The North-East is that part of India, which despite holding immense cultural, historic and geographic significance has remained shrouded in ignorance by both its people and its government. Unfortunately, while experts have been busy fighting on prime-time television, this region has fought one of the biggest battles against militancy and foreign insurgency, ongoing since pre-independence. The apathy is evident - while the rest of India developed at a relatively rapid speed and scale, the North-East has just been connected by rail. Here, militancy has caused mindless bloodshed in the name of revolution, which is now a way of life for many.
This is the context in which one needs to understand the significance of the Bodo Peace Accord of 2019, which is the current dispensation's biggest success in terms of negotiating peace among the tribal communities of Assam. It is not ironical that a trail of 4,000 deaths (unofficial sources claim the figure to be upwards of 20,000) and countless injuries mark the signing of this historic accord. The Assamese tribal communities have been fighting among themselves for three primary reasons – first, the British, second, lack of economic activity and third, unchecked immigration. The fourth not-so-simple reason is the sheer cocktail of communities that live in Assam. Other reasons include the Bodo linguistic identity, the Chinese and the victimised minority groups, which give this accord a slightly different aftertaste.
How did it begin?
During the colonial times, when tea plantations were becoming a lucrative proposition in Assam, the British brought in a large number of tribals from central India to address the resulting shortage in labour, which sowed the seeds of a Bodo revolution that bled the State for decades.
The Bodos felt naturally threatened by the sudden influx of Bangladeshi immigrants and non-ethnic tribals who came to work from central India as they considered themselves to be the oldest inhabitants of Assam. Their language, history, art, culture – everything was at a risk of fading away. To make matters worse, the State Government failed to take stock of the situation early on, which led to a build-up of anger among the Bodo people who eventually took up arms.
The Bodo Linguistic Identity
However, the attack on their language had begun much earlier in the late 19th century, when Danish invaded Bodo-dominated areas and started using the Roman script in Bodo missionary schools. Since then, the Bodo language had been written in three different scripts – Roman, Assamese and Devnagri. Unsurprisingly, in the 1970s, there was a sustained movement against the use of Assamese and Roman scripts as they were not conducive to Bodo pronunciations. 18 people died in these protests. Recognizing that the situation in the State was getting worse, the then Indira Gandhi government asked Bodos to use the Devnagri script instead and promised to accord it official status in 1974. That promise had to wait for 29 years to see the light of the day, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government signed the second Bodo Peace Accord. It was a historic moment for India’s tribal community as it became the first tribal language to be included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India.
The first and second Bodo Peace Accords
The first Bodo Peace Accord was signed in 1993. It was a direct result of the student rebellion led by one of Assam’s most influential student body, the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU). This gave marginal autonomy to the Bodos by instituting the Bodoland Autonomous Council, albeit with limited political powers. This accord proved miserably ineffective in achieving its objective and the situation soon turned hostile. The armed revolution by the Bodos eventually led to the signing of the second peace accord in 2003, which resulted in the creation of four districts, cumulatively called the Bodoland Territorial Area District. As per the new accord, the BTAD was to be governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council, which had control over matters like education, forests, horticulture but no jurisdiction on the police, revenue and general administration, which was under the Government of Assam.
The complicated cocktail of tribal communities
This is where it got murky. Now, Assam has hill tribes and plains tribes, and Bodos belong to the latter. Meaning they are spread across such a vast geography that it is impossible to assign one piece of land and call it theirs’ alone. This can be gauged by the fact that even in the four districts where the Bodos were given autonomy, they made up only 27% of the total population. What happened to the rights of the remaining 73% of the population is left to our imagination. Their interests were clearly not accounted for, but the government promised to set up a commission to study the exclusion of the non-tribal majority villages from the Bodo Territorial Region.
China – the larger picture
But when one looks at the big picture, it is the China angle that gives this accord the pomp and glamour it deserves – the region where all of this was taking place is extremely sensitive as it borders Bhutan and China. The government cannot afford any more instability in the area. Negotiating peace in this region means higher control by the Indian government, and the kickstarting of economic activity means the Chinese can no longer exploit vulnerabilities that existed before.
The 2019 Accord
Under the new Accord, the government will set up a Central University in the name of Upendranath Brahma, a National Sports University, a regional medical institute, a hotel management campus, a Mother Dairy plant, a National Institute of Technology and many more Navodaya Vidyalayas. The government has also created massive provisions for absorbing the youth who had become militants into the mainstream by giving them jobs in the Army and other government organisations. Whether these promises are kept, only time will tell; but what one cannot deny is this is a big step in the right direction.