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War & Peace In Bodo Theatre

POSTED ON JANUARY 2, 2009

WASBIR HUSSAIN
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE STUDIES

It is now confirmed that the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), one of Northeast India’s frontline separatist groups, has split into two factions. The group’s exiled president Ranjan Daimary alias D. R. Nabla was replaced by his deputy, vice-president B. Sungthagra alias Dhiren Boro last month. Nabla responded by claiming he continues to be the president and dubbed the Boro faction as having literally sold-out to the Government. On the first day of the New Year, January 1, the Dhiren Boro group expelled Nabla from the outfit. This after an arrested NDFB cadres told police that the October 30, 2008 serial blasts that had rocked Assam was carried out under direct orders from Nabla.

But, that is not the big news anymore on the Bodo insurgency front. The big news is that the Government has not extended the ceasefire with the NDFB that expired on December 31, 2008. “The truce has not been extended. I agree that the situation is nebulous now and action will be taken by the security forces against NDFB cadres who are outside the designated camps,” a top Assam Government official told this writer. But, in all probability, the ceasefire with the Dhiren Boro faction will be extended sooner than later, particularly after this group has made enough demonstration of having distanced itself from the Nabla group. Dhiren Boro has since described the October 30 blasts as a clear act of terrorism.

That the Bodo insurgent group, on a ceasefire with the Indian Government since May 25, 2005, has actually split had become clear on December 15, 2008 when some of its top leaders held a ‘general assembly’ at a truce-time designated camp in Assam and replaced its exiled president Nabla. NDFB vice-president Dhiren Boro, physically present and in the open in Assam, was elected president, leading to speculations in the media whether the rebel group has split into pro and anti-talk factions.

Nabla himself set aside all speculations on December 27, 2008 when he sent an e-mail to journalists confirming the split. Daimary, believed by Indian authorities to be based and operating from Bangladesh, said: “…I am still the President of the NDFB that has been fighting for the last 22 years for the right to national self-determination, independence and sovereignty of the Boro people.” The exiled NDFB leader made it clear that he was not representing those of his group’s cadres who, he said, have “capitulated the ideology and principle of the NDFB by submitting a memorandum on the 30th September, 2008 to the Government of India and who have adopted a resolution to take part in Indian elections.”

This development—that is likely to trigger fresh fratricidal clashes among rebel factions in Assam’s western and northern Bodo tribal heartland— raises questions as to whether going for a ceasefire with insurgent groups is a right approach in the quest for peace. For more than three years after the NDFB-New Delhi truce, it appeared as if the entire NDFB top-brass was on board. That it was not the case became clear when several NDFB cadres were found to have been involved in the deadly bomb explosions in Assam on October 30, 2008 that killed 89 people and injured more than 500 others. Besides, recent video footage showed Nabla himself inspecting a passing out parade of new NDFB recruits at a base, which intelligence sources say, is located in Bangladesh despite the group being on a ceasefire with the Government.

If Nabla—founder president of the NDFB (formed on October 3, 1986)— was keeping his fighting machine oiled, leaders like Dhiren Boro and general secretary B Swmkhwr alias Govinda Basumatary went out of their way to extend the olive branch to the authorities, particularly after the heat in the wake of the October 30, 2008 blasts. The Assam-based leadership sought to distance itself from Nabla & Co. and quickly replaced him with Dhiren Boro as the new president. Besides, to halt the long arm of the law, the Assam-based leaders announced they would directly or indirectly participate in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. “…We are thinking of playing a role in the elections,” the pro-talk NDFB faction has said. The group headed by Dhiren Boro and Govinda Basumatary tried hard to hammer home the point to the authorities that the entire NDFB as a group cannot be blamed for acts of terror that may have been committed by a faction in the group or those owing allegiance to hardliners like Nabla. The divide was clear and Nabla’s statement on December 27, 2008 only confirmed the split.

