Violence in Assam's Bodo areas claimed over 70 lives, of mostly women and children, two days before Christmas. This came close on the heels of the carnage in Peshawar in Pakistan where 134 school children, taken as hostage, were killed by the Taliban. The true dimensions of what has been happening in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) of Assam can be gauged from the fact that violence wreaked by the same group, those who have been demanding a separate Bodo state, claimed 50 lives, mostly of women and children, in May this year and 100 lives in 2012. The Pakistan killings drew global attention; those in Assam passed relatively unnoticed even in most of India outside of its east.
The recent violence is the handiwork of the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) and the target has been adivasis, descendants of people brought to Assam by the British as indentured labour for tea gardens, who call themselves Hindus. The May and the 2012 violence, on the other hand, were directed against Bengali Muslims. In the aftermath of the May violence, the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's election campaign comments against illegal migrants from Bangladesh, as also inflammatory speeches by a member of Legislative Assembly of the Bodoland People's Front (BPF) that is a coalition partner of the ruling Congress in the state, were seen as provocations. That apart, the granting of statehood to Telangana appears to have prompted the Bodo militants to increase pressure by raising the level of violence.
Be it adivasi Hindus or Bengali Muslims, what makes them a common target is that they are non-Bodos and it is here that the results of the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency, which lies at the core of the Bodo area, this year that are instructive. All non-Bodos united behind Naba Kumar Sarania (a surrendered commander of the United Liberation Front of Asom that played the role of the NDFB in overall Assam), an independent, turning it into a Bodo-versus-non-Bodo battle.
The Bodos want a separate state and non-Bodos want security from attacks by Bodo militants, who seek to drive them out of the area in an exercise at ethnic cleansing that will let Bodos be the majority group in their ancient homeland. (They are the oldest inhabitants of Assam, not the Assamese Hindus that have been fighting from the late 1970s through the Assam agitation to retain their majority status in the state.) The results were an eye-opener, confirming the worst fears of the Bodo militants. Mr Sarania won, polling 52 per cent of the votes - with the official BPF candidate coming third!
There was similar Bodo-versus-adivasi violence in the area as long ago as 1996. So the issue is not new. Neither is the NDFB. Since its inception in 1986 it has gone through two splits. The current reality is that once the government through its paramilitary action corners the leaders of one militant outfit and arrests some of its leaders, the outfit agrees to talk to the government and comes overground. This is signal to the section that has not been a party to the talks to start their own militant violence. The process of government action then gets repeated with this second faction.
Currently, the government is talking to two factions of the NDFB and it is the third, led by I K Songbijit, that is at the forefront of the recent violence. It is considered to be totally lawless, engaging also in kidnapping and seeking ransom. Reportedly, not more than 200 active militants are holding the state to ransom, running a sort of parallel government in Sonitpur district. This is made possible by hideaways existing in neighbouring Myanmar and Bhutan, and a lot of illegal arms floating around in the region.
The violence is most obviously a failure of government - both at the state and the Centre. In the latest instance, the Centre put the state on alert, but to no purpose. The scale of the 2012 carnage was blamed on the army taking too long to intervene. Whichever way you look at it, the unified command set up to tackle the insurgency has not worked.
When the May violence took place the Congress government of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was roundly criticised for having the BPF as a partner. The eagerness to find a political solution to the militancy has led to politicians talking too easily to former militants. Regular politicians also try to gain mileage from the subterranean support for militants. The end result is today ethnic cleansing is being attempted with politicians trying to pull strings behind it.
Jharkhand has just got its first non-tribal chief minister. There can be no end to the violence unless Bodos are reconciled to the fact that the non-Bodos in Bodo areas are there to stay. Security action and political persuasion have to go hand in hand, with neighbouring countries being persuaded to close down the hideaways.