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Volume 24 - Issue 10 :: May. 19-Jun. 01, 2007
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
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ESSAY

Separatist strains

M.S. PRABHAKARA

The current tensions in northeastern India are marked by a desire among various communities to assert their identities and gain official recognition.

RITU RAJ KONWAR

Bodoland Territorial Council supporters take out a torchlight procession in Guwahati after the signing of the BTC agreement in 2003. The Bodo problem remains unresolved.

A FEATURE of the current political volatility and tensions in the region imprecisely but conveniently referred to as the `Northeast' is that while the nation state that is India is strengthening and extending its instrumentalities, in particular its coercive instrumentalities (while its effectiveness and relevance is getting marginalised), there is a corresponding move, in some cases almost a generalised movement, among several communities in the region to assert their separateness from their historical, social and political environment, the first step in the long and hard process of securing some sort of official recognition of this separateness. This process, which may conveniently be denoted by the rather ungainly expression `ethno-nationalistic assertion', is not limited to communities with a historical or self-defined identity with fears of being subsumed by the larger Indian nationalist assertion. It is evident even among numerically very small communities who too want to define themselves in politically, culturally and, necessarily, also territorially, larger terms, investing themselves with a more self-defined political identity than what defined them until recently.

This is by no means unique to this region. The tensions between (and within) the States and the Union are a constant in the Indian system where the federalist, not to speak of autonomist, separatist, disintegrationist and secessionist, tendencies have always been in contention with the unitary, centralising tendencies. This is perhaps seen in sharp focus in this region and, in a situation marked by different historical factors, in Jammu and Kashmir. But the autonomist assertion itself, an expression of such separatism in its most legitimate form, is an all too common feature of the Indian federal system that is federal in theory (India is a union of States) but highly unitary and centralised in practice. For the sake of convenience, this essay uses throughout the term `separatist' to qualify these movements though some of them are potentially also secessionist.

While the Indian state has allowed some space for movements of autonomist assertion and even separatist assertions that are not explicitly secessionist (though potentially so), such assertions explicitly articulating disintegrationist and secessionist tendencies clearly pose a radical challenge to its internal coherence and political unity. Instances of such challenge abound, and the state has been peculiarly assisted as well as shackled by the very instrumentalities it has at its disposal in tackling and resolving this challenge while trying to remain true to its democratic pretensions.

The consolidation of the Indian state insofar as its coercive instrumentalities are concerned, along with its increasing indifference to and marginalisation in matters of development benefiting all sections of the people, is a fact that is blazingly evident.

What is more problematic is the tendency of the component units of the region, and of groups that do not have any `official recognition' either as a community or as inhabitants of a defined territory within such component units, to see themselves as nations or incipient nations and go on to assert, not always peacefully or in a constitutional manner, their respective separatist identities as a caste, a tribe, a nationality or even a potential nation.

Every one of these separatist assertions is predicated on the affirmation of an `ethno-nationalist identity', supposedly a unique, one-of-a-kind identity, that as a political construct may seem in many cases to be an invention. However, even if there is an element of fiction in the `historical memories' - real or false, it does not matter - underlying such inventive identity assertions, the fictiveness does not mitigate the passion or virulence of such affirmations.

Such identity inventions and constructions are by and large a post-Independence phenomenon, closely related to the space that democracy even of the flawed kind as in India offers. The Naga people, to take the most striking example of national sovereignty assertion in this region, have had a strong sense of their collective being, divided as much as united within and among themselves, though the material underpinnings of such inter- and intra-tribal conflict and coexistence are yet to be studied seriously. This was the case even under colonial rule when these segmental identifications became formalised and virtually codified in studies by colonial ethnographers. The social and political rubric of Naga-ness, a commonality marked by a politically articulated territorial identity, the sovereignty of Naga nationhood animated by Naga nationalist aspirations, distancing itself from and in opposition to Indian nationalism and prosecuted through armed struggle, is, however, a post-Independence phenomenon.

There have been corresponding assertions among several other communities. Some, like the Mizo, have made peace and come to terms with being part of the larger Indian nation state. Others varieties of such separatist assertion explicitly seeking sovereignty have emerged from within communities (such as the Assamese) who are in no way peripheral in terms of language, religion, caste, ethnicity and so on, but are indeed very much part of the pan-Indian nationalist assertion that animated the freedom movement. Yet others appear to have made tactical concessions while not abandoning their strategic objective. On the other hand are separatist assertions that do not aspire to anything more than a political acknowledgement of the uniqueness of their identity or a more clearly defined identity in consonance with the community's sense of its historical self. Such recognition and acknowledgement is the first step in securing a well-defined political and territorial space, if possible exclusive, within the structures of which they are a part.

