After two years of strained relations and war of words following the 2012 ethnic riots in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) finally snapped its ties with the ruling Congress in Assam on 26 June.
The riots had created distrust between Bodos and non-Bodos living in the BTAD and the region has remained a hotbed of ethnic killings, kidnappings and extortions. While the Congress government was blamed for being indifferent towards those living in the BTAD, the BPF was also held responsible for initiating the violence. Two senior BPF leaders, including MLA Pradeep Brahma, were arrested for possessing illegal firearms.
“We had allied with the Congress because we thought it would be beneficial for the development of BTAD, but in the past eight years, the Tarun Gogoi government has turned down our repeated pleas,” says BPF president Hagrama Mohilary. “As an ally, we had the right to be heard and helped, but we never got that respect from the Congress. We had no option but to leave the alliance because the safety and security of the people in BTAD is at peril. The responsibility is that of the state government and the ruling Congress. They have faltered because they like BTAD to burn. But the people were getting agitated with us because we were in alliance with the Congress.”
The BPF’s list of grievances is endless. For starters, BPF leaders allege that the Congress never gave its ministers important offices. They had demanded for a Relief and Rehabilitation Department, but it never materialised. Funds for the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) have remained static at 12.19 percent of the state’s budgetary allocation. They also wanted the UPA to make some amendments to the Bodoland accord, but in vain.
“The amendment was required in terms of Panchayati Raj and Sixth Schedule areas,” says Mohilary. “Initially, the BTC’s proposal was to form council development committees in lieu of Panchayati Raj. But the Congress government just sat on it.”
For the Bodos, 10 February 2003 was a red-letter day. That was the day when the Bodoland accord was signed by the then NDA regime at the Centre, the Congress government in Assam and the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF). The accord paved the way for the formation of the BTC, which administers the BTAD (Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri). Mohilary was sworn in as the chief executive member of the BTC, which was aimed at giving more autonomy to Bodos, the largest tribal group in Assam. The BLTF was soon disbanded and its top leaders took to politics by forming the Bodoland People’s Progressive Front (BPPF). In 2005, the BPPF suffered a vertical split with most of the rebel-turned-politicians taking Mohilary’s side to form the BPF, which swept that year’s territorial council election.
In the 2006 Assembly election, the BPF won 10 seats in the 126-member House. The Congress, which won 53 seats, took the BPF’s support to form the government and Gogoi retained the chief minister’s post. That was yet another landmark in Bodo politics given the fact that the main rhetoric of the tribal group had been the demand for the creation of a separate Bodo state. The Congress, which had tooth and nail opposed the idea of a separate Bodoland, had to take support from a Bodo party.
In the 2011 Assembly election, the Congress swept the polls winning 78 seats. The BPF also increased its tally to 12. The Congress did not need BPF’s support for forming the government, yet the alliance was kept intact. BPF’s Chandan Brahma was inducted into the Cabinet and made the transport minister. Gogoi himself said that the BPF should remain part of the ruling alliance as a token of gratitude for its help in 2006.
Results of the recent General Election became the trigger for snapping ties. In the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency, which was considered a BPF bastion, party candidate Chandan Brahma was defeated by Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira, an independent candidate supported by non- Bodos. Sarania is a former commander of the United Liberation Front of Assam. In the BTAD areas, non-Bodos are in a majority and the Lok Sabha result sent shivers down the spines of top BPF leaders.
“All this while, the BPF has remained non-committal on the issue of separate statehood for Bodos,” says Pramod Boro, president of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), which spearheads the separate Bodoland movement. “While the Assam government shows total apathy towards the BTAD, the BPF is part of the misrule. Lawlessness and corruption rule the roost. Now, with the creation of Telangana, the Bodoland movement will only intensify. So as to get back the Bodo votes, the BPF had no option but to leave the alliance with the Congress. But their faces have been exposed. The Bodos will not trust them.”
What Boro says does have weight given the fact that non-Bodos might put up independent candidates for the 2015 territorial council election in BTAD, and the BPF might find it hard to retain power because it faces strong anti-incumbency, even among Bodos. And that is precisely why the BPF has been pushing for implementing the Panchayati Raj Act within the BTAD areas so that it has something to show to the voters.
Leaders of the Congress, which enjoys a majority in the Assembly, see the BPF’s exit as good riddance. “If anyone wants to leave, how can I stop them?” asked Chief Minister Gogoi while talking to reporters in Guwahati. Ever since the Kokrajhar riots in 2012, a section within the Congress had wanted the leadership to snap ties with the BPF, but Gogoi was not keen on it. The split comes at a wrong time for Gogoi because he is facing strong dissidence. With almost half the Congress MLAs led by Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma turning against him, the high command is expected to take a final call on Gogoi’s fate any time soon.
The split is going to change the political equations in Assam. The BPF might look forward to an alliance with the BJP in the 2016 Assembly election.
That would a natural choice for the BPF because the Bodoland accord was signed when the NDA was in power at the Centre and the BJP is seen as being more sympathetic to the formation of smaller states. After winning seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam, the BJP is eager to woo tribal votes because the Hindu votes are already in its kitty.
But the polarisation could trigger the consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal. There are enough indications of a possible tie-up between the Congress and the AIUDF ahead of the 2016 Assembly election.