The demand for Bodoland – a separate state carved out of Assam as a designated homeland for the Bodo tribe – was revived on Tuesday as Bodo groups squatted on railway tracks across the state, snapping rail links between the states of the North East and the rest of the country.

The rail roko andolan (train blockade movement) was spearheaded by three organisations: the All Bodo Students’ Union, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Progressive), and the People’s Joint Action Committee for Bodoland Movement. They said this was the beginning of a new phase in their decades-old statehood struggle that has spawned a violent insurgency in Assam.

The Bodos are the largest of Assam’s plains tribes. According to the 2001 census, they number just under 13 lakh and account for more than 5% of the state’s population.

Warning to the Centre

The anger of the Bodo groups is directed at the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre and in the state.

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party had made a promise to “take initiatives” to find a “permanent solution of the long pending issues of the Bodos”. But All Bodo Students’ Union president Pramod Bodo said the party had failed to keep its word.

“The only reason the Bodos of Assam voted for the BJP was that they had promised to listen to our problems if voted to power,” he said. “But in two and a half years, all we have had is one meeting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.”

A delegation of Bodo leaders had met Singh in Delhi on April 26, in the presence of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. “But there has been no intimation about anything since then,” Bodo said. “[It is] only when we hit the streets and block the rail lines that Delhi hears.”

Bodo said the students’ union had believed the BJP was serious about its promise as “they are known to be a party that supports smaller statehood movements”. He added, “In the past, they supported the creation of Telangana. But we have just been kept hanging.”

The Bodo groups seem to be running out of patience. Rakesh Boro of the People’s Joint Action Committee for Bodoland Movement called Tuesday’s rail blockade a “warning to the Central government”. He went on to say, “They should understand that things can’t go on like this. We had a bad experience with the Congress. Things seem to be moving in the same direction with this government too.”

Pramod Bodo said they would scale up the agitation next month if the Centre did not respond soon. “We will go to Delhi before the next session of Parliament and do a hunger strike,” he said. “If they don’t listen then too, we will carry out an indefinite economic blockade in Assam.”

Rakesh Boro added that it was incumbent upon the Centre to respect a non-violent people’s movement. “From an armed struggle to a non-violent movement, we have come a long way,” he said.

Adivasi villagers at a relief camp in Assam's Kokrajhar district in 2014 after they were displaced by violence blamed on the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. (Credit: AFP)

How it all began

The first demand for a separate administrative unit for Assam’s plains tribes was floated in 1968, notes political studies professor Sanjib Baruah in his book India Against Itself, which chronicles subnationalisms in the state. The Plains Tribals Council of Assam, an umbrella body of the state’s many plains tribes, demanded the creation of Udayachal, which was to be carved out of Assam and granted Union Territory status.

The All Bodo Students’ Union, formed in 1967, emerged as a formidable force in the 1970s. Under the leadership of Upendra Nath Brahma, the group successfully rallied for the inclusion of Bodo as an official language of Assam. The turbulent 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of an identity politics that pitted “sons of the soil”, or populations identified as indigenous, against “illegal immigrants”. In these years, the All Bodo Students’ Union made common cause with the All Assam Students’ Union, which was spearheading the agitation against alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

The anti-foreigner agitation culminated in the Assam Accord of 1985, signed between the Centre and leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union. According to it, anyone who entered the state without documents after March 24, 1971, would be declared a foreigner and deported. But the accord left Bodo leaders feeling marginalised and in 1988, the All Bodo Students’ Union made a formal demand for a separate state, Bodoland.

“Divide Assam 50-50” became the new war cry as the Bodo statehood movement turned into an armed struggle under Ranjan Daimary and his organisation, initially called the Bodo Security Force and then renamed the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. This group demanded secession, not just a separate state.

The Army came down hard on Bodo militants in the 1990s, forcing them to retreat to Bhutan. With the help of the Royal Bhutan Army, it launched a massive operation to eliminate National Democratic Front of Bodoland militants hiding in that country in the early 2000s.

The peace accords

Two peace accords have been signed since the 1990s. The first, between the Assam government and moderate elements of the Bodo movement, came in 1993 and paved the way for the formation of a Bodo Autonomous Council to allow for some degree of self-governance.

However, the council fell short of expectations, giving rise to a fresh phase of violence and a split in the militancy. In 1996, an insurgent group called the Bodo Liberation Tigers emerged. It found the demand for secession unrealistic and called for an autonomous Bodo territory within India.

In 2003, the Union government signed yet another peace accord, this time with the Bodo Liberation Tigers. Most of the group’s leaders banded together to form a political party, the Bodo People’s Front, and became the administrators of a newly formed territorial council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution – which allows autonomous decentralised self-governance in some tribal areas of the North East. Called the Bodoland Territorial Council, it was to cover four contiguous districts together known as the Bodoland Territorial Area District. The Bodos account for only 30% of the total population in this area.

But the All Bodo Students’ Union and a few affiliate groups kept the statehood demand alive, maintaining that the current arrangement was inadequate. The separate state of Bodoland, as envisaged by the All Bodo Students’ Union, lies on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, stretches from Assam’s northwestern border to its easternmost tip, spanning around 25,000 square km. Assam’s total land area is slightly over 78,000 square km.

A map of the proposed Bodoland.

BJP in a bind

In the face of Tuesday’s rail blockade, the BJP is now in a bind. It formed a government in Assam for the first time in 2016 after allying with the Bodo People’s Front, the political adversary of the All Bodo Students’ Union. Consequently, the All Bodo Students’ Union, which had earlier been sympathetic to the BJP, withdrew its support to the party.

Rupam Goswami, a spokesperson for the BJP, said the party was trying its best to solve the statehood conundrum. But senior leaders admit in private that it is difficult to find a solution without offending one group or the other. “The Congress couldn’t do it in 15 years,” said a leader who did not want to be named. “How can they expect us to do it in less than two years?”