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Kokrajhar conundrum


TROUBLED LAND: BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary;security personnel at Kokrajhar railway station

The Bodoland Territorial Council was meant to be a solution to a long-running insurgency, but recent allegations of partisanship have raised questions about whether the idea was flawed from the beginning.

As curfew lifted in the third week of November, vegetable vendors returned to the streets of Kokrajhar. Away from the market bustle, Sameswar Basumatary made his way to an open ground, past the bronze statue of a man with his finger pointed to the sky, around a grand circular building, down to a five-floor-high grid-like structure, which is the seat of the government of Bodoland. Here, on the ground floor, Basumatary walked into his office as the public relations officer of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).

The council rules four districts of western Assam and holds powers equal to a state government, except the power of policing, which is still with Assam government.

Formulated to give political autonomy to the Bodos, the council emerged from a long struggle, which began in the 1980s as Upendra Brahma - the deceased leader whose statue guards the entrance to the BTC enclave - led a peaceful student agitation, which mutated into a violent rebellion, raging through the 1990s, leaving more than 2, 000 people dead.

"I joined the struggle in 1987, " reminisces Basumatary, a tall, lean, bespectacled middle-aged man. "Those were the days when lakhs turned up for mass rallies. We felt this is our land, our forefathers' land, why should others rule us?" As the general secretary of All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU) in his area, Basumatary often spent long hours organising and leading protests. But he also studied hard and slipped in some fun - like watching movies at the local R N Dey Hall, until the peaceful struggle gave way to violent rebellion, and in 1990, Army trucks rolled into Kokrajhar, closing down everything, including the movie hall. "Those were dangerous days. No one could identify who was who. People were getting killed. And not just the rebels, " he says.

That year, Basumatary took a call. He sat for the all-India engineering exam and found a place in a college in Chennai. He studied chemical engineering and joined a research centre in Trivandrum, funded by the Union health ministry. Marriage and children followed. Years later, he was all set to leave for Canada, but the visa did not come through. Around that time the news from his homeland began to change. Bodoland was in the middle of a miraculous turnaround. In 2003, the rebel group Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) had signed a peace accord with India and transformed into the Bodo People's Front (BPF), contesting and winning elections in 2005 to form the first Bodoland government. The rebels-turned-legislators solemnly gathered in the old decrepit R N Dey Hall, revived with a new coat of white, on which was painted in blue letters: Bodoland Legislative Assembly. The movie hall served as the assembly until a new building was inaugurated in 2010.

Basumatary came back to Kokrajhar as BTC's public relations officer. Widespread changes were under way. Crores of rupees had begun to flow in as Bodoland began to get its mandatory 12 per cent share of central funds sent to Assam. While Bodo leaders took a cut, they also ensured development happened, most visibly in the roads and bridges that were built. "Best of all, there was peace, " says Basumatary, before his face darkens with a frown, "Only now there has been trouble. "


The trouble began in the second half of July. Murjina was at her home in Bajugaon village, on the morning of July 24, when a violent mob came and began setting homes on fire. Murjina fled, holding her children, 7-year-old Mausami and 11-year-old Murshid. He husband, Ainal Haque, grabbed whatever he could. The family moved to a relief camp, like four lakh others desperate to escape the Bodo-Muslim clashes that left nearly a hundred dead.
For three months, Murjina and her husband stayed in the camp. But as harvest season began, Ainal began to make trips to their village. The morning of November 10, he was working in the paddy fields, cutting and binding stalks, when armed Bodo assailants appeared and shot him dead.

Nine more killings followed over the next week. Of the 10 killed, eight were Muslims. All had been shot dead. Curfew was imposed. Kokrajhar's deputy commissioner, Jayant Narlikar, told reporters: "No one will be spared, high or low. " He did not take names but there was little doubt who he was referring to. In a morning raid, the police arrested Mono Kumar Brahma, a former BLT rebel, now a BPF leader, who was an executive member of BTC, the equivalent of a cabinet-rank minister. Picked up while still in his lungi, the police claimed Brahma had hidden two AK-47 s assault rifles in his house. "BLT was supposed to surrender all their arms at the time of the peace accord. But it appears they might not have (done so), " said G P Singh, the inspector-general of police.

"This is a conspiracy, " thundered Kampha Borgoyary, the former publicity head of the rebel group BLT, now the deputy chief of BTC, livid at the arrest of his party colleague. Dressed in a smart beige jacket, he sat in a large sofa in his plush residence, going over the reasons why his party was being 'targeted'. "They (Congress leaders) don't need us anymore, " he said. Until recently, BPF's support was crucial to the survival of Assam's Congress government, but that changed after the party won a clear majority in 2011. "Since they don't need us, " he went on, "they want to influence Delhi to dissolve the Bodo government and scrap BTC. "

While the scrapping of BTC seems an unlikely event, the allegation that Borgoyary's party and Bodoland's ruling regime was not only complicit in the recent ethnic violence but also partisan in its aftermath has renewed focus on the conundrum at the heart of Bodoland. As enshrined in the 2003 accord, 30 of 40 elected seats in Bodoland Legislative Assembly are reserved for Bodos. Five are reserved for non-Bodos. Five are open to all. Bodos, with the single largest population, stand a better chance of winning the open seats. In the current assembly, they have won three of the five open seats. They also have three of the six seats nominated by the governor. In effect, they hold 36 of the 46 seats, which is more than three quarters representation for a group that ironically forms just one-third of the population.

