended support to the United People's Party, another Bodo outfit, in the Assembly elections. “The BPF is seen to be helping the big contractors,” says Dahit Chandra Brahma, the AIUDF candidate from Kokrajhar (West) constituency.

“The Bodos were rattled,” says Jaikhlong, a PhD student from Sarfanguri in Kokrajhar, recalling the results of the 2014 elections. He, however, says that the influential tribal group still did not learn any lesson.

Read: Expect Congress to bounce back in Assam as BJP, AIUDF stay confused

“Even this time the Bodo votes will be divided between the UPP and the BPF.” Aritha Brahma too feels that this election presented a good opportunity for the Bodos to unite again. “The BPF and the UPP do not have much of an ideological difference,” he says.

Meanwhile, the United People's Party, which has aligned with the Congress on four seats in BTAD areas, seems to have caught the fancy of a large section of the Bodo population. “While the division has affected the Bodoland movement, it is the UPP which has a clear stand on the demand for a separate state,” says Araitha Brahma.

“It also enjoys the support of ABSU, so more Bodos who want to go back to the demand for a separate state and are not happy with the council will vote for the UPP,” he points out while adding that he thinks joining politics is an important step to pursue the agenda for a separate state.

Insecurity among non-Bodos

Interestingly, in this disturbed landscape, newer players like Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF, and the Congress may gain from the division and confusion among the Bodos, and the fear that still stalks other communities like the Muslims and the Adivasis.

“While it is quiet now, you never know when they will target us again,” says Rejina Bibi, who was living in Joyma relief camp on the outskirts of Gossaingaon and has recently moved to a tin-roof house which was constructed by the Jamiat Ulema e Hind. She was displaced in the 2012 riots when all the Muslims in her neighbourhood in Ramphul Bazar decided to flee fearing attacks by the Bodos.

Also read: Prashant Kishore doesn't think Gogoi should lead Cong in Assam

“We will not support the UPP or the BPF. They were responsible for the riots against us. One of the NDFB factions even extended support to them,” says Zia Islam, who had to move to a camp after the violence in 2012. Islam, who hailed the Narendra Modi government's decision to start the operation targeting militants, is angry with the Congress too and says that Tarun Gogoi's government could have prevented the riots.

Promode Bodo, however, points out that their outfit was against the violence both in 2012 and in 2014 and says that another NDFB faction has extended support to the BJP. He says in this elections minority students outfits like the All Assam Minorities Students Union and All Bodo Minorities Students Union have announced support to UPP, which would help them bag some minority votes.

In Kokrajhar (West), a lot of Adivasis and other non-Bodo communities are supporting AIUDF

Meanwhile, attempting to corner some Bodo votes, Ajmal's AIUDF, too, has fielded several Bodo candidates too in reserved constituencies in Bodoland, which also have a Muslim population, who forms AIUDF's core vote-bank. “In Kokrajhar (West), a lot of Adivasis and other non-Bodo communities are supporting the AIUDF candidate,” Rabha points out.

Abdul Muttalib Pradan of Gossaingaon, however, feels that AIUDF cannot ensure protection of the minority community and says that they have no option but to vote for the Congress. “It may be corrupt, but to ensure that we remain safe, we will have to bring them to power. If the BJP comes, they will create Bodoland and we will lose everything,” he says.

Ironically, the Congress candidate in Gossaingaon is a former leader of the Adivasi Cobra Force. Violence, clearly, follows you like a shadow in Bodoland.

Edited by Aditya Menon

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First published: 11 April 2016, 8:32 IST