Where insurgency ends, politics begins. Yes, this is what the new Bodo accord signed in New Delhi on Monday is bringing to Assam’s Bodo heartland, besides, of course, large incentives like more legislative, executive, administrative and financial powers to the newly-named autonomous area, Bodoland Territorial Region.
The deal was signed by all four insurgent factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the United Bodo People’s Organisation (UBPO), a civil society body, besides the Central and Assam governments. Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal, state finance minister and BJP top gun Himanta Biswa Sarma, and existing Bodo Council chief Hagrama Mahilary signed as witnesses.
Without much hesitation, one can now say the curtain has come down on insurgency in Assam’s Bodo heartland, with all four NDFB factions signing the peace agreement. An estimated 1,550 NDFB rebels are to formally lay down arms in the next few days, before the NDFB factions disband. The other Bodo insurgent group, Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), had already signed a peace accord in 2003. The 2003 accord saw the transformation of the BLT into a political party called Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), headed by Hagrama Mahilary, which has been in power in the Bodo Council for the past 17 years without a break.
Despite the 2003 agreement, the demand for a separate Bodo state outside Assam continued to be raised by several frontline Bodo groups, including the ruling Bodo People’s Front (BPF), an ally of the BJP in the state, as well as all rebel NDFB factions, besides the area’s apex students’ group ABSU. Government leaders are now saying with the signing of the new Bodo pact, the demand for a separate Bodo state has been shelved. Home minister Amit Shah, for instance, has said with the new Bodo deal, Assam’s further dismemberment has been prevented. Himanta Biswa Sarma has said the demand for a separate Bodoland state now no longer exists.
Let’s take a look at what the new accord itself says on the issue: “…Negotiations were held with Bodo organisations for a comprehensive and final solution to their demands while keeping intact the territorial integrity of the State of Assam.” Since the accord has made it clear Assam’s territorial integrity will remain intact, there is no question of its dismemberment to carve out any other state, including a Bodo state. On Tuesday, one of the signatories, NDFB leader Gobinda Basumatary, told this writer that since most of the powers and aspirations of people seeking a separate state have been provided for in the new Bodo accord, there is no need any more to demand a separate state.
This could well be the stated position, but on the eve of the signing of the accord, Bodo Council chief Hagrama Mahilary described as “unfortunate” the commitment by the NDFB groups and ABSU to give up the separate Bodo statehood demand. Such a statement by Mr Mahilary, who heads the BPF, is not surprising as in the days ahead, unlike in the past 17 years that it has been ruling the council, there is likely to be political competition which his party has to withstand.
We shall talk about what the new Bodo accord has brought for the area and its people a little later, but what it has immediately altered is the political dynamic in the Bodo heartland. If NDFB faction leaders now decided to join hands with an existing political party, United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), that had backed these groups, or float a new political party and jump into the council elections scheduled in a few months’ time, the BPF is bound to face competition. Gobinda Basumatary also told this writer on Tuesday that the groups which signed the new accord may not form a new political party but join an existing one which has been supporting their cause. He obviously referred to UPPL, now led by former ABSU leader and former MP U.G. Brahma.
Therefore, it’s clear that unlike in the past, the Bodo Council, now renamed BTR, is set to witness a turf war or a political battle for supremacy among political parties or formations. And, in this backdrop, it was not surprising to find Mr Mahilary saying it was unfortunate the signatories were giving up the Bodoland state demand. Perhaps, it is his way of repositioning his old party, BPF, for the political battles ahead and staying relevant.
But will the Assam BJP’s key ally, the Mahilary-led BPF, give up so easily? Unlikely, because the BPF has been in power for the past 17 years in a row, not just with the BJP as an ally, but with the Congress before that. However, with ABSU already going ballistic against the BPF and calling for a change in the political setup ruling Assam’s Bodo areas, the battle in the coming council polls is going to be tough. Besides, the fight in the 12 Bodo-dominated Assembly seats will also be interesting in the 2021 elections.
What does the accord provide? Apart from more legislative, executive, administrative and financial powers, the BTR will now see an exchange of villages. A commission headed by a retired judge will be set up to work out a mechanism for inclusion of villages with a majority tribal population into the BTR, those villages not included earlier in the Bodo Council. Similarly, villages with a majority non-tribal population currently under the Bodo Council will be excluded from the council. From 40 seats, the BTR Council will now have 60 seats. After the areas within the Bodo Council are altered, the government could consider reorganising the districts.
Other significant provisions of the new accord is the decision to set up a Bodo-Kachari Welfare Council for “focused development” of Bodo villages located outside the Bodo Council area, and declaring the Bodo language in Devnagri script as an associate official language of Assam. Besides, measures for protection of the Bodo language and culture and setting up several institutions of higher and technical education have also been provided in the accord.
The question now is whether the new Bodo Accord could serve as a template for arriving at solutions to other ethnic uprisings or movements in the Northeast. For example, Bodos living in areas far away from the Bodo contiguous belt could now receive benefits under the Bodo-Kachari Welfare Council. Will Nagas living in Manipur, Assam or Arunachal be covered for development benefits under such a non-political welfare body as part of the forthcoming Naga peace deal?