Managing Ethnic Conflict: Lessons from the Bodo Experience

09 Nov, 1999    ·   284

Sanjay Kumar Gupta asserts that only constitutional reform or genuine autonomy can forestall future violence in the North East

The North Eastern part of India , which has often been mired in ethnic conflict over the question of one ethnic tribe trying to dominate the other or forcing its language or culture on another tribe, has caused ethnic strife. With the passage of time ethnic strife has translated into political movements demanding, initially, autonomy and in some extreme cases separation from the Indian State . But such ethnic conflicts have their roots in specifics historical circumstances. This kind of ethnic consequences and ethnic identify formation has provided a potent platform for waging war with the state.



The present article is an attempt to understand the ethnic autonomy movements in the North East with some emphasis on the Bodo problem. The article also looks for the probable solution to end such ethnic conflicts through constitutional reform by taking some lessons from the past. In fact, many academicians, intellectuals and politicians have stressed the need for a fresh look at the Constitution of India to look for solutions of such conflicts through constitutional reforms. They argue that by reforming and amending some-parts of the Constitution a member of objectives could be achieved and problems.



Different ethnic groups have been demanding autonomy (Karbi's Kacharis in Assam ) or creation of separate states (I.E. Bodos). The Bodo movement is mainly against the Assamese whom they think, are trying to establish their hegemony through cultural and linguistic domination. The imposition of Assamese language as a compulsory subject in the state services and in the school curriculum was taken as the manifestation of such hegemony. The Bodos are the single most numerous indigenous ethnic community in Assam . The All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU), which led the Bodo movement initially, built a wide Front of Bodo forces. Their concept of 'homeland state' elaborated by ABSU and United Tribal Nationalist Liberation Front (UTNLF) implied the status of union territory within the federation of India for the tribals residing in the plains of Assam . But this demand was later upgraded to separate statehood. Demands were also made for further creation of district councils under the provision of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. There was no trace of violence or insurgency at the time these movements started.



The Bodo Accord of 1993 was signed between the Assam Government (AGP), the Bodo leaders and the Union Congress government. The Accord did not concede to either a state or union territory to be carved out of Assam . Instead it provided for a statutory structure of autonomy within the state of Assam in the form of Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). The council was equipped with its own legislative and executive organs. But the protective provisions made by the Congress government at the Centre did not help them and the AGP rule in Assam made the situation worse. The post Accord experience was disappointing. The ruling Congress party at the Center failed to reciprocate the confidence of Bodo leaders in federalizing institutions for autonomy within the state. Vital provisions of the accord were violated. And as a result the movement took a violent turn.



The northeastern part of India consisting of seven states has witnessed several ethnic movements at various points of time. Such ethnic movements and other issues combined by political evolution and development have led to demands of autonomy and separate statehood and often independence as well. The federal government, in turn, trying to put an end to such ethnic movements used military force and other kind of suppressions through state apparatus. But after a prolonged period, it allowed the creation of autonomous district council, reorganized the state boundaries and created new states. In spite of all this, the whole region is in the process of a complex multi-faceted transition with an inter-play of outsiders, foreigners, sons of the soil and tribal forces that have been still producing ethnic conflict, insider-outsider confrontation, trauma and tragedy. 



Constitutional accommodation and reform had been seen as more viable solution to such movements and conflicts than temporary arrangements and suppression from the state. In the past, astute political management and constitutional accommodation have harmonized much diversity, despite visible turbulence and confrontation. The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution already provides special protection to the people of Hill regions. The Mizo Accord signed in 1982 and Bodo Accord (1993) appeared to satisfy the demands and needs of the indigenous people but gradually failed to respond properly. 



If such genuine autonomy is not granted, there would be more violence in such regions and this will only hamper the growth of a peaceful civil society. Another way of meeting such demands is through constitutional reform under Sixth Schedule and also by creating and reviving institutions that can facilitate growth and security of the ethnic tribes. This will not only help in maintaining and managing cultural diversity of India but also its integrity.