Harvest of Innocent Blood: The Democracy Deficit in Bodoland, Assam

Courtesy: PTI
Courtesy: PTI

Once again, and very soon after the last instance of mass killings and displacement, another series of bloodshed and violence has rocked Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) – Assam. On 21st December 2014, two suspected militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland- Songbijit Faction (NDFB-S) were killed by the security forces in an alleged cold blooded encounter in the Chirang district of BTAD-Assam. In retaliation, on 23rd December, armed militants of NDFB-S attacked Adivasi villages in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Sonitpur districts. Since then it has resulted in the death of 81 people – 73 Adivasis including many women and children as well as 3 Adivasis killed in police firing on protestors. As a mode of retaliation Adivasi mobs killed at least 8 Bodo civilians. Since 23rd December, the entire BTAD and adjoining areas like Sonitpur district have been extremely volatile and under curfew. On 25th December, the Home Minister Mr. Rajnath Singh, in a meeting with the top security top brass, which was also attended by the Assam chief minister Mr Tarun Gogoi, declared Government of India’s resolve to fight terrorism and reportedly asked the security and intelligence apparati to ensure the elimination of the top leadership of NDFB-S within the next six months. Around 50 additional companies of paramilitary forces are being sent to Assam. The Army has also reportedly launched major operations in the Assam-Arunachal border region, in search of the NDFB-S militants.

The NDFB-S massacre of Adivasi civilians is not a pre-modern tribal savagery. In fact such violence is justified by notions of exclusive ethnic-homelands and nations, and their corollaries like aspiration for spatial homogenization and monopolization of resources by particular communities. The Northeast of the country is home to many armed mobilisations against the domination of Indian state that are driven by an ethnic conception of political community in a contiguous territory. The Bodos of the Assam valley started an armed movement for Bodoland in 1980s against their marginalisation by the dominant non-tribal Assamese. Following the time tested carrot and stick policy, the Government of India managed to win over a faction of the armed groups in exchange for internal autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The BTAD was formed in 2003. Curiously, even while the majority of citizens under the BTAD area identify themselves as non-Bodos the distribution of seats under the BTAD agreement is so designed that Bodos enjoy majority in the elected body. While a faction of the Bodo leadership settled to run the BTAD, the seeds were sown for inter-ethnic clashes and violence.

Both Bodos and Adivasis are two of the most oppressed communities of Assam. The history of colonialism made them neighbours, just like the way Muslims of East Bengal origin became their neighbours in the early 20th century. All these communities have legitimate demands for political autonomy, but their rights have to be envisioned in such a way that they do not violate similar rights of other oppressed communities. It is precisely here that the democracy of India and its attendant institutional mechanisms have failed. Instead of creating space for a democratic dialogue between communities, which could have opened ways to resolve thorny issues between them, the security obsessed state in the Northeast, which looks at political problems primarily in terms of military solutions and opportunistic deals, creates ethnic polarization. It needs emphasis that the ordinary Bodo people have genuine democratic aspirations for greater political and economic autonomy. However, under the current political arrangements the legitimate aspirations of the Bodo people have been completely hijacked by power mongering among vested interests, which try to advance their politics at the cost of the rights of other ethnic groups. Hence, it has become a norm in the BTAD to pit ordinary Bodo people against similar non-Bodo people of the region.

The year 1996 saw extensive Bodo-Santhali riots, which left around 300 dead and displaced 2,00,000. Sixty thousand of those are still living in relief camps after eighteen years. Similarly between 2012 and 2014, there was another series of riots and violence, this time between the Bodos and Bengali speaking Muslims. In 2012 alone around 100 people, mostly Muslims were killed, and 400,000 displaced. At the heart of these riots lies the unresolved question of Bodoland: how to grant rights to the historically marginalised and dispossesed Bodos in Assam, so that the rights of other communities like the Adivasis and the Muslims of immigrant origins, who are even more marginalized, are not compromised? The problem is that political deals initiated by state are never substantial and end up satisfying none. On the one hand, since other communities are not taken into confidence and are kept outside of the whole process breeding further dissatisfaction, and on the other, even the ‘deal making organisations’ realize the futility of the arrangement and thus, the cycle of demand-making and arms-taking begins again. There should be a revision and reworking of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord under which BTAD came into existence and is governed; so that democratic aspirations of all communities in the BTAD are upheld and get realized.

Ethno nationalism provides political incentives for violence against other communities. The actual violence is taking place with such regularity because the dominant players in the area see it as a legitimate tool. The state considers its security responsibility primarily in terms of flushing operations, encounters and torture. The area is saturated with armed groups, some surrendered, some in the process of negotiations with the state, and some like the NDFB-S are still up in arms. Some of these groups are also integrated into the contractor economy of the region, indulging in extortions, abductions and murder. Some act as mercenaries of political interests, far from the idealism seen in their constitutions and at the time of their genesis. Violence against civilians, extortions, abductions and mass killings cannot be any road to self determination. It merely plays into chauvinistic demands of majoritarianism. Even these, incidentally, cannot be realised given the ethnic diversity of the region. Yet these simple realisations are not always part of the moral world of the militancy.

