A significant achievement of the NDA Government II is the conclusion of the Bodo Accord on 27 January 2020 which will hopefully bring to an end the separatist movement of Bodos. Being signatories to the Accord, militant Bodo groups have agreed to drop the demand for separate State of Bodoland – a big step towards peace and progress in the North-East and also for strengthening the North-East Region for national security. Militant groups are reported to have surrendered their weapons.
Bodos constitute the largest tribe of Assam in the northern part of Brahmaputra Valley who claim to be natives of Assam. More than 50 per cent of Bodos are Scheduled Tribes. In 1966, Bodo tribals formed the Plains Tribal Council of Assam and demanded a separate Territory of Udayanchal. After 1980s, Bodo Movement became rather violent with three groups – one demanding a separate State, another asking greater autonomy, and a third seeking more powers and places in the State administration.
Prime Minister Modi visited Assam on 8 February for the first time after the passing of the CAA to participate in the celebrations over the Bodo Accord after cancellation due to protests against the CAA of two visits that were announced earlier. This time, the Bodo Accord has served to unite Assamese to partake in the celebrations of Bodos. This accord, as important as the Assam Accord (1985), which is hailed as a historic document, has failed to receive its due place in public discussions because of massive protests in many places against the CAA, NRC, and the NPR stealing prime time in the national media.
Congratulating Bodos for adopting the “right path’, the PM assured them that hereafter no “thorn” would prick them. He also announced Rs.1,500 crore package for Bodo areas to help build their infrastructure and employment opportunities. He ensured them safety and security, and promotion of their language and cultural and regional interests. Bodos agreed to lay down arms and start afresh in peaceful manner. PM called upon youth in the North-East, the Naxal areas, and J&K to follow the Bodo example. Reliance on guns, arms, and pistols has to be given up voluntarily for any peace accord.
Under this peace pact, the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) has been created and vested with legislative and executive powers. The region will include areas inhabited by Bodos by adjustment of borders to include Bodo settlements and exclude predominantly non-Bodo villages.
The 40 member Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) created under the earlier agreement made in 2003 has been enlarged with addition of 20 members.
This is the third accord signed by Bodos. The first was made in 1993 which created Bodoland as an autonomous administrative unit under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The second made in 2003 provided for the BTC l for comprehensive development of the area including preservation of land rights, promotion of linguistic aspirations, and socio-cultural and ethnic identities.
In 2005, the first legislative council was formed with 40 members. Six members were nominated by the Governor to look after the interests of unrepresented communities living in the area.
BTR had been a disturbed area for long and militant groups were increasing in number and size and were spreading violence and hatred. Riots rendered thousands of people homeless in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD). Constant clashes between the Bodos and Muslims who were said to be mostly illegal immigrants from Bangladesh described as “settlers” constantly disturbed normal life. Such conflicts provide a fertile ground for raising demand for autonomy.
BTAD is a typical example showing how demands for autonomy for indigenous communities can go wrong when political guarantees of peace and security are not covered in dialogues and political agreements. Constitutional arrangements for more autonomy, decentralization, and wider participation are necessary in appeasing groups asking for more powers, but not adequate as a lasting settlement between warring groups. In dealing with militant groups, peace arrangements must specifically include clauses for ending violence in any degree or form.
The lapse is rectified to a great extent in the present accord which seeks to restore peace and harmony along with more autonomy in decision-making. Thousands of cadres of the National Democratic Front of Bodos (NDFB) are reported to be ready to adopt a peaceful life and join the mainstream and have surrendered their arms. A general amnesty for militants and review of cases involving more heinous crimes case by case are offered to avoid revengeful actions that would mar the atmosphere of peace.
The signatories of the 2020 Bodo Accord include Union Government and Assam Government on one side, and the NDFB, All Bodo Students’ Union, and United Bodo People’s Organization on the other. The agreement increased the number of members of the Territorial Council as 60.
A settlement involving the life and future of a complex population is no simple job. The Bodo Accord is said to be beneficial in many ways to non-Bodos in BTAD. It is necessary to keep the non-Bodos satisfied with the Accord so that the Accord will not go the way of BTC Accord. Ethnic and cultural identities are real and meaningful, but they cannot be allowed to rule over national identity. People of any State or any territory speaking any language are Indians first.
Among many development projects granted to the Bodos, most significant are a national sports university, central universities, a railway coach factory, centres of the Sports Authority of India, a cancer hospital and a medical college, a veterinary college, institutes of livelihood management and hotel management, a regional campus of Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, a museum, a national institute of technology, institutes for rural development, vocational training, fine arts, youth centres, auditoriums, etc. ST Hills Status to Bodos living in hill areas is now a possibility in near future.
Bodos will naturally enjoy a special status as “domiciles” and “outsiders” will require “permit” to work in their areas. The territory is exempt from the Citizenship Amendment Act implying a halt to extending citizenship to immigrants in the interest of protecting local Bodos. The spirit of this proposal needs to be understood.
If the tripartite agreement on Bodoland, which is expected to end over 30 years old militancy in the North-East, paves way for similar peaceful settlement of other long pending demands in the North-East, it will open a new era for the entire region by speeding up the process of inclusive development of the nation. Perhaps, Nagas stand a chance of settlement soon.
This Accord has retained the territorial integrity of the State of Assam while meeting the special needs and aspirations of a particular group of people within the State. Why a similar solution was not possible in the States that have been bifurcated giving rise to enormous expenditure deserves to be examined. Those cases seem to combine lack of political will and play of power politics. When ethnic and linguistic differences form the basis for political mobilisation, the result is division of States. Bodo Accord is a model to be considered seriously by militant groups demanding autonomy and reorganisation of States.