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Predictable turf war bleeds Bodo heartland


wasbir hussain
director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

I had made a prediction on more than one occasion in the past about a violent turf war that was in the offing in Assam’s Bodo heartland. My prediction has turned out to be both right and wrong---right because we have seen killings and counter-killings in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas, and wrong because I had thought the violence would be between two groups, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and former rebels of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) or their supporters who now rule the area. The split in the NDFB following the October 30, 2008 serial blasts in the State has made matters ever murkier, drawing ordinary Bodos and people of other communities in the area into the vortex of a triangular battle for territorial supremacy in the Bodo heartland.

The cold-blooded assassination of Lilabati Basumatary, elder sister of exiled anti-talk NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary, by an unidentified gunman at her home in Udalguri district on Monday night is a clear case of attacks and revenge attacks that have peaked in the area in the past few months. Lilabati’s killing has come within three days of the January 1 murder of Uday Mushahary, brother of a pro-talk NDFB commander M. Fwilao, in Sonitpur district. It is important to take a close look at the timeline of violence in the Bodo areas: on October 8, 2009, Bodo rights leader Anjali Daimary, another sister of NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary, was fired upon by gunmen in Baksa district. She had escaped unhurt. Less than a fortnight later, on October 21, S. Sanjarang, the publicity chief of the pro-talk NDFB faction, sustained serious injures when he was shot by gunmen in Udalguri. These incidents fall into a clear pattern.

The stakes are high for all the three major players in the BTC area, the ruling Bodo People’s Front (BPF), headed by former BLT chief Hagrama Mohilary, and the two factions of the NDFB. For the ruling BPF, the stakes are high because the elections to the BTC are due in April and the party would like to return to power once again. In so far as the pro-talk NDFB faction is concerned, it would like to emerge as a major player now that it has already entered into peace talks with the Government. In fact, the pro-talk NDFB faction would like to believe or even demonstrate to the powers that be that it is the faction that matters in so far as the NDFB is concerned and that the anti-talk group could become irrelevant in the long run. It is this projection that the anti-talk NDFB group headed by Ranjan Daimary would like to counter, and the faction could actually step up violence to achieve its objective. There are reports already that the anti-talk NDFB faction is engaged in forging a pan-Mongoloid rebel group by inducting youth belonging to diverse ethnic groups in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in an apparent bid to show that it can call the shots in Assam’s insurgency theatre.

I would say in this bloody turf war (according to an estimate by the All Bodo Students’ Union, more than 130 people have been killed in the area since January 2008, excluding militants killed by security forces), the bigger challenge faces the ruling BPF, an ally of the Congress-led government in the State. After all, people are already worried about the fast deteriorating law and order situation following the attacks and revenge attacks. With elections to the BTC round the corner, security and peace could emerge as major poll issues and the claim of ushering in development in the area made by the BPF might just fail to interest voters. It is, therefore, in the interest of both the BPF and the Congress government in Assam to make sure the violence is brought to a halt.

Also, the role of the pro-talk NDFB faction needs to be watched carefully. It cannot go on talking peace on one hand and engage in acts of violence and intimidation on the other. But, this is easier said than done because if the anti-talk NDFB men go on killing or attacking cadres or family members of the pro-talk group, retaliation is only expected. Now, the BPF would be wary of the possible outcome of any deal between the Government and the pro-talk NDFB faction. The BPF’s main cause of worry would be what if the pro-talk NDFB group manages to improve upon the autonomy package that the BLT (that was disbanded after the 2003 Accord, leading to the formation of the BPF) could extract from New Delhi in 2003. That is understandable because if that is to happen, the pro-talk NDFB faction could succeed in stirring the imagination of the Bodos. Even if a deal does not come about before the forthcoming BTC polls, the pro-talk NDFB group could be a factor at the elections.

And to talk about the anti-talk NDFB group, its prime effort at this juncture would be to demonstrate its strength after the reverses faced in the recent past, and that includes the split and the heat generated by Dhaka on rebels from North-east India based in that country. What does not require any special prediction at this point is to talk about violence in the Bodo heartland. That’s because we are already seeing it happen with newer dimensions.

The article was published in The Sentinel, January 9, 2010