Hagrama Mohilary was on time for the joint rally held by the Bodoland People’s Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kokrajhar on January 19. Not for him the chopper landing of the leader from Delhi. The chairman of the Bodoland Territorial Council and chief of the Bodo People’s Front strolled through the crowd. Having stopped to chat and shake hands with fans at the women’s enclosure, he went up to the dais and waited quietly for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to arrive.

Mohilary spoke briefly before Modi took the stage. He asked for the resolution of ethnic disputes and spoke of a Bodoland that included various communities – Bodos, Karbis, Rabhas, Adivasis, Koch Rajbongshis. On the Muslims, who form a significant part of the population in the Bodoland Territorial Area District, he was silent. But mostly, he asked for development in the BTAD – schools, roads, bridges and the money to build it with, Rs 1000 crore, to be precise. Mohilary, once the feared chief of the militant Bodo Liberation Tigers, had refashioned himself as the people’s leader, making demands of a distant government in Delhi. But the old claims of autonomy and identity had been replaced by economic demands for a territory rather than an ethnic group.

Once he arrived, Modi responded in kind, though there was some chatter about why he did not commit to the figure of Rs 1,000 crore. Vijay Kumar, BJP general secretary in the state, offers an explanation. “There was an expectation,” he said. “Mohilary had spoken to the government. But everything is going to be discussed in the budget session. Any announcement before that would hamper the privilege of the House.”

The alliance between the BJP and the BPF in the 16 assembly constituencies of the BTAD is based on shrewd calculations on both sides. The BJP is keen to make incursions into areas where it has scant presence by forging alliances. The BPF, which controls the Bodoland Territorial Council, will no doubt strike a hard bargain for the seats it can win for the alliance. The Bodo party has traditionally stayed close to the party in power in Delhi, which controls the Central funds released to the BTAD.

Both parties would have their own reasons for making the BJP model of economic development the centrepiece of their campaign. Of course, the BPF prefers to be inscrutable, its leaders refusing to talk outside the bully pulpit of a political rally. But the party’s reasons for shifting focus from identity to “development” are fairly transparent. To voters in the BTAD, the BPF is pitching itself as the conduit of plenty from the Centre.

The BJP, for its part, claims ethnic strife begins and ends in development. “The BTC was created because the Bodos, who were the bhumiputras, were deprived,” said Kumar. “But they are still deprived. They are crying out for food, clothes and housing. Resentments arise when one community gets nothing and the others also have little. When there is development for all communities, they are less insecure and there are fewer clashes.”

But there is a more pragmatic reason why the BJP cannot stress too much on Bodo identity as it campaigns in Kokrajhar and surrounding areas. Though the Bodos are politically dominant, non-Bodos account for about 70% of the population in the BTAD. Pitching only to Bodos, Kumar admits frankly, would mean losing out on votes from other communities. And yes, he claims, the BJP would also campaign to the Muslim community in the area.

Of course, both parties can talk about development because Kokrajhar, the headquarters of the Bodoland Territorial Council, has been peaceful for two years now. The clashes between Bodos and Muslims that shook the region in 2012, 2013 and 2014 have petered out. A security crackdown, grimly named Operation All Out, has flushed out militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit), which was responsible for a number of violent strikes in the area. Other Bodo militant factions are already under ceasefire agreements.

As the BJP-BPF alliance pitches jobs, infrastructure and education, the older Bodo demand for self-determination is pushed to the agendas of the opposition parties in the BTAD.

The sons of the soil

The Bodo demand for a separate state is rooted in the notion of indigeneity, that the “sons of the soil” should occupy and govern their own land. The idea of a Bodo homeland has a powerful imaginative pull, returning to politics and popular lore in different forms: Kamrup, the ancient kingdom that only local histories remember, Dimapur, the lost kingdom that found its way into political songs of the 1970s, Udayachal, the territory proposed and longed for by tribal leaders in the 1960s and ’70s.

Bodo assertions began as Assamese nationalism proved inadequate to holding all tribal identities within it. In 1967, the Plain Tribal Council Assam was formed, demanding the creation of a separate state for the plain tribes. The same year saw the emergence of the All Bodo Students Union, which aimed “to safeguard and develop the socio-economy, culture, civilization, tradition, language and literature of the great Bodo nationality”. Indeed, one of the earliest forms of Bodo resistance was a rejection of the Assamese language and script.

