Ethnic Fault-Lines in Assam: A Separate Bodoland?

30 Apr, 2014    ·   4418

Leonora Juergens looks at the ‘territorialisation’ of ethnic identities

Leonora Juergens
Leonora Juergens
Research Intern
Prior to the third Phase of the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections on 24 April, Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi claimed that after prolonged agitations in Assam’s Bodo heartland, the situation had returned to normal. This was apparently due to the Congress’s achievements in the state. However, pre-poll violence in the Kokrajhar constituency coupled with fresh statehood demands for a separate Bodoland after the creation of Telangana prove that durable disorder prevails in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD). This is despite the ongoing peace negotiations with the pro-talk faction of the still active insurgent outfit of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) since 2013.

Previously, the government had signed two peace accords with the Bodos, which gave constitutional recognition to a virtual Bodo homeland in Assam: the BTAD. On 27 February 2014, the Union Government, with the support of the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), the ruling party of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), set up an expert committee to examine the viability of the statehood demand.

This recent move prompts the following questions: why did the 2003 Bodo Accord fail to reconcile ethnic tensions under the BTC? Why has the BTC not been able to address the conflicting demands of exclusive citizenship and land rights of minority groups in the BTAD? Could a separate Bodoland in fact be able to solve communalism in the BTAD?

Competition over Political Representation and Natural Resources
The BTAD, formed after the 2003 Bodo Accord, has no demographic profile of a major homogeneous Bodo population. However, a substantial proportion of seats in the BTC (30 of 46) are reserved for scheduled tribes (STs) – Bodos predominantly in this case. This gives political power to an economically disadvantaged group in the presence of a dominant majority of other backward classes (OBCs) like the Koch-Rajbonchi, Rabha, and Tiwas, who constitute over 73 per cent of the BTAD’s population and feel under-represented in the BTC. These fault-lines demonstrate the incongruity in its poly-ethnic social base and the demarcation of the territorial boundaries of the BTAD along ethnic-lines (ST status), which inevitably leads to competing claims over political representation and state resources.

Furthermore, the encroachment of forest land by illegal migrants from Bangladesh in the BTAD and their steady ingress into the political spheres of the BTC has created anxiety about socio-political marginalisation and economic deprivation. The Bodos’ continuous drive against Muslim settlers, as in the violent clashes in 2012, has been conceived as ethnic cleansing to substantiate their cause for a separate Bodoland. For a majority of the Muslim settlers, who constitute about 30 per cent of the electorate in the state and play a deciding role in the Lok Sabha constituencies (6 of 14), protection from harassment in the name of detection and expulsion of undocumented Bangladeshi migrants has been a dominant issue.

In January the NDFB (Progressive) contested the Congress’s initiative to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC)-List to include all foreigners on the 1971 voter list and their descendants as per the 1985 Accord. Arguing that the Accord would deny the indigenous tribal people of the state their exclusive right to land as per the 1886 Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, the NDFB instead demanded 1951 as the cut-off year for the identification and deportation of foreigners from Assam. The act restricts the possession of land and land transfer to ‘plains tribes’ and ‘hill tribes’ in the BTAD, while the 1985 Accord upholds ‘the existing rights and privileges of any citizen in respect of his land’. Thus, the 1886 Act has no effect on land encroachment by Muslim settlers.

A  Separate Bodoland: Is it a Solution?
The proposal for an expert committee on Bodoland has already backfired due to fierce opposition from the All Bodo Student’s Union (ABSU) and other non-Bodo organisations on the grounds of being inconclusive on a solution to their conflicting autonomy demands. Thus, without consent among the political stakeholders regarding a radical structural and territorial reorganisation of the BTC, conflict is prone to persist in the BTAD.

Rather than reorganising the political boundaries of the BTAD, an alternative formulation of the BTC is necessary in order to address the conflicting demands. Instead of the current model of majoriatrian politics in the BTC, the practice of consociational democracy could be better suited its multi-ethnic politico-administrative structure, as it would foster inter-ethnic cooperation and tolerance. Simultaneously, proportionality as the principal standard of representation would instil greater political participation and help protect minority interests, including the allocation of public funds and possibly a comprehensive reformation of land rights and the foreigners act. In the long-term, this could lead to the formulation of a natural federation in Assam and the ‘de-territorialisation’ of ethnic identity, leading to long-term peace.