Assam’s Bodoland has made several headlines in the national media over decades — primarily for violent ethnic clashes between the Bodo tribe, the Adivasi Santhal tribe, the Koch Rajbaonghis and Muslims. The year 2020, however, is a bit different as the headlines concern the ongoing Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous tribal body, elections. The polls were due in April 2020, but had to be postponed owing to the COVID-19 crisis. Now these are being held in two phases on December 7 and 10, while the results will be announced on December 12.
On December 10, the second phase of voting was over with a turnout of 78.8%. The combined turnout of both phases is over 77%— higher than the 2015 turnout -- amid intense campiagns among different parties in the race to determine who’s going to rule the Bodoland Territorial Region a.k.a BTR (formerly known as BTAD — the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts).
The voting was held amid heavy police and paramilitary deployment, with incidents such as a van carrying ballot boxes being burnt down by the people at Srirampur due to rumours that those were “compromised”. A poll officer was also hurt in the incident, as confirmed by Mojammel Haque, a local from Srirampur near the West Bengal border.
The BTC elections are being dubbed as the semi-final to the Assembly polls slated to be held in early 2021.
So, why is a local body poll making national headlines? The answer is simple — this time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is ruling both the Centre and Assam — has launched a huge campaign in the BTC polls, it has spent millions of bucks in rallies and has targeted its own ally, the Bodoland People's Front (BPF).
BPF has ruled Bodoland for around 17 years and is now facing strong anti-incumbency. During the BJP campaign, name calling such as "monkey" and "cat" between BPF chief Hagrama Mohilary and Assam's de-facto BJP chief Himanta Biswa Sarma had become a routine, including by other parties, such as the United People's Party (UPPL). What’s behind this high drama in a local body poll? To find out, we need to dive into a little bit of the history of Bodoland and the issues faced by different types of people living in the 'conflict zone', dominated by the Bodos.
The Background of BTC
"The Bodo/Boro community had largely migrated to this region of the Brahmaputra valley more than 20 centuries ago." Traditionally, while Bodos practiced Bathouism, which is the worshiping of a supreme God, known as Obonglaoree, today most of them follow Hinduism.
The Bodo movement initially started as an anti-Hinduism movement since to become a Hindu, one had to atone for their previous life as a non-Hindu by paying a brahmin. Hence, the Bodos attempted creating a new religion called "the Brahma", which is evident till date among many Bodos with the surname Brahma. Many Bodo dignitaries — such as "Bodofa" Upendranath Brahma —started the separatist Bodoland Movement in 1987 as a socio-political campaign, which resulted ultimately as an armed crusade led by Hagrama Mohilary, among others and led to the formation of a number of extremist organisations, such as Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the dreaded National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB).
The BLT, under the leadership of Mohilary a.k.a Basumatary, surrendered weapons in 2003 and formed the BPF party to form the first BTC government in the Bodoland zone of Assam. The NDFB, however, never surrendered until early this year in February when the third 'historic' Bodo Peace Accord 2020 was signed between the Government of India, the NDFB and Bodo political as well as student bodies, such as All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU).
Since its inception, the BTC has been ruled by BPF, with Mohilary as its chief. However, the 2020 BTC polls have put Mohilary and his party in a bit of soup, as UPPL has emerged as a reckoning force amid a massive BJP campaign targeting Mohilary's 17-year-long rule, allegedly marked by huge 'corruption'.
BTC at a Glance
The council comprises 46 members, of which 30 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST), five for non-tribals, and five seats are open to all candidates, while six of the council members are nominated by the Assam Governor. The current polls are for 40 seats, excluding the six governor-nominated members.
The 2015 BTC Polls
The 2015 polls saw a multi-party contest. Six political parties were in the fray, along with a large number of independent candidates. The BPF won 20 seats, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won four seats, but all of the AIUDF winners joined BPF in October 2016. The Congress suffered a huge loss, as it fielded candidates in all 40 seats, but drew a zero. The BJP, which launched a massive campaign, could manage to win only one seat. The BPF, though, managed to secure its rule and pulled only 28.5% votes, while independents pulled 47% votes, which is now being targeted by both BJP and UPPL. Independent candidates, however, secured the second position by winning 17 seats in total.
Background of 2020 Polls
In 2020, despite having an alliance with BPF, the BJP has fielded candidates in 26 seats, and is supporting 14 independent candidates, which means, it has literally dumped its ally, BPF. The BPF has fielded 37 candidates, while UPPL has fielded candidates in all 40 seats.
Himanta Vs. Hagrama and the Behind-the-Curtain Drama
A report published by NewsLivetv.com, owned by Assam's heavyweight minister Himanta Biswa Sarma's wife Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, says that BPF chief Mohilary counter-attacked Sarma's ‘bullying' by saying, "Himanta Biswa Sarma does not know anything about BTC. The bullying attitude of Himanta Biswa will not be entertained in the BTC region". A day later, on November 19, in a press conference, Sarma said that: "The BJP had allied with the BPF during the 2016 Assembly polls for five years, but after this period, the alliance will not be renewed".