The early years of civil agitation took a dramatic turn after the Assam Accord of 1985, which left Bodo leaders feeling marginalised. In 1988, the ABSU formally demanded a separate Bodo state called Bodoland, and raised the slogan, “Divide Assam Fifty-Fifty”. This was also the decade that saw the rise of militant outfits like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which demanded secession, not just a separate state. One of the main forms of violence was ethnic cleansing of other minorities in the region staked out for Bodoland, Adivasis, Santhals as well as Muslims.

In 1993, negotiations between the government and the ABSU as well as the Bodo People’s Action Committee produced an accord which provided for the creation of a Bodo Autonomous Council. But as this accord fell vastly short of expectations, the movement continued, this time, more violent and led by the militant groups.

“The NDFB, supported by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and other groups in Mizoram, had this dream of secession of the entire North East,” said UG Brahma, former president of the ABSU and former Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, sitting in his house in Kokrajhar. “The NDFB, NSCN and the United Liberation Front of Asom had a very cordial relationship. But the NDFB never declared the area it wanted sovereign, they only spoke of freedom. Gradually, they lost support.”

From 1996, the Christian-dominated NDFB had to deal with a rival militant outfit: the predominantly Hindu Bodo Liberation Tiger Force, which believed an agenda of secession was unrealistic and demanded an autonomous Bodo territory within India. The BLTF is also believed to have helped Indian security forces against the NDFB.

The next few years would be shaped by the competing militancies of the NDFB and the BLTF. Until 2003, when the BLTF surrendered en masse and signed the Bodo Accord with the Centre and the Assam government. It created the BTC, an autonomous tribal council under the Sixth Schedule which would preside over the four districts of the BTAD – Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa. A state within a state, the BTC has financial, administrative and legislative powers, though it does not control the police. A large part of the BLTF was absorbed into the state’s security forces. As for the prominent militant leaders of the BLTF, they formed a political party: the BPF, which has since held power in the autonomous districts.

The NDFB, meanwhile, signed a ceasefire in 2005. Over the next decade, the militant group splintered into three factions: the NDFB(Progressive), which is under a ceasefire and engaged in talks with the government, the Ranjan Daimary faction, NDFB(R), whose leader Ranjan Daimary signed a ceasefire and is currently brooding in a camp in Udalguri, and the NDFB(S), whose cadre are believed to have been pushed into Burma after the security crackdown. The Liberation Tigers, it would seem, had won this round.

‘Not much has changed’

But the territorial council has proved to be an imperfect solution. In an area where Bodos are still a minority, the BTAD fell short of being the imagined Bodo homeland inhabited only by the bhumiputras. Ethnic clashes have continued and the BTAD is still one of the most underdeveloped regions in the country, partly because Central funds have been siphoned off by party leaders. In spite of ceasefires, the arms were never surrendered and the area is awash with illegal weapons. Besides, the old feud between the NDFB and the former BLT never came to an end. Violent encounters between the rival camps continued.

Scholars have called the 2003 accord a flawed pact, where the government swooped down and negotiated with the most powerful militant group. The old systems of violence and domination were institutionalised, they argue, and in spite of elections to the territorial council, true democratic processes remained a distant reality. “We agreed with the accord, but then there were illegal killings at the hands of the regime,” claimed ABSU secretary Kwrmdao Wary. “Peaceful polls were never held and people were never able to contest freely. Last year, it was a bit better.”

The BPF was directly implicated in the ethnic clashes of 2012 and a party MLA was arrested on charges of inciting the rioters. For years, the party retained a brute majority in the BTC, capturing 35 to 36 seats out of 40. But in the 2015 council elections, it managed only 20 and was barely able to cobble together a majority. Perhaps the shortcomings of the BTC have kept alive the demand for greater autonomy. “Not much has changed and people are frustrated, that is why the movement is still alive,” said Wary.

A ‘suicidal’ alliance

As the BPF and BJP negotiated an alliance, the ABSU announced it would intensify its agitation for a separate state. Last year, a new party emerged, supported by the ABSU: the United People’s Party, which will contest the assembly polls this year. It plans to start small, fielding candidates in only four constituencies, where it feels secure about winning. But Brahma, who is a prominent face in UPP, sees an opportunity in the BPF’s waning numbers. He is also dismissive of the BJP-BPF alliance.

