Hagrama Mohilary is used to being chief.
Till 2003, he was commander-in-chief of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, a banned militant outfit that waged an armed insurgency demanding a separate state carved out of Assam.
Since 2003, he has been chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council, the governing body for the Bodoland Territorial Region, earlier called the Bodoland Territorial Area District, a densely populated swathe of land covering four districts in western Assam. The council has powers and autonomies under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which provides for decentralised governance in certain tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.
But Mohilary suddenly has a challenger – and his friends and old comrades are starting to desert him.
The contender is Pramod Boro, until recently the president of the most influential Bodo civil society group, the All Bodo Students’ Union. In February, he became the face of a new accord signed with the Central and Assam governments – a deal that Union Home Minister Amit Shah has called the “final and comprehensive solution” to the vexed Bodo question.
In December, the Bodoland Territorial Council will finally go to polls after a pandemic-induced delay of almost eight months. Boro, who will make his electoral debut, will hope to ride on the triumph of the new Bodo accord. Unlike Mohilary, Boro had never taken up arms, making it somewhat remarkable that a non-militant has emerged as the face of a peace pact.
The two men are a study in contrast. Mohilary retains the look of the guerrilla fighter that he once was. Boro is bespectacled and fresh faced. Mohilary is blunt, often provocative. Boro, a gentle, soft-spoken man, will not utter a controversial word in public.
Despite the challenge, Mohilary is not ready to cede space yet. “The accord has nothing – zero,” he insisted in an interview to Scroll.in in February, sitting in a hotel that he owns in Kokrajhar. The town is the administrative headquarters of the Bodo council.
Since February, when the poll bugle was first sounded in the Bodoland Territorial Council, Mohilary’s woes have only increased. Since electioneering resumed in October, the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mohilary’s alliance partner since 2016, has turned against him.
Leading the charge is Assam cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was instrumental in bringing Mohilary to the BJP fold in 2016. In a recent election rally, Sarma said Mohilary would soon have to spend time in prison for corruption.
Sarma’s dramatic U-turn, many say, was an indication that Mohilary’s time in power may finally be up. Indeed, several of Mohilary’s aides have already jumped ship to join the BJP.
As Jyotiraj Pathak, who teaches political science at the Bodoland University, put it: “Mohilary is a lonely man now – and there’s no certainty which of his other aides will leave him when.”
The reign of the ‘chief’
The Bodos are the largest community notified as a tribe in Assam, accounting for nearly 6% of the state’s total population. For decades, the community has agitated for an ethnic homeland. From 1986, these demands spurred an armed insurgency. While the earliest Bodo militant groups fought for a sovereign homeland, the Bodo Liberation Tigers, formed in 1996, demanded statehood. It soon became the most powerful of the armed groups.
In 2003, the Tigers laid down arms and gave up the demand for statehood. In return, the Indian government granted the Tigers the Bodoland Territorial Council. An accord was signed to formalise this deal and Mohilary, courtesy his position as chief of the Tigers, was coronated interim chief executive member of the council till elections were held. In a Sixth Schedule council, the chief executive member wields authority that is comparable to that of a chief minister in a state.
In 2005, when polls to the council were held, Mohilary cemented his chief status. The Bodo People’s Progressive Front, the political party that was born out of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, won the elections virtually unopposed. Mohilary, not surprisingly, was chosen to be chief executive member yet again.
It was in keeping with the accord politics of the North East. Historically, the warring group that signed a peace agreement with the Centre has always had the first claim to power in the newly created political space. In the absence of competing claims, these transitions are often smooth and apparently transacted in the language of electoral democracy.
There are several such examples. Consider the Dimasa militants of Assam, who waged a violent war demanding a sovereign homeland for the community. In 2012, they signed a peace treaty with the Centre. A year later, the former militants formed government in the local Sixth Schedule council, largely unchallenged. It was a victory driven in equal measure by the momentum of the peace accord and the tacit support of the state government.
After the 2005 elections, Mohilary kept a firm hold on power in Bodoland. The Bodo People’s Progressive Front split and Mohilary’s faction, largely comprising his comrades from the Tigers, christened itself the Bodo People’s Front. In the two subsequent elections to the Bodoland Territorial Council, Mohilary’s party emerged victorious, albeit with a less pronounced majority each time.
Seventeen years after the accord was first signed, the official Bodoland Territorial Council website does not even bother with Mohilary’s official designation. It introduces him simply as “Chief, BTC”. That is how he is known across the region.
