Over 10 years after a series of blasts ripped through Assam, Ranjan Daimary, leader of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland(R), and 13 others were convicted on Monday for their role in the bombings by a special court.
In October 2008, bombs went off almost simultaneously in Guwahati and districts of Lower Assam, killing 88 people and injuring hundreds more. It capped a season of violence, where clashes between Muslims and Bodos in Darrang and Udalguri districts had left over 100 people dead and displaced a lakh and a half, according to some estimates. The bombings proved to be a precursor to further waves of violence that swept across Assam in 2012 and 2014, much of it centred on the Lower Assam districts that fall under the jurisdiction of the Bodoland Territorial Council.
Daimary, who has reportedly said he would challenge the conviction in a higher court, had been out on bail since 2013 after he agreed to peace talks with the government. His sister, Anjali Daimary, who heads the Bodo Women’s Justice Forum, said the peace process and judgments such as the one passed on January 28 could not go together.
Yet the families of those who died in the 2008 blasts and other incidents urge “exemplary punishment” for Daimary and his companions, as well as the reopening of cases that were withdrawn to make peace with militants in the Bodoland Territorial Areas District.
Daimary’s conviction points to the complexity of the problem that lies before the government: to resolve competing claims to land and identity, to bring peace to an area that has known violence for decades. The Bodo areas of Assam have settled into a restive calm over the last couple of years but many of the thousands displaced by violence have not been able to return home.
In Bodo nationalism, as Udayon Misra describes it, the ethnic identity of a relatively small group is inextricably tied to land. Cultural assertions that intensified through the 1950s were combined with anxieties about land, that Bodos, who traditionally practised shifting cultivation, were being dispossessed by other communities who had arrived later to participate in the growing colonial economy.
In the late 1960s, tribal groups in the state demanded “Udayachal”, an ethnic homeland carved out of Assam and granted Union Territory status. The next two decades saw the growth of an identity politics that revolved around the idea of “bhumiputra” or sons of the soil, populations defined as indigenous and in opposition to so-called “illegal migrants”.
In the early 1980s, Bodo groups made common cause with Assamese nationalists who led the anti-foreigners agitation. But the Assam Accord that ended the agitation left Bodo groups feeling marginalised, leading to the demand for a separate state, Bodoland, and the war cry of “divide Assam 50-50”.
Running parallel to this agitation, led by the All Bodo Students’ Union, was an armed movement for secession under the auspices of the Bodo Security Force, formed by Daimary. It was later renamed the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.
A fractured militancy
Like most militancies of the North East, the Bodo armed struggle grew splintered, especially after a failed peace accord in 1993. The Bodo Liberation Tiger Force was formed in 1996, demanding a separate state, not secession, and would be locked in battled with Daimary’s group for years. It was with the Liberation Tigers that the government signed the Bodo peace accord of 2003.
The National Democratic Front of Bodoland itself split into different factions over the question of talks with government. Though the group signed a ceasefire in 2005, one faction continued with acts of violence. After he was charged with engineering the 2008 bombings, Daimary was expelled from the group. It split the group into two, the pro-talks National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Progressive) and the faction led by Daimary, who resisted talks until 2012. That split the group further, with the new faction being led by IK Songbijit and still clinging to the demand of a sovereign Bodoland.
Through the 1990s, the militancy had led to mass killings, with Muslim and Adivasi groups largely targeted. In the last few years, the Songbijit faction has been responsible for most militant attacks – it was linked to the killing of Muslims in 2012 and the massacre of 76 Adivasis in Sonitpur in December 2014. In August 2016, it allegedly opened fire on a market in Kokrajhar district, part of the Bodo areas, killing 14.
A flawed peace
Meanwhile, the peace accord the government signed with the Liberation Tigers in 2003 proved to be flawed. Like elsewhere in the North East, the government pursued its misguided policy of engaging with one faction while continuing to crack down on the others. But there is also a problem with the territorial council it brought into being, with powers under the Sixth Schedule, which ensures autonomy to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
First, it only included the four districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang instead of the large expanse of land originally demanded. While this was designated Bodo area, Bodos formed only 30% of the population, a factor in the frequent violence, aimed at expelling other communities. Although writers like Misra characterise these conflicts as ethnic, not communal, Bengali-speaking Muslims have come to represent the main threat to lands perceived as Bodo territories in recent years.
Second, the accord provided for the withdrawal of cases against the cadres of the Liberation Tigers, who disbanded and formed the Bodoland People’s Front. It has won every council elections since then and established a fiefdom. Observers have argued that the government merely made a pact with the most powerful militant group in the region, institutionalising old structures of violence and domination. Besides, according to many accounts, the area remained flush with arms. The Bodo People’s Front was implicated in the ethnic clashes of 2012, with one legislator charged with inciting crowds.
Finally, while the Bodoland People’s Front grew comfortable, forging alliances with parties in the state government and thriving on Central funds, the old demands did not go away. The All Bodo Students’ Union and the Progressive faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland still agitate for a separate state. They claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised to look into the demand before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
As Daimary awaits his sentence and goes behind bars again, the old fault lines in Assam have opened up again by different state policies. The National Register of Citizens, meant to be a list of genuine Indian citizens in the state, is being updated for the first time since 1951, aimed at detecting undocumented migrants in the state, usually Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims. The BJP has pushed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill through the Lok Sabha. If enacted, it would make citizens out of a large number of Bengali Hindu migrants who poured into the state from Bangladesh. Both measures have led to a consolidation of identities defined as indigenous, in Assam as well as other states across the North East.
But in the Bodo areas, other groups still make rival claims for an ethnic homeland. Meanwhile, the anxieties about land have not disappeared. Despite Central packages, the council areas remain poor and underdeveloped, with most of the population still dependant on land.
The underlying causes of the Bodo conflict and 2008 blasts have gone nowhere, nor have the peace talks initiated by government with different militant factions. As Assam threatens to tip into instability once more, the government has its works cut out, undoing years of flawed policies.