Debating India

A positive turn in Assam

Saturday 28 May 2005

The tripartite ceasefire agreement among the Centre, the Assam Government, and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland is one more incremental step towards the settlement of an issue that has added to the unrest and violence in the State and more generally in the North-East. The truce agreement, signed on May 25, was the logical follow-up on the Bodo group’s unilateral ceasefire in October 2004. That was the first positive signal to emerge from the group, which has carried out a violent campaign for an independent Bodoland for more than a decade. Indeed the NDFB is widely held responsible for two bomb attacks in Nagaland that killed 24 people on Gandhi Jayanti last year, days before it declared a ceasefire. The group evidently intended the attacks as a show of strength after the Bhutan Government took military action to close down its camps, along with the bases of the other North-East militant outfits, in 2003. However, the NDFB also seems to have realised that conducting a sustained campaign for its goal of an independent Bodoland would be difficult with a depleted leadership. The arrest of Bijoy Boro, the NDFB’s "deputy commander-in-chief" in Bangkok in July 2004, capped a series of surrenders and arrests of top leaders of the group since 2002. After the Nagaland blasts, NDFB chairman Ranjan Daimary eagerly grasped Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s offer of talks. He declared a six-month unilateral truce, which led to the recent ceasefire agreement.

Hopefully, talks between the Government and one of the most intransigent militant groups in the North-East will follow soon. The negotiations will not be easy. The NDFB has not said it is prepared to give up its demand for a sovereign state of Bodoland carved out of areas north of the Brahmaputra, where most of the 1.5 million Bodo people live. The other prickly issue is the Bodo Territorial Council set up in 2003 after an agreement between the Centre and the Bodo Liberation Tigers, arch rivals of the NDFB. The BTC is an autonomous regional council designed to fulfil the economic, linguistic, and educational aspirations of the Bodos within Assam. The NDFB opposes it fiercely. Elections to the 40-seat Council were held for the first time on May 13 with the Bodo People’s Progressive Front, a party built out of the now disbanded BLT, and the All Bodo Students’ Union as the main contestants. But the results have been withheld indefinitely on account of widespread irregularities. This means a delay in the disbursement of the annual Central grant of Rs.100 crore to the Council for five years, from the time elected members take charge of it. There may be dismay over this setback and at the "infighting" among the Bodos that the election set off, but there is no denying the large-scale participation in it. A peace process involving the NDFB will need to take this into account and to ensure that all sections of Bodos, including the erstwhile BLT, get on board. Only this can guarantee a lasting settlement to the Bodo question, and bring to an end at least one of Assam’s many troubles.

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