A new accord
In January, the Indian government signed yet another accord with Bodo nationalists, this time with the powerful All Bodo Students’ Union and four factions of the secessionist armed outfit, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Mohilary was also a signatory, but as a peripheral player, part of the state.
After the “memorandum of settlement”, the All Bodo Students’ Union “suspended” its core demand: statehood. The government, for its part, has committed to rehabilitating the cadres of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. This “final and comprehensive solution”, as Union Home Minister Amit Shah described it, is to “augment area and powers” of the Bodoland Territorial Council and “streamline its functioning”. As if to signal the transformation, the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts became the Bodoland Territorial Region.
The new accord leaves the door open for an alteration of the Bodo area’s borders: a commission will examine whether tribal-majority villages contiguous to the four districts can be made part of the Bodoland Territorial Region. The commission can also recommend the exclusion of villages with small tribal populations currently part of the Bodo council. Administratively, the accord paves the way for the autonomous council to have more of a say over the appointment of senior district officials.
But for the accord to be realised, the main signatories insist, they need to be in charge. “Now begins the main part of the struggle, to implement the accord,” said Kwrwmdao Wary, the assistant general secretary of the All Bodo Students’ Union. “And for that, the government must change.” It was only fair, Wary insisted, that the “major signatories [of the new accord] should form the new government”.
Wary seemed to be drawing on the old logic of accord politics: the group that signed for peace came to power. But the existence of two distinct accords – and the two different sets of signatories in each of them – has given rise to somewhat peculiar situation in Bodoland.
“It is a small council with only 40 seats – how many people can you accommodate within that, after all?” asked a Bodo academic who did not want to be named.
A failed truce
Initially, the BJP tried brokering a truce between Mohilary and Pramod Boro.
On paper, the Bodo People’s Front is an ally of the party, both at the Centre and in the state. Mohilary’s clout among voters in Bodoland, where almost 70% of the population do not identify themselves as Bodos, may have diminished over the years but still remains formidable.
On the other hand, the All Bodo Students’ Union has considerable sway over Assam’s overall Bodo population, which is scattered across the state. The students’ union has actively supported the BJP in recent Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. It was in the BJP’s best interests, observers said, to keep both sides close to itself, considering the state goes to polls early next year.
Pramod Boro and Mohilary are supposed to have met several times to work out a compromise, to no avail. Subsequently, Boro formally joined the United People’s Party Liberal, a party that the All Bodo Students’ Union has traditionally had close ties with. He was soon made president of the party.
Mohilary spoke at length about these negotiations at the Kokrajhar hotel that he owns. The top floor of the hotel is reserved for his official meetings. “BJP has been telling me to merge my party with UPPL,” he said. “I tried, and even offered the Rajya Sabha seat to Promod Boro. I even said I will give them 10-11 seats in the council, but I said you join BPF. There is no space for another alliance, I said, I am already in alliance with BJP.”
Pramod Boro and the United People’s Party Liberal, Mohilary claimed, refused the offer. “They insisted on keeping their party and forming an alliance instead,” he said.
A close aide of Pramod Boro confirmed that there were efforts to get him and Mohilary to patch up, but they were futile. As the negotiations fell through, the BJP announced that it would go solo this time. The party is contesting 26 of the 40 seats.
The BJP’s influence in the region, particularly in the rural pockets, is marginal. The elections, observers say, are likely to remain a two-horse race between the Bodo People’s Front and the United People’s Party Liberal.
Yet the BJP’s decision to put up a show of contesting is more than symbolic. “It is the virtual semi-final before the Assembly elections,” said Pathak. “They want to gauge where they stand and it will help them make a call on whom to ally with in the Assembly elections – the UPPL or the BPF.”
The United People’s Party Liberal, perhaps not surprisingly, seems to have taken a benign view of the BJP’s decision to contest on its own. It has refrained from attacking the saffron party, which it hopes would formally dump the Bodo People’s Front and embrace them in the Assembly elections. “That is a desirable situation, to be in alliance with the party in the power at the Centre and the state in the interest of implementing the accord,” said Brahmon Baglary, the United People’s Party Liberal’s vice-president. “The BJP is not in a position to come to power here on its own and we are very sure we will make it on the basis of the new accord, so maybe after the polls some sort of alliance can be there.”
Mohilary seemed to have seen this coming even before BJP started to openly hit out at him. Way back in February, Mohilary told this reporter, “The BJP’s priority is to dislodge us.”