Assertion of separateness

A brief account of how the Bodo assertion of separateness, from the people in and around their environs with whom Bodos have historically shared a common or non-adversarial identity, took shape over a period of time could help understand the present demand that may well become a movement by six non-tribal communities of Assam, classified as Other Backward Classes (OBC), for recognition as Scheduled Tribes, and its likely shape and direction.

The communities making this demand for `upgradation' to S.T. status are Ahom (also known as Tai-Ahom), Chutia, Matak (Motok), Moran, Koch Rajbongshi (also known as Sarania Kachari) and Tea Garden Labour and Ex-Tea Garden Labour. Altogether 28 communities are listed as OBC in Assam, including Tea Garden Labour and Ex-Tea Garden Labour that are collectively called Adivasi now. This category (No. 26 in the official list of OBCs, under the head `Tea Garden Labourers, Tea Garden Tribes, Ex-Tea Garden Labourers and ex-Tea Garden Tribes), has 96 sub-categories, some of whom clearly have or have had tribal status. These are the descendants of over several generations of the largely tribal population from central and eastern India, indentured in the 19th century to work in the tea plantations of Assam and Bengal.

Since OBC communities are not separately enumerated in the Census, precise figures of their numbers are not available, enabling an open season for the most exaggerated estimates and guesstimates. Since numerical strength is a highly political issue, even communities that are regularly enumerated in Censuses complain of under-enumeration and make exaggerated claims of their numbers. Since Tea Plantation Labour has always been organised and Ex-Tea Plantation Labour lives in proximity to the plantations, estimates of their population, at about 20 lakhs, may be a close approximation to reality. They thus constitute the third numerically largest community in the State, after Hindus and Muslims. Overwhelmingly drawn from tribal communities of middle and eastern India to which their ancestors belonged, these communities, however, do not have tribal status because of the `locational specificity' of such recognition. (see "Reinventing identities", Frontline, June 4, 2004; and "Tribes new and old", Frontline, January 14, 2005).

The case of Koch Rajbongshi presents its own unique features. This community, as is evident from its other nomenclature, is historically part of the Bodo Kachari stock. It moved out of the Bodo Kachari fold over a period of time and through a complex process of conversion and acculturation into the Vaishanvite variety of Hinduism in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam came to occupy one of the lower rungs of caste Hindu Assamese society. For a brief period (of less of than one year) in 1996, the Koch Rajbongshi community was, by a gazette notification, taken out of the OBC list and included in the S.T. list. However, this notification was never formally legislated and the community is now once again classified as OBC.

The case of the four other communities, Ahom, Chutia, Motok and Moran also has some unique features. The lines between these communities, in particular Ahom, Matak and Moran, are blurred; in some historical accounts they are clubbed together (see Ahom-Tribal Relations by Lakshmi Devi, Lawyer's Book Stall, Guwahati, 1968; The Mataks and their Kingdom by Sristidhar Dutta, Chugh Publications, Allahabad, 1985). While the Ahoms ruled Assam for six centuries, the others too had their minor kingdoms, subservient to and on occasion challenging the Ahom state. Their classification as OBC and the demand for recognition as a Scheduled Tribe do sit oddly with a people who ruled Assam for centuries.

Such demands from non-tribal communities for their "upgradation" to S.T. status or the movements for `retribalisation' perversely privilege tribal status, ignoring the harsh realities of tribal deprivation. They also reflect the envy and resentment of many non-tribal communities over what they see as `undue benefits' enjoyed by the small minority of tribal people under the provisions for protective discrimination. Representative tribal organisations such as the Assam Tribal Sangha have strongly opposed such demands and movements.

Newer varieties

The trajectory of the articulation and assertion of the Bodo (also known as Bodo Kachari) separatist identity, whose beginnings can be traced to the days before Independence, presents a useful case study and a model that may help in understanding the newer varieties of separatism and their strategies of mobilisation. The mobilisation, necessarily in that historical context against `Assamese domination' (land, jobs, matters relating to language and culture and `ethnicity', the very same resentments articulated by the Hill Tribes of the composite State of Assam), also presents perhaps the clearest instance of an incremental evolution of the Bodo `national' consciousness.

