The North-East is that part of India, which in spite of 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 themselves on prime-time television, this region has been fighting one of the biggest battles against militancy and foreign insurgency in India since pre-independence. It is a fact that while the rest of India has developed at a comparably massive scale, the North-East has only now been connected by a rail network. For many, bloodshed in the name of revolution has become a way of life, leaving a trail of death in the region.
It is in this dark and gruesome context that we need to get acquainted with the Bodo Peace Accord – the current government’s biggest step forward in negotiating peace among the tribal communities of Assam. To put things in perspective, the Bodo Peace Accord has cost us 4,000 young lives (unofficial sources claim the figure to be upwards of 20,000), with the number of injured being much higher. The cause of infighting among Assamese tribal communities and their anger against the previous governments is both simple and twisted; simple because it’s about three common things – first, the British, second, lack of economic activity and third, unchecked immigration. It is twisted simply because of the sheer cocktail of communities involved.
There’s also the Bodo linguistic identity, the Chinese angle and the victimised minority groups that give this peace accord a slightly different aftertaste.
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 shortage of labour. This sowed the seeds of the Bodo revolution that would later bleed the State for decades.
The Bodos consider themselves the oldest inhabitants of Assam; which meant they felt naturally threatened by the massive influx of Bangladeshi immigrants and non-ethnic tribals from Central India. Their language, history, art, culture – everything was being pushed to a corner. To make matters worse, the State Government failed to take stock of the situation in the early days of the making of the crisis. This led to a build-up of anger among the Bodo people who then took up arms.
The attack on their language had however begun much earlier, in the late 19th century, when the Portuguese invaded Bodo-dominated areas and started using the Roman script in Bodo missionary schools. Since then, the Bodo language has 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 many Bodo pronunciations. 18 people died in these protests. Recognizing that the situation in the State was fast spiralling out of control, the then Indira Gandhi government asked Bodos to use the Devnagri script and promised to accord it official status in 1974. That promise however, had to wait for 29 years to see the light of the day, when the second Bodo Peace Accord was signed by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. It was historic, as it became one of the first tribal languages to be included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India.
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 accord gave some autonomy to the Bodos by forming the Bodoland Autonomous Council, which had limited political powers. However, it proved miserably ineffective in achieving its objective and the situation turned volatile. The Bodos were up-in-arms in no time, which eventually led to the signing of the 2003 peace accord that 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 Government of Assam.
This is where it gets murky – Assam has hill tribes and plains tribes, and Bodos belong to the latter. Meaning they are spread across such a vast geography that it’s 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 about the remaining 73% of the population? Do the peace accords account for their interests? Not really. However, the government has promised to set up a commission to study the exclusion of the non-tribal majority villages from the Bodo Territorial Region.
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 could not afford any more instability in the area. Negotiating peace in this region meant higher control by the Indian government, and the kickstarting of economic activity means the Chinese can not exploit vulnerabilities that existed before.
Under the new Accord, the government will set up a Central University in name of Upendranath Brahma, a National Sports University, a regional medical institute, 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.
Development is finally coming to the state that was denied its rights for the past so many decades. Many promises made in the latest peace accord have to be kept by the Government, and in that lies the hope for a peaceful and a prosperous future for the State and for the country.