The widespread violence in Bodoland that began more than 10 days ago has, until now, left more than 50 people dead and created a massive displacement of over 2.5 lakh people. Such violence has occurred several times in the past, but what is most disturbing this time is the huge number of refugees requiring housing and civic amenities in refugee camps. More important, the result of this conflict is ghettoization, the transfer of the population on communal lines. Fearing more attacks and looking for shelter, the Bodos are moving towards the Bodo- majority district of Kokrajhar and the Muslims are heading towards the Dhubri district, where they are considered a majority. The conflict has raised several very complex issues. Both the government and civil society groups need to formulate these concerns with clarity, for it is only then that long-term answers will be found to make Bodoland secure and peaceful for all ethnicities and communities living in the region.
The history of violence can be traced back to the Bodoland movement of 1987. Some groups of the movement took up arms and went underground. Initially, the group indulged in localized violence against those who spoke Assamese, who were considered outsiders. It was only in 1993 that the first big massacre happened in the districts of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, where 50 people were killed, accused of being Muslims from Bangladesh. Soon after, in 1994, another 100 migrant Muslims were killed, and many of those displaced then are still living in camps. The most brutal conflict happened in 1996. This time the Santhals were the target. This violence killed over 200 people and led to a displacement of thousands of Santhals, many of whom are still living in camps. Subsequently, in 2008, there was a riot between the Muslims and Bodo tribals in Udalguri district which left over 100 people dead.
According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, more than 47,000 people displaced by Bodo-Muslim and Bodo-Santhal violence in the 1990s were staying in camps in the Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Chirang districts of Assam in November 2009. Also, almost 1,25,000 people displaced by Bodo-Muslim violence in 2008 were staying in camps in Darrang and Udalguri districts.
Before Independence, the British recruited and settled large numbers of Santhals in Bodoland from the Chotanagpur areas of present-day Jharkhand. They were brought to work on tea plantations and were given small pieces of land to build their houses. This was followed by an influx of Bengali-speaking Muslims who settled there and bought small pieces of land to practise agriculture.
The Bengalis started doing small jobs like selling vegetables, working as coolies and so on. Over the years, more arrived; these communities settled in the region and their population grew. The indigenous Bodo people soon felt not only outnumbered, but also prey to a growing perception that the settlers were taking over their shrinking access to land, resources and livelihood opportunities. The late 1970s and 1980s saw the aggressive emergence of the Assam movement, whose core argument was that that Assamese culture and economy were being taken over by Bangladeshi immigrants, who would soon make the Assamese population a minority.
The movement took a militant turn with the emergence of the United Liberation Front of Asom, which believed in armed confrontation to liberate Assam not only from the Bangladeshis but also from India. Insurgency soon became a profitable industry, with extortion, kidnappings and the sale of illegal arms being justified in the name of an independence movement. Several armed groups emerged in Bodoland. Like Ulfa, these too indulged in violence and other crimes in the name of identity and self-rule. They carried out the massacres in the 1990s. The most active among them was called the Bodo Liberation Tigers.
On February 10, 2003, after sustained negotiations between the government of India, the government of Assam and the BLT, the Bodoland Territorial Council was set up to govern four areas of the region. The BTC’s objective was to give a sense of autonomy and self-rule to the indigenous Bodo people and develop the region. The accord also had its political fallouts. The BLT disarmed and joined the Congress. The BTC also ushered in huge investments by the Centre and the state government for infrastructure and other development projects. These investments gave rise to two tendencies that, instead of resolving the conflict, added fuel to the fire. They created new job opportunities and attracted more immigrants. Also, corruption and leakages increased crimes like extortion and kidnapping and the circulation of small arms. The ex-militias of the disarmed BLT took full advantage of this.
The immigrants from the minority community turned for patronage to the newly formed party that claims to represent the cause of Muslims, the All India United Democratic Front. Now, both the AUDF and the local Bodo party are in alliance with the ruling Congress in Assam and at the Centre.
So what can be done to address such complex political, ethnic, communal and demographic issues in Bodoland and to ensure that such violence is not repeated? First, the government should acknowledge that given the long and porous border that Assam shares with Bangladesh, there are going to be immigrants who come to Bodoland in search of livelihood. It must be acknowledged that that these immigrants are an integral part of the economy of Bodoland. Until the government recognizes this, there will always be insecurity and distrust. Such distrust gives rise to rumours and violence and also allows legitimacy to those who want to exploit identity politics for short-term political games.
Second, steps are needed to start a process of reconciliation and trust building. Here the government should not only involve political parties and representatives of ethnic and community groups but also those civil society organizations that have been working with the people at the grassroots level. Also, a perception needs to be created that the state is unbiased and secular. Such a perception can only be created if those who have been displaced or killed are given justice by punishing the guilty, compensation given to the kin of those killed and a safe and dignified return for those displaced to their homes is ensured.