Bodo Peace Accord: ‘A blend of Gratitude & Uneasiness’ – through an eye of ‘Bodo tribal’

Bodo Peace Accord: ‘A blend of Gratitude & Uneasiness’ – through an eye of ‘Bodo tribal’

OPINION | By Nijwm Basumatary

GUWAHATI | FEB 3, 2020:

At the outset, let me commend the decision made by all factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) to lay down arms and sign a peace accord with the government. As a Bodo person myself, I am genuinely thankful to the members of the NDFB for their sacrifices and contribution to the cause of the Bodos. They decided to leave their loved ones behind, sacrifice their youth and careers, and embark on a path that was fraught with immense dangers to themselves. Many of them lost their lives too.

However, I cannot help but feel a little unease about the way the final agreement was signed hurriedly between the government and the Bodo signatories. I also have certain misgivings about what the future holds for the Bodos consequent upon the signing of the agreement.

My intention is not to dismiss the peace accord per se, but to point out, what in my humble opinion, are certain problematic aspects of the signed final agreement. A clause in the agreement says that those villages currently under BTAD which are contiguous to non-Sixth Schedule areas and have majority non-tribal population would be excluded from the newly formed Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). What exactly does the word 'majority' mean in this particular clause?

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Communities in the BTAD are seldom neatly aligned along discrete geopolitical units detached from each other. It is quite common for members of different communities to be intermixed across many villages and towns that are themselves tangled unevenly with each other. Are we to assume then that certain areas would be sliced away from the BTR simply because of their demographic composition and contiguity to the non-Sixth Schedule part of Assam? Would it be fair or just to change the domicile and political status of these communities simply based on their numerical count without their express and explicit consent?

Doesn't the particular clause imply that the geographical boundaries of the BTR are going to be mapped out based on ethnic and communal lines? Doesn't this amount to overindulging those people who want to play divisive politics and create misunderstanding between Bodos and non-Bodos, and a way to pander to their ridiculous, impracticable and unjustified demands?

The present demographic composition in the ancestral lands of the Bodos, which includes the entire northern bank of the Brahmaputra, is a tragic outcome of great historical injustices. For ages, non-bona fide illegal migration into and encroachment upon the ancestral lands of the Bodos was allowed and even encouraged by successive governments to create vote banks and serve other vested interests. Laws meant to protect tribal lands such as the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, and Tribal Belts and Blocks were more honoured in the breach than the observance.

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Had the ancestral lands of the Bodos been protected by the government, Bodos would not have been marginalized in their own lands. Instead, they had to assert their identity and seek its preservation through a separate state of Bodoland precisely because of devastating demographic changes to their ancestral lands. So, why should today's Bodos have to surrender their ancestral lands simply because of the unjustified demands of a few people who falsely claim to represent the interests of non-Bodos and are hell-bent on creating divisions between Bodos and non-Bodos of today? Bodos have an inalienable and historical prerogative over these lands, which cannot be snatched away by the whims and fancies of anyone.

Furthermore, the worth of land is much more than the people who live in it. Lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, wildlife and other resources have their own intrinsic value. These are important sources of generating revenue for any territorial-administrative unit such as the BTAD which could enable it to become truly self-sustainable and self-governing. Certain riverine areas, wastelands, forest areas and other topographical features were included in the BTAD to maintain geographical contiguity regardless of who inhabited them. Bodos and other indigenous tribals also share deep emotional and spiritual bonds with the ancestral lands that their forefathers cultivated and nurtured for generations by shedding their blood, sweat and tears on them.

Secondly, the agreement explicitly says that only those villages with tribal majority and are contiguous to the present BTAD would be included in the BTR. But if this criterion of contiguity is followed, lakhs of Bodos of Sonitpur, Biswanath, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts would be left out of the BTR. This would be grossly unjust on the Bodos of these areas who have made supreme sacrifices in the struggle for a separate Bodoland. I am aware that rearranging geographical boundaries is a complicated and massive task, but at least a firm commitment could have been made to include tribal majority villages of these areas within the BTR. A proposed welfare council for Bodos outside the BTAD is not going to fulfil the aspirations of
these people because such councils have failed miserably in Assam due to lack of genuine autonomy and lack of finance.

Finally, why was there so much hurry to conclude and sign the agreement? It is understandable that an armed insurgency against the might of the Indian state cannot go on forever and I am sure that the leaders of the NDFB had the best interests of Bodos in mind while negotiating with the government. But a peaceful movement led by the ABSU could be relatively sustainable on a long-term basis. The BPF is just another political party willing to do anything to stay in power, but why the ABSU had to squeeze itself in to the signing ceremony and become a signatory to the accord is a bit puzzling.

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They could have provided moral support from the outside instead of fully abandoning the long- term birthright of the Bodos. Did the government compel them to be a part of the accord or have the leaders of the ABSU started to suffer from fatigue? Or perhaps the accord had been in the pipeline for quite some time now and the timing of the upcoming BTC elections and the CAA fiasco were just coincidences!

Perhaps, they could have signed a framework agreement instead, like the NSCN did in 2015. The Nagas have been negotiating with the government of India for over two decades now, involving various civil society organizations such as the Naga Hoho and Naga Mothers Association apart from the NSCN. I do not want to compare apples with oranges. But the
parties to the Bodo accord could have stretched out the process a bit longer and involved more stakeholders and consulted various civil society members before deciding on the final agreement. I have other apprehensions and worries regarding the future of the Bodos. But let me end on a positive note and hope that the peace accord brings peace and development to
the region and its people at least in the foreseeable future.

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