The Government now has new challenges in hand—the possibility of clashes between pro and anti-talk NDFB factions is indeed high. Secondly, the Government, both at the Centre and the State, have suddenly realized that Bodo insurgency was not going to end after all even if a peace agreement was reached with the NDFB group headed by Dhiren Boro and Govinda Basumatary. The Nabla faction too is aware of the challenges facing the group. Therefore the clever ploy by Nabla to seek peace with the cadres of the now disbanded Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). “Today, as president of the NDFB, I declare to stop all enmity between NDFB and ex-BLT members on the basis and spirit of 1999 agreement between BLT and NDFB. So I appeal (to) our members and ex-BLT cadres to refrain from attacking each other for the greater interest of the Boro nation,” Nabla said in the statement. The exiled NDFB leader knows that he cannot afford to have both the pro-talk NDFB faction and the former BLT men as his enemies.

Aside from the challenges at hand, the Government’s strategy of postponing peace by letting the ceasefire with rebel groups on a truce mode linger on needs tough questioning. Examples of insurgent groups on ceasefire in the Northeast getting restive and breaking away can be found in plenty. The two best examples are the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction) or the NSCN-IM and now, the NDFB. The NSCN already had two factions (the other being the Khaplang faction or the NSCN-K), but the tortuous road to peace as evident by the inability of the group and the Government to reach any agreement had led to infighting and eventually a split. The formation of the NSCN (Unification) on November 23, 2007 by some NSCN-IM cadres headed by its one-time ‘home minister’ Azheto Chopey is a case in point. The latest turn of events within the NDFB leading to the split is another example of long ceasefires without any tangible resolution of the conflict triggering factionalism within insurgent groups.

The security establishment might actually be happy that groups like the NSCN or the NDFB have suffered splits. But as things stand on the ground, these are not welcome developments in so far as finding lasting peace in any insurgency theatre is concerned. Aside from having to deal with internecine violence, the Government in such a faction-ridden insurgency theatre will be required to accommodate the socio-political aspirations of several factions within a small playing arena. In the Bodo heartland of Assam, for instance, three major rebel forces are currently at play: (a) the former BLT militants who have since transformed into a political party called the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) and is in power at the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC); (b) the Dhiren Boro faction of the NDFB that is the faction on a ceasefire and making its intention of joining electoral politics clear, and (c) the hardline NDFB faction headed by Nabla that is obviously outside the purview of the truce. This means, three major forces, aside from the mainstream political forces, are fighting for the same political space, all promising to work for the interest of their community, the Bodos.

Another question can be asked: can the Nabla faction of the NDFB be isolated? Or, will the Nabla faction become irrelevant in Bodo politics with the passage of time since a major group is out in the open and is talking of reconciliation with New Delhi? That may not quite happen because if the authorities now come to take the Dhiren Boro faction for granted and adopt their favourite strategy of postponing peace by not putting the peace talks on the fast track to reach a possible solution, it could well be this faction (headed by Dhiren Boro) that may end up getting isolated. If that happens, the Nabla faction will once again come to call the shots and make a comeback with fresh recruitments and fresh acts of violence. Will the Government then start afresh by extending an olive branch to the Nabla group? This can be a never ending process really.

It is time the Government reviews its step-by-step approach at peace-making in the country, particularly in the Northeast. As things stands today, ceasefires with insurgent groups are clearly nothing but a time-buying mechanism adopted by the authorities to restore a semblance of order in the insurgency theatres across the region. Often the authorities are clueless as to how they are going to take the peace process to the next level after reaching a truce with a rebel group. On their part, rebel groups agree to truce offers or offer truce on their own as a tactical ploy to get the pursuing security force off its back and regroup. The Government needs to think if it should henceforth make it mandatory for the top leaders of any insurgent group to agree to come out from hiding and stay in designated camps before a ceasefire agreement is signed. That may change things and prevent hardliners to snap a truce and talk of war.