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Assam’s Telangana Fallout


RESEARCH ASSOCIATE, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

Politics of ethnicity in Assam finds itself in a boil with the Central Government’s sudden announcement about bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to form a new state - Telangana. The announcement was made on the midnight of December 9, 2009 by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram after talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The critical announcement has led to instant reverberations with widespread demands by different ethnic communities for separate statehoods in the Northeast, North Bengal and elsewhere.

Till the Telangana announcement was made, most of the ethnic groups seeking homeland in states like Assam seemed to be content with their existing autonomous status or have been agitating to press for greater autonomy. But the Congress-led UPA government’s decision regarding the formation of Telangana has entirely changed the situation. The move has acted like a spark to reignite and strengthen the aspirations of different ethnic groups or organizations in Assam, if not the common ethnic people. Take the case of Jharkhand: after Jharkhand became a state, it is the state’s political leadership rather than the common people who benefited by the sudden claim to power and central funds. Corruption became the buzzword in Jharkhand, but that’s another story.

Now, in Assam, student groups representing different ethnic communities, pro-talk factions of several ethnic insurgent groups, ethnic allies of the Congress-led government in the State, and even tribal MPs from the ruling Congress itself, have raised demands for separate states to be curved out of Assam. Groups and organizations have come to the street raising their voices for their respective homeland dreams, many parts of the State has been paralyzed by bandhs called by them for the support of their demands. Dimasa bodies like the All Dimasa Students’ Union (ADSU), Dimasa People’s Council (DPC) and Dimasa Mahila Samaj (DMS), called a 36-hour Dimaraji bandh covering NC Hills including, Karbi Anglong and parts of Nagaon and Cachar districts with effect from 5 am of December 15. The CPI (ML) called a 12-hour Karbi Anglong and NC Hills bandh from 5 am on December 14 demanding an autonomous State.

The Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) too called a 60-hour NC Hills and Karbi Anglong bandh from 5 am of December 15 demanding implementation of Article 244(A) relating to autonomous Statehood. Again, four other Karbi bodies led by the Karbi Students’ Association (KSA) also called a 24-hour Karbi Anglong bandh from 5 am of December 24 demanding autonomous State, the United Democratic People’s Front (UDPF), a Bodo front, called a 24-hour Assam bandh from 5 am of December 15 demanding a separate Bodoland State. The Indigenous Tribal People’s Federation (ITPF) extended its support to the UDPF bandh. So, the statehood demand in Assam has turned into a chorus. The statehood bandwagon continued with the Koch Rajbongshis demanding a separate Kamatapur State. About nine Koch Rajbongshi organizations of Assam and West Bengal announced several agitation programmes (fast unto death, mass rallies, etc.).

Not just student and political groups, even insurgent groups seeking to push the interests of these ethnic communities have found fodder to press for achievement of their respective goals. Thus, the pro-talk faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) demands a separate Bodoland state, the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) has upped the ante for a Dimaraji State, the Karbi Longri National Liberation Front (KNLF) finds no reason why a separate Karbi homeland cannot now be granted, and the Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO) hopes to achieve a Kamatapur homeland.

Coinciding with the Telangana episode, an eight-member delegation of Congress leaders led by MP Biren Singh Engti visited New Delhi and called on UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi demanding an autonomous State. While Rajya Sabha MP Biswajit Daimary raised the demand in the Upper House on December 10, Karnendu Basumatry, legislator of Bodo Peoples Front (BPF), a partner in ruling coalition in Assam, placed the matter of creation of separate Bodoland in the State Assembly on December 11. "If the government could grant a separate state to Jharkhand, Uttarkhand, Chattisgarh and now Telengana, then in the same line, Bodoland separate state demand has been a long standing demand. It's genuine economically, socially, politically, educationally, and can make our community more advanced," said K Basumatary, Chief Whip, Bodoland People's Front in support of the demand.

There is no doubt that the Centre’s Telangana strategy is definitely going to make a tremendous impact on the State politics with challenges for the ruling Congress in view of the coming Assembly Elections scheduled for 2011. If the Congress has been expecting a sweeping victory in the Assembly polls for the third time, the current issue of statehood demands by numbers of ethnic groups is going to pose as a major challenge for the party. It is to be seen in what way the Government addresses the issue: as during elections, the Congress party often claims itself as a national party with a regional face. However, both the ruling party and the opposition AGP rejected demands for carving out separate States in the State Assembly on December 11.

It is true that every ethnic group in Assam has their own aspirations and demands. And if all demands for statehood or autonomy are granted, Assam will no longer be a cohesive entity. Pro-talk ULFA leader Mrinal Hazarika thinks that regional federation could be a solution, and if that is not given secessionist tendencies can develop. But what kind of a regional federation it could be? It is also interesting as to why the rebel ULFA group is silent in this case. After all where will they find the territory they are fighting for, i.e., a ‘sovereign’ Assam. Even if some kind of negotiations takes place between the ULFA and the Government of India at some point of time, the question remains will the Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas and the other ethnic groups would accept a possible deal with the ULFA.

The demand for statehoods in Assam gained momentum overnight at a time when prospects for peace brightened with the possibility of a solution of the militancy problem. Earlier agitations for a separate Bodoland state resulted in an agreement between the Indian Government, the Assam Government and the then Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) paving the way for the creation of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD). The rebel NDFB is still demanding a ‘sovereign’ Bodoland. Now politics of Bodoland is going to create enough trouble in the overall State politics. At the same time there is high possibility that agitations and rebellions demanding statehood will unleash fresh turmoil in Assam in the near future.

Published in The Assam Tribune, December 23, 2009