On Thursday, heavily armed militants shot dead three members of a family in Assam's Baksa district. On Friday, militants shoty dead eight and left many more dead in neighbouring Kokrajhar district. Another 12 bodies were found in Baksa on Friday night, and the militants also set ablaze a hundred houses and a bridge. All the dead – 32 so far – are Muslim and the militants are Bodos. Hundreds have fled their homes. The suspected perpetrators, the National Democratic Front for Bodoland, have denied their involvement.

Appalling as this violence is, it is not surprising for those who have followed the conflict in this area. Outside Assam people think of it as a Hindu-Muslim conflict or one about illegal immigration from Bangladesh. It is neither.

Who are the Bodos? Pronounced "Boros", the Bodos are a tribal community, listed in the scheduled tribes. They are animists who follow the Bathouist faith, though some are Christians. They are politically aligned with Assam's ruling Congress. The political party that represents their interests is the Bodoland People's Front, which has a Lok Sabha member and a Rajya Sabha member. Its 12 legislators in the state assembly are part of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress coalition.

What is Bodoland? With the argument that they are native people, the Bodos waged a self-determination movement off and on since the 1960s. This ultimately resulted in the militant group Bodoland Liberation Tigers' Force surrendering arms to sign an agreement with the Assamese and Indian governments in 2003. The agreement resulted in the creation of a semi-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council that administers four districts in western Assam. These four districts – Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang – are together known as the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts. The Bodos seek to transform the BTAD into a "pure" homeland of the Bodos. That ambition is at the heart of the recurring conflict in these districts. Identity, territory and power have come together to make Bodoland the biggest flashpoint of ethnic violence in Assam today.

The Congress hand The BTAD area has one seat reserved for the scheduled tribes in the Lok Sabha that has been held by the Bodoland People's Front, a party formed by former militants of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers' Force. The Bodoland People's Front also controls the Bodoland Territorial Council and is an ally of the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government. The Congress has been accused of handling the situation badly from the start. It reached the 2003 settlement with the Bodoland Liberation Tigers' Force without involving the majority non-Bodos who live in the area. Second, the Bodos have repeatedly violated the ceasefire they promised as part of the agreement, but the Congress government has taken no action. The Congress has thus been seen as deliberately helping the Bodos consolidate power in the area for its own political benefit.

A dominant minority The 2003 Bodoland Territorial Council accord is an official recognition of the Bodo political aspiration as one of the "earliest inhabitants of Assam". As per the accord, the aim of the Bodoland Territorial Council is to “fulfill economic, educational and linguistic aspirations and the preservation of land rights, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos…” This created a perverse condition for Bodo dominance in a territory where the Bodos constitute only 26% of the population. The accord made them a dominant minority by giving them special status under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (meant for tribal rights) at the cost of the 74% of non-Bodo population. This was felt as a gross violation of equality and democratic rights by the non-Bodo majority. At the same time the non-Bodo communities have often expressed fear of the consequences of demands that Bodo leaders prove their majority in the BTAD areas. This gives the Bodos an incentive to try to create a majority through acts of violence. Ethnic cleansing is round the corner.

The Muslims of Bodoland Politics around Muslim rights and grievances in Assam has come a long way. The All India United Democratic Front with significant clout over the Muslim vote and has become the principal opposition party in the assembly, replacing the Asom Gana Parishad. The AIUDF has actively supported the All Bodoland Minority Student’s Union to emerge in recent years as a powerful body representing Muslim interests in the BTAD.

In the 2010 elections to the Bodo Territorial Council, the organisation had demanded that the Bodo People's Front give atleast three seats for Muslims in those constituencies where they have absolute majority. When this demand was not accepted, the All Bodoland Minority Student’s Union together with the All Assam Minority Student’s Union formed the Sankhyalagu Aikhya Mancha (Minorities United Front) to contest the Bodoland Territorial Council election from constituencies with the highest number of Muslim votes and caused some electoral damage to the Bodoland People's Front-Congress alliance.

The All Assam Minority Student’s Union has called for dissolving the BTADs time and again, citing growing incidents of murder, kidnapping, extortions and rape. These incidents have made life and property extremely insecure for non-Bodos. Besides, the All Assam Minority Student’s Union has demanded proportionate employment policies to the community numbers and reservations for minority students in medical and engineering colleges in the area. Another All Bodoland Minority Student’s Union-All Assam Minority Student’s Union demand includes removing non-Bodo majority villages from the BTAD areas.

The Muslims of Bodoland are both Assamese-speaking and Bengali-speaking, and the Bengali-speaking Muslims are not recent migrants from Bangladesh. Bengali-speaking Muslims have lived in Assam since the British era. But many have been forced to migrate from one place to another within Assam because of floods and land erosion. It is significant that one of the prominent demands of the All Assam Minority Student’s Union has been a rehabilitation package for people affected by floods and land erosion, and that the government take preventive measures against land erosion. In a politics constructed around land rights, Bengali-speaking Muslims have become doubly insecure about the language they speak and because they face displacement from floods and land erosion.

Not just Muslims The killings this week or the large-scale riots in 2012 are not a straight case of communal violence targeting Muslims. The violence is a specific response to an effort by all non-Bodos to assert themselves politically. The Bodo elites show complete intolerance towards anyone who challenges or could challenge their homeland doctrine of a Bodo territory with autonomy and a special status to Bodos as the dominant power elite of the area. The Bodo elites have consolidated power and privilege through the BTAD and do not want to share it. In the past they have also targeted adivasis and ethnic Assamese speakers. Hapless Muslim villagers in western Assam are the latest victims of Bodo assertion, but they were not the first and won't be the last.

The unified fight against Bodo dominance In this Lok Sabha election, the All Bodoland Minority Student’s Union and the All Assam Minority Student’s Union, along with 18 other non-Bodo groups under the umbrella Sanmilita Janagostiya Aikkyamancha, an amalgamation of non-Bodo ethnic and linguistic groups based in the BTAD, supported the independent candidature of Naba Saraniya, a former militant leader of the United Liberation Front of Assam. Saraniya is seen to outweigh the powerful  Bodoland People's Front candidate Chandan Brahma, formerly a minister in the Assam government. While the Bodo votes are split in many parts, this Sanmilita Janagostiya Aikkyamancha managed to unite the non-Bodo votes. That is why 32 Muslims were killed in Kokrajhar and Baksa this week, including women and children, one of them as young as two years old.