Assam: BTAD: Promising Peace

The Assam Government has constituted a five-member Commission to look into the issue of the alteration of the boundary of the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) Districts. The Commission, headed by former Chief Secretary P.P Verma, will submit its recommendations within six months from the date of notification.

The September 28 notification issued by State Commissioner and Secretary (Home and Political department), read,

In pursuance of Clause 3.1 of the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed on January 27, 2020, by the Government of India, Government of Assam, All Bodo Students’ Union, National Democratic Front of Bodoland, the Governor of Assam has constituted a commission under Paragraph 14 of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution for the alteration of the area of BTAD.

The Commission will examine issues concerning the inclusion and exclusion of villages on the basis of ethnic composition and contiguity to BTAD. The tribal majority areas will be included and majority non-tribal populations will be excluded from the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) when it is formed.

On January 27, 2020, the Union Government and State Government signed a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) with representatives of the four factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and civil society groups – the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and United Bodo People’s Organization (UBPO). According to the MoS, the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) with greater legislative, executive, and financial powers, will replace the existing BTAD.

Notably, the hastily signed February 20, 1993, 1st Bodo Accord collapsed on account of the lack of well-defined boundaries.

Subsequently, the 2nd Bodo Accord with the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) was signed on February 10, 2003. BTAD, which extends over an area of 8,970 square kilometers in the four Districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, came into existence on October 31, 2003. Subsequently, the Bodoland Territorial Council was formed on December 7, 2003.

The area administered by the BTC has a population of 3,155,359 and the major ethnic groups residing in BTAD are the Bodos, Assamese, Bengalis, Koch-Rajbongshis, Rabha, Garo, Adivasis (descendants of tribals from the Central Indian States of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Odhisa), Muslims and Nepalese.

Unfortunately, the creation of BTAD did eliminate the violence in the area. A total of 607 fatalities (277 civilians, 21 Security Force personnel and 303 militants) have been recorded in the BTAD region since its creation. Though the violence declined in recent times due to Security Forces’ action in India as well as in Myanmar – where Indian Insurgent Groups find safe haven – grievances remain alive.

However, in 250 days since the signing of the latest Bodo accord on January 27, no militant-linked fatalities have been reported from the region. In the preceding corresponding period, the region had recorded four fatalities (all terrorists) including two reported days before the signing:

January 15, 2020: Indian Army in an encounter killed a militant of the Saoraigwra faction of NDFB (NDFB-S), Jwel Narzary, in the Deka Damra area of Kokrajhar District.

January 5, 2020: Security Forces killed NDFB-S militant Sansula Basumatary alias B. Sotbangsa, near the Dwimalupara village in Chirang District.

1,615 cadres of four factions of the NDFB surrendered arms at a ceremony held in Guwahati in Kamrup (Metro) District. Those who surrendered included 836 from the Dhiren Bodo faction of NDFB (NDFB-DB) and the Gobinda Basumatary led-Pro-Talks faction (NDFB-PTF); 579 from the Ranjan Daimary faction of NDFB (NDFB-RD); and 200 from NDFB-S.

Crucially, these surrendered militants deposited just 178 weapons and 4,803 rounds of live ammunition. It was believed that illegal weapons were held back for the future, either for resurrecting rebellion or using them to influence forthcoming BTC elections.

Indeed, according to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 23 incidents relating to arms recovery were reported from the four BTAD Districts since the signing of the Bodo Peace Accord on January 27. According to reports, the Assam Police recovered 50 AK Rifles, three HK Rifles, two SLRs, four INSAS rifles, two LMG/MMGs, 30 pistols/revolvers, 4,039 rounds of ammunitions, 219 hand grenades, one rocket launcher, six mortar shells, one wireless set, 206 detonators and 22 kilograms of explosives from four BTAD Districts since January 27, 2020 (till October 4).

Moreover, after the signing of the peace accord, former NDFB-DB chairman Dhiren Bodo and NDFB-S ‘general secretary’ Ranjit Basumatary alias B.R. Ferenga joined the former All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) President Pramod Boro-led United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL). UPPL is contesting these elections against the incumbent Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland People’s Front (BPF).

BTC elections, due since April 4, 2020, were indefinitely deferred due to the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). After the end of its five-year term on April 27, 2020, BTC is currently being administered by the Governor.

Worryingly, the increased political competition combined with availability of illegal arms could create a space for violence by opposing groups in their bid to gain power.

Meanwhile, non-Bodo groups remain apprehensive about the January 27, 2020, MoS.

On February 16, 2020, non-Bodo villages under the aegis of O-Boro Suraksha Samitee, (Non-Bodo Protection Committee) organized a massive rally at Goreswar in Baksa District, demanding the security of land, political, economic, language and cultural rights of non-Bodo people in the future BTR. Asom Jatiyabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad president Biraj Kumar Talukdar stated,

We welcome the BTR Accord but the government must listen to us. The Government should not execute any clause of BTR Accord without first excluding the non-Bodo villages from BTR Accord.

The All Assam Koch-Rajbongshi Students’ Union (AKRSU) has said it cannot accept the BTR. On September 27, 2020, Hiteshwar Barman, Chief advisor of AKRSU, alleged

The foundation of the conspiracy to root out the historic Koch-Rajbongshis was laid in 2003 when the [then] BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]-led Central government signed the BTC Act with the BLT (Bodoland Liberation Tigers) ignoring the wellbeing of the Koch-Rajbongshis. On January 27, 2020, the Central government signed the BTR agreement with the NDFB and other Bodo groups, also ignoring the Koch-Rajbongshis and 73 per cent non-Bodos living in the BTAD. The government signed the BTR agreement without securing land rights, political rights, economic rights, educational rights and social rights of the Koch-Rajbongshis, Adivasis, Santals, Nath-Jogis and other indigenous communities.

Similarly, minor militant groups that claim to represent Koch-Rajbongshi interest, such as the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), are trying to occupy the void left by the surrender of Bodo militants. In 2020, Police arrested eight KLO militants in the Chirang and Kokrajhar Districts of BTAD. Although the KLO now stands severely depleted, there is a need for constant vigil as armed groups have taken advantage of ethnic antagonisms in BTAD. BTAD witnessed several instances of ethnic violence in the year 2008 , 2012 , and 2014 .

Peace in the BTAD region has been achieved at a great cost. It is necessary to ensure that the forthcoming elections are held in a peaceful environment. The signing of the peace accord does not mean the end of violence, as ethnic antagonisms survive and the accord has left many issues un-addressed. The complex issue of inclusion and exclusion of tribal and non-tribal villages, respectively, in the proposed BTR, will need careful and sensitive handling. Otherwise, the accord could potentially lead to the renewal of the demand for a separate State of Bodoland, even as ethnic and militant strife revives.