Children of fire: Mainao Narzary (left) with fellow archers; Pic: Sonia Sarkar
The ball soars in the air and lands on Fwidan Basumatary’s chest. He drops it, lets it bounce and kicks it high. The 16-year-old Bodo boy of Titaguri in Assam’s Kokrajhar district plays a mean game. It also keeps his mind off death.
All around him, villages have turned to ashes. At least 57 people have been killed and over four lakh displaced in violence between Bodos and Muslims in Dhubri and the four districts of the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) — Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa.
“My family members have shifted to a relief camp. I feel helpless but football helps me keep my equilibrium,” says Basumatary, who was in the Indian team that took part in the Asian Football Confederation U14 Festival in Iran last year.
A few metres away, another international player — 18-year-old Minu Basumatary, a pugilist of Chirang’s Bandaguri region — is hitting the heavy bag hard. “Boxing helps me channel my energy in a positive way,” says Minu, who won a gold medal at the first AIBA Youth and Junior Women’s World Championship in Turkey last year.
Clearly, a different kind of fire has touched the hearts of Bodoland’s young men and women. Take Rupjyoti Brahma Karjee of Kokrajhar’s Dotma village — the first Bodo to join the Indian Foreign Services in 35 years. Karjee was selected for the elite services this year, six years after ambassador Upendra Chandra Baro retired.
“He used to study in a local government school but when the system collapsed in the late 1980s, we moved him to a missionary school,” says his mother Himani Brahma Karjee, a clerk at the public health engineering department. He later studied in Shillong’s St Anthony’s College and then went to Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University for postgraduation.
For the roughly 11 lakh Bodos of the region, locally called Bodoland, life has always been tough. “It is the most underdeveloped part of Assam. Only some Bodos move out to pursue higher studies. A large number remain illiterate,” says Monirul Hussain, professor of political science, Gauhati University.
A demand led by the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) for statehood brought life to a standstill in the late 1980s. “Students studying outside were called back to join the movement. Violence and disruption jeopardised the future of many,” says Shekhar Brahma, registrar, Bodoland University, Kokrajhar.
But in recent years — in times of tenuous peace — youngsters have been looking at ways to make a mark for themselves. A natural ability in games has helped them carve a niche in sports. “Local clubs spot talented youngsters, most of whom come from poor families,” says Kokrajhar district sports association general secretary Sarada Prasad Paul. “The first attraction for them is the free food and lodging that the Sports Authority of India offers, but they have the zeal to create a name for themselves.”
Three other promising Bodo footballers — Milan Basumatary, Situ Basumatary and Kapil Boro from Kokrajhar — are being trained at the All India Football Federation’s regional academy for the under-16 team in Mumbai. They were also selected by Manchester United for training in Pune this year.
In boxing, Minu has company. Pwilao Basumatary of Chirang won the bronze in the Turkey meet. Of the eight Indians who took part in the games, five were Bodo girls.
These, many believe, are extraordinary achievements for the region has been troubled for over two decades. Though the first tripartite agreement was signed by the ABSU, the Centre and the Assam government in 1993, paving the way for the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council and the suspension of the statehood movement, ABSU revived the movement in 1996.
Then, after the erstwhile militant outfit Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) launched an armed struggle for statehood, the Bodo Accord was signed by the BLT with the Centre and Assam in 2003. A Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was created for the administration of BTAD.
Many of the former members of BLT are now back in the mainstream, and seeking to make a life for themselves. Among them is Bijoy Choudhury, who has started an NGO called Manas Sousi Khongkor Eco Tourism Society in Baksa district. “Guns have failed to bring any change. We have to look for positive ways of progress and development,” Choudhury says.
Bhuma Rani Borgayary agrees. Borgayary — who returned to Kokrajhar to work as an assistant information officer at BTC’s tourism department after working in travel agencies in Mumbai for five years — believes tourism could help the young find jobs and develop the area. “The onus is on us to promote the region in all possible ways,” she says.
Dominic Basumatary of Chirang’s Bengtol village, who did his postgraduate degree in social work from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss), is another example of a local boy who’s returned home to do his bit for the people.
In 2006, he set up a school called the Centre for New Learning, which seeks to give quality education to children of all communities. “It is learning through activities such as gardening, paddy cultivation, theatre and dance,” he says.
The son of a daily wage earner, Dominic studied in Don Bosco LP school in Bengtol. He graduated in history from St Anthony’s College — after his academic achievements prompted the college authorities to waive his fees. Dominic was studying social work in Chennai when the ABSU urged Bodo students to return home and join the movement. He did, but was unhappy. “I didn’t want to be a part of a movement that I found meaningless,” he says.
In 1991, Dominic sat for the Tiss entrance test. “It was like a do or die situation for me. My future would have been doomed if I hadn’t cleared it.” But he cleared it — and after working with an NGO, he is now teaching young students. ABSU president Pramod Boro believes a lot has to be done to give Bodo youngsters a level playing field. “Our youth has potential but Bodo society and the administration have never helped them excel,” Boro holds.
Many of those growing up in the 1990s lost a chance to study because of insurgent movements. Now efforts are being made to boost education. “It’s our priority,” says BTC’s deputy chief Kampa Borgoyari.
The progress is slow. Since BTC came into existence nine years ago, only three major institutions have come up in the region. The Central Institute of Technology was set up in 2006, Bodoland University in 2010 and the Bineswar Brahma Engineering College in 2011.
But those living on hope believe they have a future. “One day, we want to represent Bodoland as a separate state at the national level,” says archer Mainao Narzary, who won a gold medal in the Asian Grand Prix in Dhaka last year.
“At least 60 per cent of players in all sports teams of Assam are Bodos. A separate Bodoland team will boost the confidence of the players and bring more trophies.” says Mano Kumar Brahma, sports and youth welfare executive member of BTC. But a trophy is not all that the young Bodos are looking for. What they want even more is lasting peace.