Ethnic insurgencies in the Northeast are often desperate expressions of the desire for self-rule. It is a valid aspiration as long as it does not militate against national security and sovereignty. By amending the sixth schedule of the Constitution, the Lok Sabha has finally cleared the decks for the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council. The move should inspire hope not only for peace in a troubled area in Assam but also for economic uplift of one of the poorest regions in the entire Northeast. But laws are only instruments and it is up to the people’s representatives as to how they are used. The legislative and executive powers that the new council will have cover a wide area, ranging from land, education, health, forests and revenue to panchayat and municipal administration. The council should have little problem in reaching its benefits to the people, provided it has the will and the resources to do so. The enthusiasm for the BTC should, however, be tempered by the experience of the failure of the Bodoland Autonomous Council that had been set up in 1993 following an agreement between the Centre, the Assam government and the All Bodo Students’ Union. One reason for that failure was the feeling that the negotiations had ignored large sections of Bodo groups outside the ABSU.
That danger also plagued the Union and state governments’ recent talks with the Bodoland Liberation Tigers. Now that the constitutional barriers on the formation of the BTC have been removed, it is time that fresh attempts were made to involve the National Democratic Front of Bodoland in the whole process. Peace initiatives are never successful if the partners are chosen selectively. New Delhi’s peace talks with Naga rebels are a case in point. The negotiations with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim faction led by Mr Isak Swu and Mr Thuingaleng Muivah have not pleased the other group led by Mr S.S. Khaplang. Although the former faction is far more powerful than the latter, peace in Nagaland demands that the government take both into account. But the greater responsibility for making the BTC work will lie with its members themselves. Given the long and sad history of ethnic violence in the area, the tribal-majority council will have to ensure the security of non-Bodos living in the area. The law has kept some safeguards to this effect, but it may not work without the Bodos’ goodwill. The Bodos had long agitated for self-rule because they felt alienated from Dispur’s rule. It is up to them now to ensure that the minority non-Bodos do not feel the same under the BTC’s dispensation.