In Assam’s Kokrajhar, hit by insurgency and ethnic conflict, the Election Commission’s mantra these Lok Sabha polls is ‘ballot not bullet’.
In every nook and corner of the district one can see the Election Commission’s wall murals asking voters to choose the ballot over the bullet, a test of democracy in an area rife with insurgency. By the look of it, the ballot will decide the socio-political dominance between communities who are at each others’ throats, sharply distrustful. However, one policeman has been killed in poll-related violence on Thursday, April 24.
Kokrajhar and its history of riots is perhaps the insignia of the darker side of the ethnic diversity of Indian’s Northeast. Kokrajhar has seen a series of clashes between the Bodos and other communities.
For the first time in its political history Kokrajhar since 1952 has witnessed such a multi-cornered fight. A total of six candidates are in the fray from Kokrajhar, a tribal reserved constituency in the Lok Sabha. This fight has become more interesting with a sharp divide between the Bodo and non-Bodo voters, and a fractured Bodo community from within.
Between a surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) commander who was once the biggest terror in Lower Assam, a former governor, a powerful state minister and a sitting MP, the electoral battle for Kokrajhar is evenly poised.
The non-Bodo community has united and put up a joint independent candidate, Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira Sarania, the surrendered commander of the ULFA’s erstwhile 709 battalion, who has the support of the Sanmilita Janagostiya Aikkyamancha (SJA).
Since the 2012 Kokrajhar riots, the non-Bodos in the area, who make up more than 70% of the electorate in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD), don’t see eye to eye with the Bodos. Most of the non-Bodo organisations are dead against the idea of the creation of a separate Bodoland state. The area is witnessing a parallel separate Kamtapur state movement of the Koch Rajbongshi people, who also support Sarania.
The 2003 Bodoland Accord signed between the underground Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), which was led by Mohilary, and the then NDA regime at the centre paved the way for the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). Sarania, who during his underground days was known for his ability to give the slip to security forces, feels that it is time the Bodo domination ends.
The sitting MP, Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), has been representing Kokrajhar since 1998. Bwiswmuthiary, a former leader of the powerful All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), has been very vocal in the parliament for creation of a separate Bododland state. Despite his being the MP for 16 years, his party has this time nominated powerful party leader and Assam transport minister Chandan Brahma for the Kokrajhar seat instead. Bwiswmuthiary, opposing the party’s decision, is contesting as an independent candidate.
After the Centre’s decision on Telagana, the demand for separate statehood for Bodoland has gained fresh impetus, with a series of blockades and strikes in support. Since Kokrajhar is the entry point to Northeast India through the famous North Bengal chicken’s neck, the Centre does not want disturbance in Kokrajhar. A one-man expert committee headed by former Union home secretary GK Pillai has been set up to study the viability of creation of a separate Bodoland state.
The pro-Bodoland lobby in Kokrajhar has come out in support the former Rajya Sabha MP from Kokrajhar Urkhao Gwra Brahma, another former ABSU leader, an independent candidate. Also in the fray is former Meghalaya Governor Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary on a Trinamool Congress (TMC) ticket, making the contest very high profile. Mooshahary, a former DG of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the NSG is expected to take away a sizable number.
With two killings by suspected Bodo rebels 24 hours ahead of the polls, security is a big challenge in Kokrajahr, as it always has been. In the run up to the polls, Kokrahar has witnessed a huge amount of poll related violence. 130 polling stations have been identified as hyper-sensitive, and 220 sensitive. There are a total of 2,049 polling stations in the constituency.
The 15 lakh voters of Kokrajhar have witnessed insurgency from point blank range. Whenever one rebel group has come above ground, another has cropped up. Killing, extortion, and bandhs have been the order of the day for three decades. Thus, when Kokrajhar voted, it has surely done so against bullets.