Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD), particularly the districts of Kokrajhar and Baksa, have made it once again to the front pages of newspapers, not for any other reason, but the recurrence of ethno-religious violence after being relatively calm for the past two years. It might seem as if the attacks have been sudden, but the fast-developing political atmosphere during the ongoing Lok Sabha election had given clear indications that there was a near-polarisation among the voters along ethnic lines — between the Bodos and the non-Bodos living in the region — to the disadvantage of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which has 10 MLAs in the Assam Legislative Assembly and is the ally of the ruling Congress party in the state.
Unlike the previous years, this time the BPF was not sure that it can bag the majority of votes from the Bodo community and hence was depending all the more on the non-Bodo votes. This intention became quite clear when the BPF jettisoned its incumbent MP and selected a sitting Assam minister as its candidate because he was supposed to find more acceptance among non-Bodos.
However, to the BPF’s disadvantage, this arithmetic went quite off the mark due to the emergence of a powerful non-Bodo independent candidate — Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira Sarania — a former militant of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), who had come overground during the Centre’s negotiation process with the Arabinda Rajkhowa faction of the rebel outfit. Sarania has the support of an umbrella organisation of non-Bodos.
While talking to the media, a leading female member of the BPF, who is also an MLA, expressed the apprehension of her party, and it was widely reported. But it will be premature to say that it was her utterance that became the immediate trigger for the attacks. There is no doubt that ethnic polarisation had already created a lot of tension during the process of the election, not only politically but also socially. There was a strong possibility that depending on the outcome of the election, the political atmosphere would have been heated and might have led to clashes or attacks and counter-attacks. But it simply does not make sense that the BPF would make pre-emptive strikes before the results were announced and soon after one of their front-ranking leaders had expressed dismay in a very indiscreet manner. Such a move would not give them any political gain unless their leaders are foolhardy.
On the other hand, we should not lose sight of the fact that a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) is still very active and has been involved in many violent incidents as a part of their insurgency in the quest for a “sovereign Bodoland”. Past records show that their parent organisation had undertaken programmes of ethnic cleansing on many occasions, targeting non-tribal communities, and the existing faction’s sole aim is to achieve tribal homogeneity by driving out the non-tribals in order to silence opposition to their demand for independence.
There are two other issues that have contributed to the strain developing between the ethnic Bodos and the non-Bodos. After the Central government conceded Telangana as a new state carved out of Andhra Pradesh, it acted as a remote trigger for the revival of the demand for a Bodoland state and made it an emotionally charged issue. But with the formation of an expert committee to look into this demand, there is no immediate tension on the issue.
The other issue, which is a source of frequent tension, is that of the infiltration of Bangladeshis, and the entire immigrant community deemed Bangladeshis in popular perception suffers from the phenomenon of undesirable ‘otherness’. Even other non-Bodos often refuse to accept their bona fides as Indian citizens and frequently dub all immigrant Muslims to be illegal infiltrators, without making any distinction between the older immigrants and the illegal immigrants who entered the country after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971.
This issue has the potential to cause serious communal tension if a drive is undertaken to detect and expel the illegal migrants, particularly since the minority organisations deny any infiltration and might be preparing for resistance. However, there is no build-up on this issue at present that could suddenly blow up into a serious crisis. It is only a potentially disturbing scenario that may cause ethno-communal riots in the future, depending on the political developments.
In my reading, the cause for the current violence has arisen neither over the Bodoland state demand nor over the infiltration issue. These attacks have been made on the immigrant community because they are perceived to be the undesirable ‘other’ and are seen as the first group to be targeted by those who want to remove the obstacles towards achieving a goal that concerns ethnic aspirations.
Despite the minority groups’ recent preparedness in dealing with ethnic attacks, the insurgents take them as soft targets, and have on many previous occasions managed to surprise them by attacking unexpectedly, particularly when the security forces’ vigilance was slack. The security forces maintained tight vigil during the election process, but it seems they lowered their guards after the tension-filled election was over. The insurgents took advantage of the gap in the vigilance by security forces and mounted indiscriminate attacks.
It is possible that the attacks were planned to be executed only after the announcement of the election results, but was advanced to divert the attention politically to the BPF once the party’s MLA made the indiscreet public utterance. Had the plan been executed after the announcement of results, even then the needle of suspicion would have been diverted to the BPF. On the other hand, some cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), who are supposed to live in the designated camps, move around freely with their weapons, and the involvement of some of them in the violence is also a distant possibility. They have been acting as musclemen for the BPF leaders, who exercise little effective control on them. If the investigation leads to them, it will cost the BPF politically and its alliance with the ruling Congress will come to naught. But the possibility of the NDFB’s involvement is stronger.
The BTAD areas have been the most sensitive areas in Assam, both communally and politically, for quite some time and their security environment has always remained brittle. Yet not much thought has been given to making any structural changes in the security set-up. With a terrain that makes communication difficult and a badly fragmented social fabric, these vulnerable areas need to be brought under more intensive cover by opening more police posts with high mobility and communication equipment. A rapid deployment force dedicated to deal with the type of violence that plagues the BTAD may also be thought of.
Plenty of illegal arms are in circulation and are used not only by the insurgents but also by the surrendered groups. As long as these arms are in circulation, the security threat will remain. It is time that special drives are conducted to seize such illegal arms.
The state government is mulling the idea of providing licensed arms to the vulnerable community. This is an ill-conceived idea. Such arms will not be effective against the sophisticated weapons used by the insurgents. They are likely to be snatched away by such groups or may even get passed on to criminal elements. It is, after all, the state government’s responsibility to ensure the people’s security and it cannot be left to some ill-organised civil group in an environment like that of the BTAD.