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A BITTER AND DEADLY GAME OF NUMBERS

Political power and the use of violence are usually linked — specially in areas where the ethnic balance is as tenuous and contested as in Assam. The state’s ethnic diversity, prompting many to call it a ‘mini-India’, has often led to huge tensions during elections. One can recall the 1983 Nellie massacre (and those of Gohpur and Chaulkhowa Chapori) during the controversial state assembly elections that year which all Assamese and tribal groups supporting the ‘anti-foreigner agitation’ were boycotting. Alienation of tribal land may have been the underlying factor behind the massacre, but the election provided the spark for the Lalung tribesmen attacking the Muslims, who were seen as defying the call to boycott the vote.

The Bodo rebel groups have been attacking various non-Bodo communities since 1993 when Hiteswar Saikia’s Congress government torpedoed an accord signed by groups agitating for a separate Bodo state and piloted by the late Rajesh Pilot. Saikia raised the issue that Bodos were not a majority in most villages that would fall under the proposed Bodoland Autonomous Council, which the 1993 accord sought to create. It is now well known that his administration engineered a non-Bodo platform to oppose the accord. It was left to a BJP government in Delhi to revive the negotiations to cut a deal with the Bodo Liberation Tigers in 2003 that led to the creation of an autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council and the BLT’s return to the ‘mainstream’.

The National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which wanted an independent Bodo homeland, continued the fight until it was decimated by factional feuds and the crackdown by Bhutan and Bangladesh, where its supremo, Ranjan Daimary, was arrested and handed back to India. The BLT reorganized into a political party and took control of the autonomous dispensation as an ally of the Congress, in power in both Dispur and Delhi for the last one decade. The power-sharing arrangement gave the Bodo party of former militants complete control of the autonomous area and a slice of power in Assam with some of them becoming ministers in the Tarun Gogoi government. Though a bitter factional battle raged between the Bodo factions, the ethnic divide subsided for a while.

The statehood for Telangana revived the Bodo movement for a separate state. Bodo factions and groups resentful of Hagrama Mohilary’s monopoly control over the autonomous region took to the streets for a separate Bodoland with some gusto. Mohilary, now the BTC chairman, was forced to support the demand even though his party remained in the tenuous alliance with the Congress. The Bodo push for a separate state raised worries amongst the non-Bodos, specially after the 2012 riots, in which Muslims of East Bengal origin were specially targeted by Bodo rebels.

Fast forward to the 2014 elections. The attacks on the Bengali Muslims by Bodo militants just after the polls was linked to the electoral dynamics of the Kokrajhar parliamentary constituency. Since this was the first time the Bodos knew that a non-Bodo candidate explicitly campaigning against a separate Bodo state had emerged as a front-runner in this constituency, the militants felt it necessary to start a terror campaign against non-Bodos opposing the formation of a Bodo state. Kokrajhar is at the heart of the Bodo country, the administrative headquarters of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Council. A victory for a non-Bodo candidate would bury the demand for a separate Bodo state. It was also apprehended that a non-Bodo winning the Kokrajhar parliamentary seat might undermine the autonomy arrangement that gives Bodos the monopoly of local power in an area where they are not a decisive majority but which clearly is their ancestral homeland.

Kokrajhar had three strong Bodo candidates — Assam’s transport minister and Mohilary’s comrade-in-arms Chandan Brahma as the candidate of the ruling Congress-BPF alliance, Urkhao Gwra Brahma as the candidate for the break-away BPPF and the former Meghalaya governor, Ranjit Mooshahary (also a former BSF and NSG chief) contesting on a Trinamul Congress ticket. But the former Ulfa commander, Naba Kumar Sarania, emerged as a front-runner as the candidate of the non-Bodo platforms that oppose a Bodo state. The Bodo vote was divided between these three Bodo candidates, one running on a ruling coalition ticket and the two others standing out on their personal profile. That split Bodo vote helped Sarania, the former commander of the Ulfa’s 709 battalion, win the Kokrajhar constituency by a huge margin of more than 3 lakh votes at a time the Modi wave swept aside the ruling Congress in the state.

Much as the BJP benefited from a consolidation of Hindu votes and the split of the minority Muslim vote in the state with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIAUDF — it won 7 seats while the Congress and AIAUDF won three each — spoiling the ruling party’s chance in many, the split of the Bodo vote and the consolidation of the non-Bodo vote helped Sarania trounce his Bodo opponents. With the polls to the Bodoland Autonomous Council not far away, Sarania’s victory could now spur non-Bodos to demand equal representation in the autonomous dispensation.

That would further upset not only the NDFB but also Hagrama Mohilary’s BPF by threatening the Bodo monopoly over local power structure and undermining the movement for a separate Bodoland. That threat of being reduced to ‘foreigners in our own land’ has prompted Bodo rebels to try ethnic cleansing in the past — and that might happen again.

But why have Muslims of East Bengal origin been specifically targeted since 2012? They have been attacked before by Bodo militants since 1993, but other non-Bodo groups — Santhals, Mundas and Oraons, and Bengali Hindus — have also been attacked. Since 2012, it is only the Muslims of Bengali origin who have faced Bodo militant attacks. The adivasis are much better organized now and any attack on them will provoke reactions from Bihar and Jharkhand and create ripples in national politics. The Muslims of East Bengal origin can be written off as ‘Bangladeshis’ to give legitimacy to the violence against a community that is now the favourite whipping boy of all indigenous communities in Assam. During the 2012 ethnic violence in western Assam, the Bodos’ pitching against illegal infiltration were supported by Assamese groups like the All Assam Students Union, which has its own anti-infiltration agenda since the 1979-85 agitation.

But as the Bodo groups resumed their movement for a separate state carved out of Assam, the ethnic Assamese groups turned against them and did not oppose the issue of photo-identity cards to the Muslim voters in western Assam who were earlier dubbed by them as Bangladeshis. Some of these Muslims have taken the government to court mounting a legal challenge to the inclusion of their villages in the Bodoland Autonomous Council on grounds that there is no Bodo in their village.

Now the Bodo groups might find greater encouragement in Narendra Modi’s pre-poll rhetoric against illegal migration from Bangladesh to go after the Muslims of East Bengali origin. But Modi as prime minister and his party having won the largest number of seats in Assam for the first time, and will have to confront the challenge of dealing with a higher level of Bodo violence. The BJP cannot support the Bodo movement for a separate state, because that will upset the Assamese who have largely voted for the BJP. That and the loss of the Kokrajhar parliament seat to a non-Bodo candidate campaigning against a Bodo state may provoke more Bodo militant violence.

Ironically, ethnic Assamese groups are now having to fight for Assam’s unity by pitting the very ‘Bangladeshis’ on the line of Bodo fire, who they have always wanted to be thrown out of Assam. They find it difficult to oppose the anti-infiltration rhetoric of the Bodo groups but have to oppose their bid for a separate Bodoland.

This swift change of ethnic alliances would remind one of the Lebanese civil war, when some groups fighting alongside one another in the morning would turn against one another in the evening because leaders had decided to move out on one alliance and join another. Ethnic reconciliation is the only hope in Assam for keeping in one piece whatever is left of the once-large state. The warring Lebanese factions finally sorted out the differences leading to the long civil war, which turned their country from the nightclub of the Middle East to its nightmare. If this is any indication, Assam will need something like Lebanon’s smart power-sharing arrangements to prevent a cycle of violence that threatens its future. Electoral democracy is a game of numbers that often generates bitter conflict in places like Assam or Lebanon. It is often the problem and rarely the solution.