By Sanjay Barbora
More than the multiple demands for Statehood in Assam, it is the insistence on closed, ethnically homogenous and exclusive units that gives cause for concern
It has been almost a year since western Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) witnessed unprecedented violence that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. Since then, there has been a predictable report from the Central Bureau of Investigation pointing to the role of various political entrepreneurs in the clashes and shedding scant light on the layers of complicity between the State and various non-State actors in fomenting trouble. The recent verdict on the formation of the state of Telangana has already led to agitation for separate states in Assam, Bodoland being but one of many competing claims over common territory. One has to remember that ever since India’s independence, questions of belonging, claims to land, resources and political demands for autonomy have been part of an incendiary amalgam that has resulted in thousands of deaths and many more displaced in the State of Assam. These debates are likely to sharpen, now that both Central and State administrations are trying to bully autonomy-seeking activists into tempering their demands for separate homelands.
Historians and linguists mapped people, places and pasts into this area in a manner that lends itself to contestations and conflicts in Assam. This mapping has rested on a finite set of beliefs and ideas that appear with predictable frequency. Hence, indentured workers and immigrant peasant communities were invested with a particular narrative of movement and identity that they find difficult to shake off even now. For all practical purposes, BTAD — like other parts of northeast India — is peopled by two kinds of communities: (a) those who claim a pre-colonial presence and (b) those who came during the colonial period.
Entrapment, resource capture
The demand for Bodoland is actually the culmination of almost 60 years of political mobilisation among the various indigenous tribes in the plains of Assam. The bases of these demands have their roots in the colonial moment of contact between a predominantly European administration and local communities. It is through this 19th century encounter that the political, social and economic structures of the region were to be transformed radically. Among the more salient causes is the fact that the land and forest-based rural economy has been irretrievably transformed. Extrapolating from historical and political scholarship on the region, Belgian scholars Nel Vandekerckhove and Bert Suykens term this process as one of “tribal entrapment,” wherein 19th century colonial policies were responsible for sequestering forests from indigenous tribal groups in the Brahmaputra valley. Between the expanding tea plantations and tightly secured forests, land use rules in the Brahmaputra valley became unfavourable for indigenous communities. This continues to add rancour to political debates and claims for ethnic homelands.