Checks and balances
In public, Mohilary has been trying to convince people of the “futility” of the new accord. Behind closed doors, he has also been trying court some of the major stakeholders.
While he could not cut a deal with the All Bodo Students’ Union, there were still the former rebels from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland to contend with. Some have vowed to support him at a price: candidature in the council elections.
Accommodating them has meant dropping some incumbents from his party. To keep the balance intact, Mohilary admits, has not been an easy task. “I have to accommodate my own people too,” he said.
Out of the 37 seats the Bodo People’s Front is likely to contest and has announced candidates for, there are new faces for four. That includes one candidate each from three factions of the now disbanded National Democratic Front of Bodoland. According to Dhirendra Bodo, leader of one of the factions, the original demand of the “NDFB family” was 15 seats. “We signed the accord, we need to be in power to implement it,” he reasoned.
In the past, tussles over seat sharing in the council elections had created schisms that would lead to full-scale violence. It was what drove a wedge between the All Bodo Students Union and the Bodo People’s Front in the first place. In 2003, the students’ union had even submitted a “letter of support” for the pact between Mohilary and his Bodo Liberation Tigers and the Centre. But as bitterness over seat distribution in the 2005 elections grew, the students’ union drifted towards a faction of the National Democratic Font of Bodoland, giving it a new lease of life.
The same problem has plagued the United People’s Party Liberal, too. But UG Brahma, the adviser to the party and a former Rajya Sabha member, played down the possibility of a repeat of the violence that followed the last accord. Power struggles, he reasoned, were par for the course in “any political discourse” across the world. “So, it is really no different here, especially since the guns are gone now,” he said. “We will try and accommodate as many people as we can.”
The majority minority
But the sparring between the Bodo groups still skirts the deepest faultline in Bodoland. As political scientist Sanjib Baruah explained: “The new accord doesn’t overcome the basic contradiction of the earlier Bodo accords which has been responsible for successive episodes of ethnic violence in that region: that non-Bodos constitute a majority in many of those areas.”
The four districts that make up Bodo territory were convulsed by riots in 2012 and 2014 that left hundreds of people dead and thousands homeless for months on end.
After the riots, politics in the Bodo region was reduced largely to the binary of Bodo versus non-Bodo. Non-Bodo communities started banding together politically, setting aside their own histories of differences.
This led to the rise of Naba Hira Kumar Sarania, a former United Liberation Front of Asom militant, who positioned himself as the “saviour” of non-Bodos in the area. In 2014, Sarania was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kokrajhar, the constituency representing the four Bodo districts, as an independent candidate. He was re-elected in 2019.
Sarania has been critical of the new accord. “What is this accord which does not even take into account the 70% of the population that it will affect?” he complained.
Sarania, who has recently launched a new political outfit called the Gana Surakha Party, said they would contest all 40 seats this time. He insists that he was in the race to replace Mohilary as the new chief executive member of the Bodo council.
However, many say that the new accord, which has led to the suspension of the statehood movement, may diminish Sarania’s appeal among his support. “Earlier we used to be scared that if there is a separate state, our condition will become worse and that is why we wanted Sarania to be in Lok Sabha, to oppose that,” said Aminur Islam, who heads the Kokrajhar district unit of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union, which largely represents the interests of Muslims of migrant origin. “But now the statehood demand itself is gone.”
Sarania was unfazed. “The election results will show whether my relevance is over or not,” he declared.
The return of the Bodo state?
His conviction seems to stem from the belief that the demand for a separate Bodo state would return sooner or later.
Many within the Bodo community seem to think along similar lines. “Some people may have signed this accord, but those signatures do not reflect the will of the Bodo accord,” said Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary, a four-time Lok Sabha member from Kokrajhar and former chief of the All Bodo Students Union.
Before the 2003 accord, more pacifist elements of the Bodo movement, led by the All Bodo Students’ Union, had signed another agreement with the Assam government in 1993. It paved the way for the formation of a Bodo Autonomous Council that granted the community some degree of self-governance. Bwiswmuthiary signed this accord on behalf of the All Bodo Students Union.
The accord, however, pleased few. It led to more internecine violence as the Bodo nationalist struggle splintered into several factions. “Until and unless a separate state of BodoLand is carved out, this conflict will never be resolved,” said Bwiswmuthiary.
UG Brahma, once a strong proponent of Bodo statehood, struck a more philosophical note. “Nobody can predict the future,” he said. “During the course of a movement, a certain accord may come at a point of time, but the process of struggle never ends.”