The NDFB-S has justified their attacks as retaliation against encounters and fake encounters carried out by the state to decimate the organisation. The singular point is that the current attack on adivasi people is unjustifiable. It must know that they do not and should not assume that their fight represents the community and its desires. On the other hand, the state must acknowledge that carrying out encounters and fake encounters against the NDFB(S) has only helped deepen the prolonged resentment of the Bodos, who are already in a situation of conflict and suspicion since the Bodoland movement days. The central and state police intelligence reportedly had intercepted radio message from one of the commanders of NDFB-S ordering the cadres to “kill as many non-bodos as possible in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts”. According to Assam Police they had been getting intelligence inputs for about a week about possible attacks. Yet, the State once again failed to process the intelligence inputs from its own sources. Why the police took two hours to decipher the messages which were in Bodo language, is a matter of serious concern. Such callous attitude of the state can only bring in a circular play of violence and counter violence.

Indian state claims to be democratic and liberal. Yet all elements of the political order in BTAD are leading the region towards an inescapable cycle of violence. Exclusivist ethno-nationalisms, a number of competing militant groups, ethnic cleansing, irrelevance of institutions of representative democracy, absence of a meaningful dialogue across communities, monstrous growth of and expansion of the bloodthirsty security apparati and their complicity in exacerbating the civilian strife, rise of a mafia run political-economy, AFSPA, secret and open killings, all mix dangerously so that state violence and ethnic cleansing are seen as normal state of affairs. The Northeast and the BTAD in the past two years have witnessed large scale of violence against innocent civilians. Yet the Northeast remains unseen in the national imagination and the underlying causes of this violence are little appreciated.

Violence in BTAD points to the true nature of Indian state’s machinations in the entire Northeast. For a long time, the Indian state has followed a two pronged policy of generalised armed violence to spread terror, along with propping up of sections within the local population who survive mainly on its largesse. These sections which are now in control of local politics, bureaucracy, the contractor economy, and are also moving out of the region for better prospects, are utterly corrupt and opportunistic. In a sense, they are a parasite and an anti-social elite that is incapable of giving any political leadership to the society. The use of Army against challenges to Indian state’s authority has not succeeded and cannot succeed. Some of the insurgencies in the North-East have now gone on for over three generations.

The character and strategy of Indian armed forces too plays a big role. The blanket of impunity provided by the AFSPA encourages Army’s corrupt officers and soldiers to fish in troubled waters for personal gain. The scandals of Indian armed forces in the Northeast, or Kashmir, which come into the mainstream media are actually only the tip of the iceberg. Indian armed forces as a matter of a strategy selectively arm and support competing armed groups to benefit from internecine bloodshed among militants. Indian defense strategy is a direct contributor to violence in the region. The politics of Indian state in an environment of diverse militant groups have created an ethnic cauldron in which the marginal and the weakest social groups are most vulnerable. It shows how Indian state has failed to provide even the first condition of a civilised rule, that is, the security of person. The near absence of the state from rehabilitation process and provision of basic right to life and dignity has created a room for the entry of religious right to operate as providers and protectors of those affected by violence.

An additional factor in 2014, at places contributing to the acceptance of violence as politics, at others benefitting directly from such violence, is the Hindutva in the Assam valley, which has made significant strides here in the past two years. With the bogey of Bangladeshi muslims as its favourite propaganda tool, Hindutva has developed a base among caste Hindu Asasamese and even economically prosperous sections among tribals who find Hinduisation beneficial for their economic and cultural interests. They favour its aggressive politics which demonises and targets the vulnerable, over the populism of other political parties. It is not recognised widely in the rest of country that a section of the Assam agitation leadership of the 1980s had strong Hindutva sypmathies, and that in the Nellie massacre of 1983 too, the Hindutva forces had played an important role.

The centre and the state governments have started an NIA enquiry of the massacre. To be credible, this enquiry should be impartial and find out the nexus between the armed mercenary groups like NDFB-S and the ruling dispensations and power groups who utilize the “services” of such groups. By simply giving a blanket order to flush out and eliminate the “miscreants”, the state cannot resolve the complex situation in Assam and the Northeast in general. It is actually a license for harassment, and violence on the ordinary people. One must also remember that the elections are due very soon, 2015 is marked out for BTAD elections, and Assam Assembly elections are due in 2016. The state and the center governments, led by two contending parties, may possibly make decisions for their own electoral gains rather than for a sustainable solution to the issue. Elections in India have more than ever come to depend on segregation and division of communities through violent means. BTAD being the one of the most sensitive area in contemporary India serves as a hot cake for ruling dispensations to take advantage of. It is time for the democratic and progressive sections of the society to remain vigilant about such machinations of the powers that might be.

In solidarity with the victims of ongoing Dec 2014 massacre in Sonitpur and Kokrajhar, BTAD, Assam.

NEW SOCIALIST INITIATIVE (NSI)’s statement
28/12/2014