“The BJP declared mission 84 as their agenda but after studying ground realities, they realised that is not possible,” said Brahma. “So they want to take all ethnic parties along. But that is also not possible. And an alliance with the BPF is suicidal for the BJP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BPF lost ground. In the 2015 council elections, they lost even more drastically. And in many seats, they won by a narrow margin. This time, I think they’ll be able to capture hardly two to three seats in the BTAD. Mohilary is under compulsion to form an alliance with the BJP, to reach other Hindu votes. And the BPF cannot do anything outside the BTAD. The Congress has already declared autonomous development councils for Bodo villages outside the BTAD, so everyone will be with them.”

Another objective of the UPP could also prove to be troublesome for the BPF and its cadre. It plans to unite the three factions of the NDFB and persuade them to talk to the government. While bringing the Progressive and Daimary factions will not be very difficult, Brahma admits that he is not hopeful of the Songbijit faction joining talks any time soon, especially since they have mostly spirited away into the jungles of Burma and are drawing support from international terror organisations.

Bodoland will be a big issue

As for the ABSU, how does it justify supporting the UPP in assembly elections to the very state it wants to break away from? The student organisation that once spearheaded the Bodo movement still remains the most vocal advocate of a separate state. Street corners and shop shutters across the BTAD districts, and even in neighbouring Barpeta district, are painted with ABSU slogans demanding Bodoland.

Kwrmdao Wary tried to explain why it was necessary for them to back the opposition to the BPF. “We don’t think the BJP-BPF alliance will benefit the Bodoland issue,” he said. “The BJP wants to form a government in Assam and the BPF is not interested in this issue at the moment. Mohilary has financial powers but the money is routed through the state. That is why he is comfortable with the state and with projecting a development agenda.”

There is another reason why the ABSU wants representation in the Assam legislature: getting their demand heard in Guwahati and Delhi. “We were in a series of talks with the government from 2013,” he said. “The BJP even included this issue in its Lok Sabha manifesto, so we supported it. The most recent talks were held on June 9 last year. But somehow this government does not want to pursue the talks at the political level. It only wants to continue at the bureaucratic level. In 1991, the ABSU supported independent candidates who shouted for Bodoland in the state legislature and two years later we got the BAC. In 2001, we supported MLAs who were able to put political pressure on the government. In 2003, we had the Bodo Accord.”

While development will be an important part of all party campaigns, so will identity, Kwrmdao Wary feels. “Bodoland will be a big issue in these polls,” he said. “Both for those who want it and those who don’t.”

The non-Bodos of Bodoland

He is right. For non-Bodo groups living in the BTAD, the prospect of a separate state is further cause for insecurity. The tribal population is a minority in the BTC, points out Aminul Islam, general secretary of the All India United Democratic Front, the party which is said to represent Muslim interests. “The rest have been deprived of their political rights since the BTC was formed, he said. “If a state comes into being, it might get even worse for them.”

Bodos, Islam feels, will vote overwhelmingly on the Bodoland issue. “They will vote for the UPP since they are more strident about the Bodoland issue than the BPF,” he said. “That will split the Bodo vote.” But the BJP-BPF alliance, he thinks, raises a more immediate threat: the violent spates of ethnic cleansing that the region is famous for.

The alliance has prompted non-Bodo parties to consider a coalition to oppose it. “There are Bengali, Nepalese, Koch Rajbongshi and other groups in Bodoland,” said Islam. “We will discuss the possibility of an alliance with them. But we won’t campaign against Bodoland. We don’t want to play a game that will pit one community against another before the elections. The BJP might, but we won’t.”

What will the AIUDF campaign focus on, then? A peaceful environment, harmony between communities – and development. For the AIUDF, this hold-all term includes issues like jobs, education and scheduled tribes status for certain communities. Evidently, development has become the word of choice for parties on either side of the political spectrum wishing to sidestep the Bodo issue and build a coalition across communities.

In some cases, the promise of better economic opportunity might actually have won over old political affiliations. Take the Adivasi community, which has traditionally been a support base for the Congress. Now the party’s influence may be shrinking there. Adivasi voters feel let down because, in spite of 15 years in the state government and 10 years at the Centre, the Congress failed to push for Scheduled Tribes status for the community in Assam. “We will support whoever gives us Scheduled Tribe status,” said Raju Tirkey, who was aanchalik president of the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam in the Bansbari area of Baksa district. If that means supporting the BJP, says Tirkey, then so be it.