The Tripartite Bodo Agreement endeavors to fulfill political, social and economic aspirations. Will it be the new norm for bringing peace in NE India?
Bodoland, in the eastern state of Assam, India, has been home to a long-running insurgency. Located north of River Brahmaputra, it borders Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
This area came under British India after the defeat of Burmese Forces in the Anglo Burmese War of 1826 through the Treaty of Yandabo. Bodoland was insulated from external influence for centuries but saw its tribal culture and identity under duress with the beginning of the 20th Century due to illegal immigration and encroachments.
Amongst all the tribes in Assam, Bodos emerged at the forefront in initiating a movement for safeguarding their tribal rights and ethnic status. The Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) was formed by the Bodo tribal in 1966 whose primary demand was a separate Union Territory or state (Udayachal).
The movement gathered pace in the 1980s, as regional aspirations peaked spurred by the Assam agitation. In 1987, the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) under Upendra Nath Brahma renewed their demand for " Divide Assam 50-50". It demanded a separate state carved out of seven districts of Assam- Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, Udalguri, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, which had large Bodo inhabitants.
Post-1980s the movement took on a violent character with militant organizations emerging. The most prominent was the Bodo Security Force (BSF) which was formed in 1986 by Ranjan Daimary and later became the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Its demand was a sovereign Bodo homeland.
The Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF or BLT) was founded in 1996 by Prem Singh Brahma. In 2005 its leaders joined the leaders of ABSU to form a political party called Bodo People's Progressive Front (BPPF) which demanded a separate Bodo State within the Indian Union.
In 1993, ABSU signed the first agreement with the Govt of India, which led to the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council. This council had limited political powers.
In 2003 a second accord was signed to form the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous self-governing body with 46 executive members. BTC was now renamed as the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) and included four districts- Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baska and Udalguri. BLT leader Hagrama Mohilary who led the talks became its first Chief Executive Member (CEM). Over 2500 cadre of BLT surrendered and were absorbed in CRPF.
In the latest Accord signed in January 2020, the BTAD has been rejigged and renamed as the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).
The Accord aims to resolve the complex problem within the ambit of the Indian Constitution and without partitioning Assam. Both NDFB and ABSU have eschewed their demands for a separate Bodo homeland or even a state/ union territory which has led to a substantial economic, social and political package.
The economic package of Rs 1500 cr will be released directly to the BTR by NITI Aayog over the next five years. There are promises for enhancing employment opportunities, especially in the police and armed forces. Recruitment of 5000 Bodo into the Armed Forces / CAPF and creation of a Borland Regiment in the Indian Army are also promised.
Recognizing the backwardness of region and lack of higher educational facilities, the Accord promises to fill this void. BTR will have a Central University, IIT, IIM, IIIT, AIMS, Sainik School and Army Schools in every district.
The most significant fallout is that it brings peace to the people and signals the end to a long-running insurgency which has cost almost 4000 lives. 1550 cadre of NDFB will surrender with their arms and warlike stores and will be granted a general amnesty.
Administratively, the geographical area of BTR has been extended to incorporate all the Bodo areas. It will have nine districts with five new ones created out of existing ones- Gossaigaon (out of Kokrajhar), Kokrajhar, Chirang, Manas (out of Baksha), Baksa, Bhergaon (out of Udalguri), Udalguri, Mainaosri (out of existing Sonitpur Dist), and Holongi (from Biswanath and Lakhimpur Dists).
BTR membership will be increased to 60, and the Accord promises the territory a seat in the Rajya Sabha. Bodos have been given the status of Scheduled Tribe (Hills) in addition to the existing Scheduled Tribe (Plains).
The inter-tribal rivalry continues to dominate the narrative, and there are dissenting voices. Bodos have been granted the Scheduled Tribe (Hill) status in addition to the existing Scheduled Tribe (Plains). This has drawn protests from other hill tribes in the region, like the Karbis and Dimasa, who say that this will 'infringe upon the rights' enjoyed by the other hill tribes.
As per Assam state agencies, the BTR population consists of about 30% Bodos, and the remainder is non Bodos- Asomiya Hindus, Koch-Rajbanshis, Muslims, Bengali Hindus, Adivasis, Nepalis, etc. The non-Bodo, who in the past supported the Union Government, are apprehensive about their future and marked the signing ceremony with a bandh call. The text of the agreement in its present form makes no mention of the 'citizenship' or 'work permit' of the non-domiciles.
- The Accord was drafted in close consultation with local activists and tried to meet all the aspirations. It has the potential to jump-start a peaceful era for the entire North Eastern India and act as the benchmark for ending other insurgencies in the North East. Once this is achieved, the North East will genuinely become the bridge between India and South East Asia.
- The devil is in the details and more importantly, in its implementation as per the agreed timelines. If delayed, it may give space to disgruntled elements to find a new cause to reignite the movement.
- The five-decade-old Bodo movement has seen the emergence of various interest groups. Although all of them have signed the agreement, there is the real danger of fallout once the fruits of the 60 members' BTR council are to be shared. The Central Govt has to remain engaged and ensure the Central funds do not become a source of a fresh round of in-fighting.
- Bodo is no longer the majority in the BTR as the non-Bodo outnumber them. The concerns of Non-Bodos with respect to property rights and domicile status also need to be addressed, now that the Bodo demands have been largely met or it will only keep this largely rural society on the boil.
- The agreement is silent on land ownership, which was in the first place, the trigger for the movement. Hopefully, the socio-economic package will compensate for this.