On November 22, BPF's founding member Biswajit Daimary joined BJP along with BPF general secretary Emmanuel Mushahary, giving the party a big blow. The BPF, however, has not backed down. Mohilary and BPF's general secretary Prabin Boro have both, on many occasions, said they would win 25 to 30 seats at the least. Interestingly, Boro, on being asked whether the BPF's alliance with BJP had ended, told NewsClick: "The BJP cannot break anything." Talking about the jibes between Mohilary and Sarma, Boro said, "It happens in politics, you know."
So, even though Mohilary and Sarma have been exchanging harsh words against each other, the BPF has not once said that their alliance is over. Clearly, both want the tie-up to continue. Among BJP stalwarts, it is only Sarma, who is convener of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), and BJP State President Ranjit Das have campaigned against BPF. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal visited BTR only once and talked only about development.
BJP's Game Plan
While UPPL president Boro had already reportedly said right after the Bodo Peace Accord signed early this year — that his party was willing to forge an alliance with BJP in Assam as well as in BTR, the BJP, knowing well that BPF will not give up on the coalition, is playing with both UPPL and BPF. Himanta hollering out at Hagrama has actually given a boost to BPF, which otherwise would have faced a major setback in the form of anti-incumbency.
When former ABSU leader Boro joined UPPL, a large chunk of Muslim and Hindu Bengalis had joined the party as an immediate effect of the Bodo Peace Accord, while Bodos, too, had embraced the party. However, the situation has changed quite a lot, as Sarma’s jibes have hurt Bodo sentiments as well as BPF, which is primarily seen as a Bodo-dominated party.
In this backdrop, while both BPF and UPPL want to be with the power centre -- the BJP government in the state – it is BJP that may emerge as the real gainer in the 2020 BTC polls. For, it is likely that either of these parties may need BJP’s support to form the BTC. The Congress–AIUDF alliance could also be a deciding factor, as claimed by senior Congress leader Jamser Ali, but that depends solely on what BPF or UPPL want.
While BJP is unlikely to form the BTC government on its own, it obviously is planning for the Assam Assembly polls due in early 2021. During the run-up to the BTC polls, BJP leaders Sarma and Das were campaigning almost every day, even in constituencies where the BJP did not field any candidate, such as Bijni town of Subaijhar constituency in Chirang district.
The BJP’s game plan, according to report in the Assamese media, is to win at least six Assembly seats, while there are a few seats adjacent to the Bodoland area that are also being targeted by the party. Currently all 12 seats falling in the BTR zone are with the BPF, minus one, as the Tamulpur MLA Emmanuel Mushahary recently joined BJP, quitting BPF.
As per a report broadcast by Prag News, BJP had asked BPF to give away six Assembly seats — Barama (Kokrajhar), Panery (Mangaldoi District), Tamulpur (Baksa District), Chapaguri (Kokrajhar) and Udalguri (Udalguri District). However, BPF had rejected the offer and that’s how the tussle between BJP and BPF began.
BJP’s Poll Plank on D-Voter Issue
As the lower Assam region, including the BTR zone, has most D-voters (doubtful voters) or declared foreigners, mostly Bengali Hindus, the party in its BTC election manifesto, clearly said: "We pledge to relieve from the pain of being harassed in the name of the D-voter issue those who are Indians by virtue of being historically, on basis of religion and culturally Indians."
The statement is clearly aimed at wooing Bengali Hindu voters, but the current scene is entirely different on the ground — as found by this correspondent -- because fresh D-voter notices are still being issued in the BTR.
Champa Das, 68, was served a notice by the Foreigners’ Tribunal of Chirang district only on November 3, while a nearly blind Bishakha Das (78) of the same village, Borolechiagaon, who had been released from Tezpur Detention Camp only a year and a half ago — after languishing in different detention camps for over six years — still has to visit the local police station every week. Her son Rakhal Das died on August 8 this year, and now a notice has been served to the deceased Das, too, as confirmed by the Citizens for Justice and Peace's (CJP) Parijat Nanda Ghosh. CJP has been tirelessly working in the area to help out these people. According to CJP’s estimate, there are over 5,000 D-voters in BJP state president Ranjit Das’s constituency Sarbhog in Barpeta district, while Barpeta also has 1,600 declared foreigners. So, the poll plank of the BJP falls flat on the face.
Thousands of D-voters are awaiting their fate, as are the people of BTR. If UPPL wins the maximum number of seats, it may form the BTC government, but if BPF gains more than the UPPL, and INC–AIUDF coalition gets at least seven to eight seats, the situation may be entirely different as a likely BPF, INC and AIUDF coalition may defeat the BJP–UPPL likely alliance.
With the poll results to be declared on December 12, one has to see if the ‘Game of Thrones’ in Bodoloand ends with or without "the Winter is Coming” — as the famous dialogue from the HBO series says. However, the big question is: After spending millions in its campaign for the BTC polls, will the BJP achieve its desired goal in the Bodoland zone, or will BPF prove to be a snag in its way? The answer lies in the long run, maybe in the Assembly elections. BTC poll results may, therefore, indicate what's in the offing for both Assam and Bodoland.
The writer is an independent content management consultant based in Assam.