Identity assertions of this kind generally have three components complementing each other in this articulation: education, culture and politics. In practice, however, students have been at the forefront of all such mobilisations. The Bodo Chhatra Sanmilini (Bodo Students' Conference), founded in 1919, the first Bodo student organisation, is now part of the archives of Bodo separatism, having been overtaken by the All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU) founded in February 1967. Almost two decades later, Upendranath Brahma was elected president with a mandate to launch the struggle for a Bodoland, with an all-or-nothing slogan: Divide Assam Fifty Fifty. He died young, at the height of the agitation, and is venerated by his political heirs as Bodofa, or Father of Bodo nationalist assertion.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Members of the Naga Students Union at a `Rally for Peace and Justice' in New Delhi on the eve of the talks in Amsterdam last year between Naga militant leaders and Indian government representatives. The separatist agitation is one of the oldest of its kind in the northeastern region.

The present stage of this assertion, whose original aspiration for a separate Bodoland is yet to be realised, is the territorial structure, with little political and financial powers, called Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), seen by its proponents as merely a transit point in the struggle for the attainment of a full-fledged Bodoland State. Militant factions that emerged out of the Bodoland struggle still hope to transform, peacefully or through other means, this achievement to a sovereign Bodoland.

The premier cultural organisation behind this assertion is the Bodo Sahitya Sabha (founded in 1952), which played a seminal role in the agitation in the mid-1970s (in which the ABSU as well as the Plains Tribal Council of Assam, or PTCA, were active) for the adoption of the Roman script for the Bodo language in preference to the Assamese script that was being used till then (see "Politics of a script", Economic and Political Weekly, December 21, 1974). The State government, which had only recently come to terms with the reorganisation of the composite State of Assam (1970-72) that led to the creation of the State of Meghalaya and the Union Territory of Mizoram (later elevated into a full-fledged State following the Mizo Accord), saw the agitation as the thin end of the wedge of `Udayachal' that was being demanded by the PTCA, a separate Union Territory comprising Bodo-inhabited areas of Assam. It tried to suppress the agitation and later yielded with bad grace, `compromising' on the Devanagari script.

The first attempt at separatist Bodo political mobilisation goes back to the days before Independence when various Bodo Kachari youth organisations under the Kachari Jubok Sanmilini (Kachari Youth Association) resolved to cooperate with the Indian Statutory Commission (Simon Commission). Affirming the loyalty of the Kachari community to the `King and Emperor', the memoranda (there were four separate districtwise memoranda) demanded separate electorates for the community.

This demand was attained under the All Assam Plains Tribal League, founded in 1933, enabling the Bodo community to vote on the basis of a separate electorate in the election held under the Government of India Act, 1935 (see Reclaiming Identity: A Discourse on Bodo History by Jadav Pegu; Jwngsar, Kokrajhar, 2004). Interestingly, the memorandum submitted on behalf of the Bodo community of Goalpara district also explicitly asserted that "We Bodos can by no means call us other than Assamese", this assertion being related to the apprehensions that the district might be transferred to Bengal (Plains Tribals before the Simon Commission, The Beacons, Harisinga, New Delhi).

The distancing in this first manifestation of Bodo separatism from Indian nationalist opinion, which had called for a boycott of the Simon Commission, while affirming the commonality with Assam and Assamese underlines the contradictions and cross-currents in Bodo separatism vis--vis India and Assam.

Thanks to its achievement and also to the complexities of Ministry formation in the pre-Independence province of Assam, the All Assam Plains Tribal League was for brief periods part of two Muslim League-led Ministries under Muhammad Sadullah (who was the Premier). It, however, lost its political clout after Independence.

Other political parties that tried to mobilise tribal separatism (if only from Assam) since Independence were the PTCA, founded in 1968 with the demand for the constitution of the Bodo inhabited-areas of the State as a Union Territory under the name Udayachal, later toned down to a demand for an autonomous regional council, which for a brief period was part of the coalition headed by the Janata Party; and the United Tribal Nationalist Liberation Front, founded in 1984, supposedly articulating militant forms of Bodo separatism. However, with the launching of the Bodoland agitation, all these were marginalised or have simply disappeared.

The Bodo political landscape is at present dominated by the inheritors of the Bodoland agitation who head the BTAD headquartered in Kokrajhar. They also share power in Dispur through an electoral pact with the Congress in the last Assembly elections. Given the nature of the beast, this alliance is not exactly stable; indeed, those in power in Kokrajhar are also deeply divided on how to consolidate what has been attained and how and where to go further, fully realising the aspirations of Bodo separatist assertion - from Territorial Autonomous Districts to a full-fledged State of Bodoland. Waiting in the wings is the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), again a child of the Bodoland agitation, but with an explicit sovereignty agenda.

The similarities with the Assamese separatist and nationalist assertion, at points within the Indian nation state framework and at other points outside that framework, are obvious.

What is less obvious is whether this trajectory will allure and inspire as a model other far more modest separatist identity affirmations, of which there seem to be no end, and whether they will also take a similar direction, driven by sovereignty rhetoric to violence and despair.



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