Last week, Assam was rocked by terror strikes in the Bodo capital of Kokrajhar. Nearly 14 people were gunned down by militants belonging to National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) . Curiously, in an attempt to mislead the armed forces, the militants tried to camouflage their attack as an attack by Islamic extremists. Also, in a departure from their usual practices, 6 of the 13 victims were Bodos, whose cause the NDFB(S) claims to espouse. The terror strike was another violent act carried out by the plethora of extremists supporting various secessionist causes that thrive in the North Eastern part of the country. Incidentally, this is the first security challenge that the new Assam government, under Sarbananda Sonowal faces. Visiting Kokrajhar after the attack, Sonowal promised that the perpetrators of the massacre would be brought to the book.
Kokrajhar Terror Attack: The History of Bodos
The Bodos represent one of the largest of the 18 ethnic sub-groups within the Bodo-Kachari group. Nearly 90% of Bodos follow their own unique version of Hinduism, while the remaining are Christians. Bodos are a significant community in the Northwestern part of Assam on the northern bank of Brahmaputra River. Udalguri and Kokrajhar have traditionally been considered as the centres of Bodo culture. Assam, which has been populated by Austro-Asian, Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan speakers has a substantial population of indigenous people. While historically a part of Assam, these indigenous people have their own independent cultures. Cut off from the national mainstream by geography and distance, political conscience dawned on this part of the country only after independence. However, In 1930, a Bodo leader by the name of Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma had submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission for a separate administration for the tribal and indigenous people of Assam, a demand that was not considered.
Kokrajhar Terror Attack: The Bodo Movement
After independence, illegal immigration resulted in Bodos and other tribals being edged out of their homeland. Realizing this, the Plains Tribals Council of Assam, in the early 1960s, demanded the creation of a new state, Udayachal for Bodos and other Plains Tribals. However, the Central government and the government of Assam did not take this demand seriously. Lack of development, coupled with political disempowerment resulted in marginalization of the Bodo community. The All Bodos students Union (ABSU) came to the fore to fight for the cause of Bodo community. Assam in the 70s and 80s was rocked by the Assam agitation. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the ABSU joined hands to fight the hated illegal immigrant. The ABSU had in the meanwhile emerged as a significant force under the leadership of Upendra Nath Brahma. In 1982, Bodo was recognized as an official language of Assam, a major demand of the ABSU. However, the camaraderie between the AASU and ABSU was short lived. The Assam accords signed in 1986 included a clause ”protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people” that the Bodos felt marginalized them. Upendra Nath Brahma, a key leader in Assam agitation was denied ticket to Lok Sabha, returned home to move Bodos away from Assam. ABSU set up a political arm, Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC) In 1987, ABSU/BPAC demanded that Assam be split 50-50 and a separate state of Bodoland be established. The movement soon turned violent.
Kokrajhar Terror Attack: The rise of NDFB
Simultaneously, the Bodo movement acquired a new face, Ranjan Daimary, who had set up an armed force called Bodo Security Force (BdSF). The BdSF soon evolved into National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The NDFB became notorious for extortions, abductions and senseless killings. The Indian Army came down heavily on the NDFB, forcing them to retreat to Bhutan. In the meanwhile, the government of Assam, waking up to threat of terrorism sought to placate the Bodos with autonomy. The Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC) was created in 1993 to fulfill the socio-political aspirations of Bodos. The peace accord signed between the government of Assam, the BPAC and ABSU, however, fell through within a year due to non-implementation of various clauses of the accord. Agitation continued for another decade, with the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF), resorting to violence as a means of furthering their cause. After years of negotiations, representatives of BLTF signed the second Bodo Peace Accords with the government of Assam and the Central government. The accord paved the way for creation of a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and the mass surrender of BLTF fighters. The BTC spreads over the districts of Kokrajhar, Udalguri, Baksa and Chirang, where roughly 30% of the population is Bodo. Following the accord, the BLTF morphed into Bodoland People’s front (BPF), a political party. The ABSU, in the meanwhile still continues to hold on to its demand for statehood for Bodoland. NDFB on the other hand continued to be opposed to talks with the government.
NDFB, which had established its reputation as one of the most violent players in the Bodoland tussle, under pressure from Indian Army’s operations, had shifted its operations to Bhutan. In the early 2000s, the Indian Army with the help of the Royal Bhutan Army launched a massive operation to flush out NDFB militants hiding in Bhutan. The group declared a ceasefire and soon came to the table for negotiations with the government. Ranjan Daimary continued to insist on an independent Bodoland, a position that didn’t endear him to his other colleagues. NDFB split into NDFB (Progressive) that supported negotiations with the goverment and NDFB (Ranjan Daimary) faction. In 2010, Ranjan was apprehended by Bangladeshi security forces and was handed over to India. With Daimary in jail, Ingti Kathar Songbijit, who was hell bent on his demand for an independent Bodoland split from NDFB and formed NDFB (S). Interestingly, Sonbijit is himself not an ethnic Bodo, but a Karbi. According to him, India will split into 600 pieces due to differences in caste, religion and community. Under Songbijit, NDFB (S) has become synonymous with terrorism and mindless violence. Songbijit himself is believed to view civilian deaths as nothing more than collateral damage. Another curious feature of NDFB (S) has been that most of its members belong to the small Christian minority of Bodos, In addition to secessionism, another key demand of NDFB(S) militants is the replacement of Devanagari script used to write Bodo language with Latin script.
Kokrajhar Terror Attack: The road ahead
After years of living under terror, ordinary Assamese, be they Bodos or others have no appetite for violence. This is evident from the fact that even the likes of Ranjan Daimary now support peace. This desire for peace was also evident in the recently concluded state elections in Assam, where the Bodoland People’s front won 12 of the 13 seats it contested. Additionally, the political establishment in Assam and in Delhi want to do everything to prevent Assam from sliding down the path of terror and violence that characterized the 80s and the 90s. No wonder that the strategic group of Assam’s unified command structure composed of the Army, state police and state paramilitary forces has declared its intention to go all out against NDFB(S). Ability to tackle the NDFB(S) is also seen a big test for CM Sarbananda Sonowal and PM Modi’s vision for Assam. There is no doubt then that the days ahead should see the noose tighten around the neck of NDFB(S).