Peace Talks in India’s Northeast: New Delhi’s Bodo Knot

25 Mar, 2014    ·   4355

Rani Pathak Das says that the relative calm in Assam’s Bodo heartland is no cause for complacency

The Government of India’s approach to the prolonged insurgency and agitations in Assam’s Bodo heartland seems to have complicated the Bodo issue further. In the nearly three decades since the Bodoland movement began in 1987 under the leadership of Upendranath Brahma of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the Government has inked two peace agreements with the Bodos. The first Bodo Accord, signed on 20 February 1993 between the Government of Assam and ABSU, proved to be a failed experiment as it did not fully demarcate the territory. The Accord said that those villages with 50 per cent or more Bodo people would be included in the proposed Autonomous Council, resulting in ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing. The second Bodo Peace Accord, signed between the Central Government, the State Government and the leaders of BLT (Bodo Liberation Tigers) on 10 February 2003 led to the formation of the BTC (Bodoland Territorial Council) with jurisdiction over four districts: Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang. However, the BTC area actually includes 70 per cent non-Bodo people, who are against the creation of Bodoland. 

Despite signing two accords, conflict in Bodo areas has multiplied instead of getting resolved.  The Government was engaged in peace negotiations with the NDFB after declaring a ceasefire in October 2004. The NDFB, led by Govinda Basumatary, signed a Suspension of Operation agreement with the Central Government in May 2005 – the group’s founder chairman Ranjan Daimary did not come over ground and continued terrorist activities from the base in Bangladesh. Daimary was arrested in May 2010, and the Government again offered a peace dialogue to the Ranjan Daimary faction of the NDFB. Daimary was expelled by the NDFB in January 2009 for his alleged involvement in the October 2008 serial blasts in Assam. Now that the Government is engaged in two separate peace dialogues, one with the NDFB(R) since November 2013, after the release of Ranjan Daimary from jail, and the other with the NDFB (Progressive), a solution to the Bodo problem becomes even more complex.

With the raising of statehood demands by mainstream Bodo groups like the ABSU, peace negotiations with NSFB have now taken an entirely new dimension. The ABSU was joined by the Peoples’ Joint Action Committee for Bodoland Movement (PJACBM), a conglomeration of 55 outfits of various ethnic groups in the proposed Bodoland, which announced the revival of the Bodo statehood agitation on in July 2013. This followed the ruling Congress party’s decision to grant a separate state of Telangana by dividing Andhra Pradesh. The BPF (Bodo People’s Front) - the party ruling the Bodo Council - also joined the statehood cry since they did not want to be left behind and run the risk of being rendered politically irrelevant. Now that Telengana has been created as the 29th state of India, with the bill passed by voice votes in both the houses of the Parliament on in February 2014, New Delhi’s Bodo knot has been further tightened.

The Government must be aware of the tough challenge ahead in untying the Bodo knot. That, of course, is the result of its own strategies, like buying time or trying to find immediate solutions that lack a long-term vision. Factions in the NDFB are increasing and the split in the NDFB (R) - the new NDFB faction is headed by IK Songbijit, a Karbi youth – has caused more violence and mayhem,  drawing the Centre’s attention to the Bodo conflict theatre. Besides, the Songbijit faction is awaiting legitimacy by getting a possible invitation to talk peace. After the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council in 2003, it was expected that more autonomy may be offered to the NDFB. The question here is: what remains to be negotiated with either of the NDFB factions if the Government is considering a separate Bodoland state by conceding to the demand of the mainstream Bodo groups? What will happen to the BTC Accord?

When Pramod Boro, the ABSU president, warned that the demand for Bodoland would not be compromised under any circumstances and threatened widespread protests in mid-March 2014, the Government took it seriously. To thwart possible violence during the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, the Government has formed an expert committee headed by former Home Secretary G K Pillai to study the viability of the demand for the creation of a separate state of Bodoland. However, the Committee has already faced fierce opposition by the ABSU and its allies on one hand and the non-Bodo organisations on the other.

The relative calm in Assam’s Bodo heartland, with the formation of the expert committee to examine the viability of the Bodoland state, is no cause for complacency. The Government of India’s tactic of buying peace may lead to a heavy price in the long-run, with the lack of any acceptable solution in hand to offer to all the parties in the dialogue process. Will the Government be able to bring all the Bodo groups on a common platform for talks and negotiations? That is the million dollar question.