Once again, Bodo areas in Assam are witnessing devastating violence. The killing spree started on 23 December and resulted in the death of nearly 78 people, many of them women and young children. The killing has been brutal with the adivasi community facing the brunt. The armed rebel outfit suspected to be behind the violence is the elusive National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit faction (NDFB-S). What can be inferred from the ground is that the NDFB-S lashed out at the adivasi villagers, suspecting them of providing intelligence to the Mahar Regiment of the Indian Army, which conducted a counter-insurgency operation on the NDFB-S camp in Chirang district along the Assam-Bhutan border that killed three NDFB-S cadres on 21 December.

To be sure, the faction has regularly attacked and killed people both from Bodo and non-Bodo ethnicities on suspicion of being police informers as it did in the case of the 16-year-old Bodo schoolgirl in Dwimugri village on the India-Bhutan border who was dragged out of her house, beaten and then shot to death by heavily armed NDFB-S militants in August.

While these are immediate causes, there are deep-rooted reasons why violence continues to recur in Bodo areas. For instance, the adivasi settlers, who were targeted this time, and the migrants, are perceived to be rapidly growing and thereby posing a threat to the Bodo community.

That the violence has recurred is therefore not surprising. A similar situation occurred in May during the Lok Sabha elections when 41 bodies were discovered in Baska and Kokrajhar districts. At that time, too, the NDFB-S was suspected to be the mastermind. Non-Bodos, including migrant Muslims, who constitute the majority, alleged then that their failure to vote for the Bodo People’s Front candidate Chandan Brahma in the general election resulted in the fatal retaliation. Muslims had propped up their own independent candidate, Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira Sarania, a former United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) rebel, in Kokrajhar. Sarania went on to win and ended up as the first non-Bodo to be elected to the Lok Sabha from the seat.

While complex, the causes of recurring violence can be ascertained.

First, the political empowerment of minority communities in the Bodo Territorial Area District (BTAD) in recent years has resulted in growing unease among the Bodo community. The fear is that non-Bodo communities will start dominating the political process as was seen in the election of Sarania.

Second, these political tensions have been aggravated by the perception in Bodo areas that illegal migration from Bangladesh is relegating the Bodos to a minority status in their own land. At present, the Bodos account for 29% of the population, followed by the Rajbonshis (15%), Bengali immigrants (12-13%) and Santhals (6%).

Third, the perception of massive illegal migration has generated a fear psychosis among the Bodo community that their ancestral lands will be illegally taken away by the migrants.

The lack of any reliable state data on the number of people coming in from Bangladesh into Assam stokes these fears only more.

Fourth, the inclusion of illegal migrants in the voters list is viewed as a conspiracy to empower an outside group vis-à-vis the Bodos so that the latter lose their sense of distinct indigenous identity. This has created a siege mentality among them.

Fifth, the existence of armed groups such as the NDFB-S, the Bisra Commando Force representing the Santhals, etc., further contributes to a situation of violence.

What is occurring in the BTAD areas is a frequently recurring pattern. Similar violence had occurred in the past. In 1993, the first large-scale massacre occurred when 50 migrants were killed in Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. In 1994, 100 migrants were killed in similar violence in the Bodo areas. And again in 1996, the Santhals, another minority community in the Bodo areas, were targeted by Bodos, leading to the massacre of 200 people and displacement of thousands. In 2008, Bodos-minority community violence killed 100 people and displaced nearly 2,00,000. In 2012, about 96 people were killed and 4,00,000 displaced during similar attacks.

One of the negative fallouts of the present situation in the BTAD areas has been the idea of an exclusive ethnic territorial homeland. The Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), as an ethnically-oriented territorial council, has failed to provide security to people other than the Bodos, whose lives were under severe threat.

The Bodo Accord of 2003 clearly stated that an autonomous self-governing body will be constituted, known as BTC, within Assam in order to “fulfil the economic, educational, and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land-rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos".

Despite these provisions, the Bodos continue to feel insecure about their land, ethnic identity and language vis-à-vis the minority communities.

On the other hand, minority communities like the Bengali Muslims, the Santhals, and the Rajbonshis feel insecure under a BTC clearly dominated by the Bodos. In terms of composition, the BTC has 46 seats, of which 30 are reserved for scheduled tribes (read Bodos), five for non-tribals, five are open to all communities and the remaining six seats are to be nominated by the governor of Assam from various communities. In practice, non-Bodos have not been able to assert their voice in the BTC, one of the perils of exclusive ethnically-slanted institutional representation.

That said, the sheer failure of law enforcement and counter-insurgency to secure peoples’ lives must be emphasized. The latest incident highlights this fact that it happened in spite of the NDFB-S warning that there would be retaliatory attacks in response to the ongoing insurgency operations. It is then clear that a solution to break this recurring pattern of violence will require addressing the deeper causes such as fear of land loss through effective land mapping, identifying zones of ungoverned spaces in the Assam-Bhutan border and in neutralizing the armed capability of the NDFB-S as well as its training camps in Myanmar.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.

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