It is allegedly the Bodos’ fear of losing political clout that led to the latest wave of attacks in Bodoland Territorial Area Districts in Assam.
Eight more bodies were recovered on Saturday in Baksa district even as the ruling Congress government in the state decided to probe the incidents by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The death toll in the mayhem, which began on Thursday midnight, has gone up to 30. But official sources said only 28 bodies had been retrieved so far. The victims were all Bengali-speaking Muslims. “We’ve decided to probe the incidents by the NIA. No one will be spared if found responsible for the violence,” chief minister Tarun Gogoi told reporters after a cabinet meeting even as he reiterated that he would not step down. “I won’t resign. I’m not a coward that I will flee from the battlefield,” he said. The opposition parties, besides groups and organisations, are demanding his resignation for “total breakdown of law and order machinery”.
There was no fresh attack on Saturday but an angry mob of an affected village burnt two forest camps in Baksa district.
The BTAD, comprising four districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Chirang and Udalguri, has the lone Parliamentary seat of Kokrajhar. It has 14,92,404 voters but non-Bodos make up 70% of them. In fact, the Bodos constitute only 30% of the 31,00,000 people inhabiting in BTAD.
The conflict between Bodos and non-Bodos first came to the fore ahead of the creation of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003. It got intensified after around 600 villages with alleged zero percent Bodo population were included in the BTC.
Non-Bodos allege that they have often been subjected to assaults, intimidations, killings, abductions and extortions by the Bodo militants and elements. So this election, a conglomerate of 22 influential non-Bodo organisations had backed a former Ulfa leader Heera Sarania, who contested as an independent from Kokrajhar. Bengali-speaking Muslims, who have a sizeable population in BTAD, alleged that they became the ‘soft targets’ of the Bodos for backing Sarania.
The latest attacks bring back memories of the 2012 ethnic riots in which over 100 people, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, were killed in BTAD. Several thousand of them, displaced by the riots, are still lodged in relief camps.
Bodo extremist groups – some have laid down arms and are in ceasefire with the government – have no disagreement on the demand of “Bodoland state”. In fact, even the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), which rules the BTC and is led by former BLT leaders, raised the demand for a separate homeland both within and outside the Parliament from time to time. The Bodoland statehood movement has its genesis in the 1967 demand by Bodos – largest plains tribal group in the Northeast – for carving a Union Territory named Udayachal out of Assam. The demand was raised by the Plains Tribal Council of Assam following the realisation that tribal blocks and belts notified by the British were being acquired by rich immigrant landlords.
But the Bodos’ demand for statehood had only distanced the non-Bodos from them. The creation of BTC in the face of a series of protests by non-Bodos is a pointer. The Bodos, who have already been outnumbered in BTAD, view the alarming rise in Muslim population – Bengali-speaking Muslims to be precise – as a potential threat. The Muslims are scattered partly on forest land and largely on the sandbars. “Neither the Bodos hate Muslims nor the Muslims hate Bodos. Some groups with political interests have often incited violence in BTAD,” said Pramode Bodo, leader of All Bodo Students’ Union. “The Muslims have a population of around 3,00,000 in BTAD and Bodos don’t see them as a threat,” he added.
“The latest wave of attacks is purely political in nature because the Muslims along with other non-Bodo communities had supported Heera Sarania (a non-Bodo) in the polls. The Bodos know that he will win,” Dilwar Hussain, a Muslim leader, told dna.