In 2003, this model of disproportionate representation was considered a price worth paying to buy peace with the Bodo rebels. One group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) wanted sovereignty from India. Another group, Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), wanted a separate state. By icing political autonomy with disproportionate representation, India was meeting them half-way. Even then, there were many who disapproved. "We were called for a meeting in New Delhi by the home ministry, " remembers Afjal Hoque Sarkar, currently one of the two Muslim legislators in Bodoland, then a community leader. "At that time itself, I said that you cannot be fair to Bodos by being unfair to others. "

The others include Bengali-speaking Muslims, Santhals, Rajbanshis, Nepalis, Bengali Hindus, Assamese Hindus, and tribal groups like Rabhas. Separately and collectively, these communities have campaigned against what they see as Bodo hegemony. "Bodoland's political model is totally undemocratic, " says 41-yearold Sarkar. "This has only emboldened Bodo leaders to treat others like second class citizens. "

The citizenship question is most acute for Muslims since Bodos allege the community harbours a large number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh - even though the census figures does not support the claim. If Muslims formed 19 per cent of the population of Kokrajhar, then a sub-division of Goalpara district, in 1951, half a century later, in 2001 census, they accounted for just 20. 36 per cent.

After the July-August clashes, however, as Bodo leaders sat down to work out the modalities of rehabilitation with Assam government, they invoked the threat of illegal immigration, insisting that all refugees be screened before being allowed to return home. It was agreed to use land records in the first round and electoral rolls in the second to separate citizens from migrants.

In the month of September, the deputy commissioner's office in Kokrajhar went through 30, 000 applications filed by refugees, green-lighting 17, 016 applications of all those who owned land or were the descendants of land-owners. Sent for further approval to BTC, only 4, 698 applications came back - BTC had approved only those who directly owned land in their own name. "If my father or grandfather has land in the village, it means I am a genuine resident and not an illegal immigrant, " says Jayant Narlikar, Kokrajhar's deputy commissioner. "We were verifying the genuineness of people, while it appears BTC was solely verifying land ownership. "

As news spread of applications being rejected by BTC, Muslim refugees panicked and rushed home. "We felt they (Bodos) were attempting to keep us out, " says Mujibur Rehman, who possesses valid papers, both as an owner of land, and a voter, but who did not make it to the rehabilitation list. The refugees went to their fields to harvest paddy. Some backtracked when they were threatened or blocked by Bodos. Others persisted, until the killings began.
"We had warned the administration that the sentiment among Bodos was that illegal immigrants should not be allowed to come back to occupy tribal land, " says Pramila Rani Brahma, a 61-year-old woman, who looks beguiling gentle, but is a firmtalking Bodo politician and five-time elected MLA. "When the administration did nothing and the refugees returned, that sentiment may have become the cause (of the violence). "


Explaining the historical roots of the sentiment, in an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly, titled 'Bodoland: The Burden Of History', Udayon Misra, a social scientist, delineates how repeated waves of migration during the colonial years - with an influx of Santhal workers and Muslim farmers - marginalised Bodos, a tribal community accustomed to shifting cultivation. "This lack of formal land tenure often made them appear as encroachers on government forest land and helped the immigrant non-tribal peasant to permanently acquire the land that was the preserve of the tribal farmer, " Misra writes. To stem the tide of outsiders sweeping through the tribal lands, in 1947, the Assam government earmarked tribal belts and blocks where outsiders could not buy land. But Misra maintains the law was not implemented properly and tribal land alienation continued in the post-Independence years.
By the time Bodo militancy forced attention on the issue, the demographic change was deeply entrenched. Migrant families were into the second or third generation. And yet in 1993, in an ill-thought out move, the Centre decided to fall back on demography to decide the boundaries of Bodoland, declaring that only those areas where Bodos formed one-half of the population would be included in an autonomous district. Many believe this convinced Bodos that their hope for political autonomy hinged on improving their demographic strength. This led to a wave of ethnic violence through the 1990s, which consumed 500 lives, of which 400 were non-Bodos.

Terming the clashes as "ethnic cleansing", a paper tabled at the International Population Conference 2009 presented evidence for it. Comparing village-level data in 932 villages between 1971 and 1991, the study concluded that, "in 138 villages the Bodos have been successful in evicting the non-Bodo population. . . with whom the Bodos had been living for centuries...The Bodo segment has been able to proclaim its supremacy in 257 villages which was only 7 in 1971. "

Viewed through this prism, the fight between communities is not over land as a resource but as an imagined homeland, or 'tribal irredentism', says a senior officer of Assam government. "Bodos have not given up the dream of a separate state. The current violence against Muslims is part of the process of evicting other communities to strengthen their case, " he says.

Pramila Rani Brahma, the Bodo matriarch, does not mince words: "Other communities came here for business. They came to stay temporarily. They can go back. " Even Basumatary, the soft-spoken chemical engineer-turned public relations officer, who has lived out of Bodoland for 16 years, and who can speak Tamil and Malayalam, is convinced the Bodo cause is just. "BTC has been good for us. But not good enough. We do not control the home and finance departments. Our struggle will not be complete till we get a separate state, " he emphatically says.

In Sapkata village, five-year-old Zahid Iqbal runs around, oblivious to the loss of his father, Asharuddin Shaikh, a school teacher who was killed in the violence in November. Zahid's uncle, Hasan Ali, is deeply troubled. "Our grandfather came here in the 1940s. We have a certificate from the national register of citizens in 1951 in which my father is listed as a 14-year-old, " he says. "We have lived here all our lives. Where can we go?"

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