Statehood Demands in India’s Northeast: Is Bodoland Justifiable?

20 May, 2014    ·   4455

Ruhee Neog looks at why a separate state is not a feasible prospect

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog

As anticipated, the creation of Telangana has had a destabilising domino effect on the rest of India. The most recent of these is the demand for a separate Bodoland to be carved out of Assam, which has intensified since the government announced its plans for Telangana in October 2013.

While such petitions normally fall on deaf ears, this time around the government has had to sit up and listen - it is election year and the agitations in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) show no signs of abating. In February 2014, therefore, an expert committee on the viability of a Bodoland state, under the stewardship of former Home Secretary GK Pillai, a former Northeast hand, was announced. The findings of this committee are expected to be submitted by November 2014.

The seemingly intractable violence in the BTAD and growing statehood demands beg two questions. How justifiable are the claims for a separate Bodoland? Is the formation of a new state viable?

Is the Statehood Demand Justifiable?
The demand for a separate state is being justified on the basis of protecting the indigenous population of the BTAD – this can be contested. Additionally, comparisons are being drawn with Telengana, which is unhelpful.

One of the major problems in the portrayal of the BTAD has to do with the simplification of categorisation. The Bodos have portrayed themselves as the most rightful representatives of the BTAD. The BTC (Bodoland Territorial Council) is predominantly Bodo, as per the provisions of the Bodo Accord of 2003, but the BTAD areas do not have a homogenous demographic profile. In fact, some villages of the BTAD are inhabited by a significantly larger number of non-Bodos than Bodos. Thus, the non-Bodo and Muslim communities feel under-represented at the BTC, and have recorded their displeasure at the inequity in distribution of resources and lack of administrative powers. In addition is the territorial nature of the problem, which creates artificial boundaries in a naturally heterogeneous state and links ethnicity to land, leading to competing claims.

To better understand the divisions within the BTAD, one need only look at the violent clashes since 2012 between Bodos and Muslims in the BTAD areas of Kokrakhar, Baksa, Chirang, and parts of Bongaigaon and Dhubri districts. It is not just with the Muslim community in the BTAD areas that conflict is known to have occurred. In the past, there have been clashes with Adivasis, as well as fratricidal killings among the Bodo community, which itself is highly fractured.

Two, another oversimplification is the ‘Bodoland, because Telangana’ argument. Assam has a very diverse ethnic make-up, consisting of both hills and plains tribes. Some of these have development councils, some have autonomous councils, and some within the previous two have voiced demands for a separate state. The Koch Rajbongshis desire their own state, Kamtapur, areas of which overlap with the current territorial demarcation of the BTAD. Thus, if Bodoland is granted, where will the buck stop?  

While Bodos continue to champion the Bodoland cause and profess to speak for all communities in the BTAD, the reality is the opposite. Since the Bodo Accord was signed, the BTC has allegedly become disproportionately strong and created a new class of political elites with whom the other communities feel disconnected and victimised by. A separate state will lead to the further strengthening of the Bodo semi-criminal political elite and intensify demands for the further carving up of Bodoland. In the effort to secure Bodo identity, how many other identities will be marginalised?

Is it Viable?
One, proactive governance in the BTAD is conspicuously absent; a charge that can be levelled against both the state government and the BTC. The BTAD is considered a critically under-developed area of Assam – the state government has been accused of neglecting the infrastructure development of the BTAD and deliberately concentrating power in the hands of a few. The BTC has been accused of chanelling funds intended for the BTAD into its own pockets. A new state will thus inherit an elite that may be averse to abandoning those patterns that have proved to be the most beneficial for them.

Two, even more power to Bodos will only serve to inflame the already aggrieved and under-represented non-Bodos, who will most likely take to more intense, perhaps violent, means of agitation. In such an event, tensions will never cease and the region will continue to be volatile, possibly even more so than it is now.

The government of the day may choose to rail against ‘illegal immigrants’ or set up committees to pacify aggrieved parties, but given these seemingly insurmountable challenges, it is unlikely that these acts are intended to move towards a conclusion that involves the granting of a separate state.