“Our candidate has won, but by too many votes,” said Ashrafuddin, a school teacher, describing independent candidate and former militant, Naba Kumar “Hira” Sarania’s presumed landslide victory from Assam’s Kokrajhar constituency, “I suppose people are happy, but nervous.”
A fortnight ago, a senior leader from the Bodoland People’s Front, the political face of former militant group - the Bodoland Liberation Tigers, blamed Assam’s Muslim population for the likely defeat of her party’s candidate in Kokrajhar, a reserved seat in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD).
Barely a day passed before unidentified gunmen killed at least 45 Muslims, most of them women and children, from the settlement across the river from Ashrafuddin’s primary school in Narayanguri. The incident stood out as a horrifying act of slaughter in a national election riven by incendiary speech and several episodes of contained violence.
This evening, Hira Sarania led the BPF’s Chandan Brahma by nearly 4 lakh votes, the first time a candidate supported by non-Bodo groups stands to win Kokrajhar, a seat traditionally controlled by the Bodo community. Now, Ashrafuddin said, Muslims in Kokrajhar feared another round of violence.
“It is very difficult to guess how this will impact the local politics of the BTAD,” said second placed U.G. Brahma, a Bodo leader who also contested as an independent, but he insisted that violence was unlikely.
“Why should there be violence? It is a sad thing as the Bodo people will remain unrepresented in parliament,” Brahma said last week when I asked him of the repercussions of Sarania’s possible victory, “But the result must be accepted.”
In 2012 however, Bodo-Muslim riots in Kokrajhar left over a hundred people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Fears of another conflagration, it seems, are not unfounded.
The Kokrajhar result is likely to reinforce a sense of persecution felt by large sections of the Bodo people. The BTAD was created in 2003 to defuse a protracted and violent insurgency for a separate Bodoland state, and reserved 30 of 46 council seats for Scheduled Tribes, as is the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat.
This has led to considerable angst amongst the non-tribal community, who are now more numerous than the Bodos but have little say in the daily functioning of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
Saranias are technically Bodo-Kacharis and were recently granted Scheduled Tribe status within the BTAD, but Hira Sarania – a former ULFA commander – is seen as an outsider aligned with non-tribal groups. The ULFA has historically fought for a greater Assam, while the Bodoland struggle began as an assertion of Bodo-identity as separate from a broader Assamese culture.
In his campaign, Muslims said, Sarania has indicated he will work to remove non-Bodo majority villages from the ambit of the BTAD – a signal Bodos have interpreted as an attempt to undermine the Bodoland accord.
Thus, non-tribal communities saw this election as a referendum of sorts on the creation of the BTAD.
Yet, both communities are likely to draw contradictory messages from Sarania emphatic victory. Bodos view his triumph as an indication that outsiders have marginalized and alienated the tribals in their own lands, which reinforces the need for reserved tribal seats in the ruling council.Non-tribals, on the other hand, see it as proof of the BTAD’s fundamentally undemocratic nature where Bodos, now demonstrably a minority, continue to control three fourths of the council.
Sarania himself cannot dissolve an autonomous district created by an act of parliament under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The BTAD will continue, but the killings must stop.