With less than a month to go until the assembly polls, electioneering is heating up in Assam. Unlike many other parts of the country, the student bodies in the north-eastern states play a far more influential role in local politics. In Assam, while the All Assam Students Union has clout among the voters in most parts of the state, the All Assam Bodo Students Union (ABSU) has considerable sway over the Bodos in the four Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) as well as those living outside it.
In an interview with The Wire, ABSU President Pramod Boro talks about the issues that concern the Bodos this poll season, why his outfit has changed its 2014 decision to support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and more. Excerpts:
What is ABSU’s demand of the political parties contesting elections from the BTAD?
Our demand is clearly two-pronged. One deals with a central subject and the other a state subject. The central subject deals with the Bodoland issue; we want the Centre to solve the Bodo problem as soon as possible.
The state subject includes preservation of the Bodo language, our traditions and culture.
ABSU has declared its support to the United People’s Party (UPP) in the assembly polls? Has the UPP agreed to fulfilling your demands if it comes to power?
Even though the UPP is a new party (formed in August 2015), its priorities are right. Its president U.G. Brahma is a former Rajya Sabha MP and a winner of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award (in 2014); he has leadership qualities and a considerable standing in the society. For him, it is an ideological fight, much more than just winning an election. That is why ABSU has decided to support his party. His is the representative voice of the common Bodo people.
The Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) areas only have 35% Bodos. What is UPP’s reach among the large number of non-Bodo voters?
Brahma has been talking against the use of illegal weapons and violence. He has a mild nature, doesn’t follow extremist ideology and follows middle-of-the-path politics. So he has support from a section of non-Bodos living in the BTAD areas.
UPP has entered into an alliance with the Congress for the assembly polls. Does this means ABSU will support Congress in this election?
Yes, we are (supporting the Congress). We have reasons for it. The state government has fulfilled two of our very important demands, for which we are grateful to it.
Although there are Bodo medium schools in the state, there was no separate board for it. It has been handled by the State Education Department. Because of its step-motherly treatment, the Bodo medium schools have been seeing teething problems, like an inadequate number of teachers compared to the number of students enrolled and low quality textbooks. On February 27, the state cabinet passed a decision to set up a separate directorate of education for Bodo and other tribal languages, a long-pending demand of the ABSU.
Prior to that, the government declared the Bodo language an associate official language of Assam. The Bodo language is a very old language. Although the Bodo department in the Gauhati University has been helping the community build up human resource by producing good research scholars and postgraduates for some time now, the fact that Bodo is not used as an official language in the state has affected the use and promotion of the language. This is going to change with the state government’s decision and so we have no problem supporting that party.
But ABSU supported the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Why is it opposed to it now?
Since the time the first elections of BTAD took place in 2005, we remained out of politics. Only in 2014 we came out in support of a political party, the BJP, as that party promised in its additional manifesto for the parliamentary elections that it will solve the Bodo problem if it comes to power at the Centre along with the Gorkha problem in West Bengal. The then BJP president, Rajnath Singh, also assured us that a solution to the Bodo problem will be found soon. So we declared our support to the BJP. Thanks to us, the BJP got the Mangaldoi and Tezpur Lok Sabha seats.
However, in the last two years of the Narendra Modi government, there was no effort to solve the Bodo problem. The government has gone back on that promise. We have realised now that it was a poll gimmick. So it can’t sell us the same lemon this time too.
Though Modi didn’t talk about granting Bodoland during his maiden visit to Kokrajhar on January 19, he did say his government wants development of the BTC areas. He talked about granting a deemed university status to the Central Institute of Technology (CTC), which would help the Bodo people.
It was again a poll gimmick. What development has his government done in the BTC areas in the last two years after raising the hopes of the Bodos before coming to power? People can see through it. Also, sending money from the Centre doesn’t automatically lead to development. He should also see to whom he is giving the money, what is the credential of those leaders, under what heads will that money be used and why. Where is the accountability of public money?
On January 17, two days before Modi visited Kokrajhar, we held a press conference and asked him a few questions. We asked him to clarify his government’s position on the Bodoland issue. We also asked him to clarify his government’s dictum that na khane dunga na khaunga (I will neither eat nor allow anyone to eat) after joining hands with a corrupt Bodo People’s Front (BPF). He didn’t touch any of these subjects in his public speech.
About turning the CTC into a deemed university, it is not what Bodos want. As per the Bodo Accord (in 2003) the CTC was to be turned into a central university. So what he said in Kokrajhar that day was in violation of the accord.
Since the UPA’s times, the Centre has been in peace talks with the Govinda Basumatray faction of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). What is the present status?
Well, since the ceasefire agreement was signed between the Centre and NDFB in 2005, the UPA government did 40 rounds of talks with the leaders. Since the Modi government came in, there was only one round of talks in June 2014. Even when the last ceasefire deadline was renewed (it has been renewed several times every six months since 2005 and also after the Ranjan Basumatary faction of the NDFB pulled out of talks in 2008), it was communicated to NDFB (P) only through a letter. So you can guess what is the present status there.
The running battle between ABSU and BPF Chief Hangrama Mohilary is well-known. What is at the root of the problem?
Mohilary’s lack of vision for the Bodo people is at the root of it. In the 12 years that the BPF has controlled the BTC, it has not been able to give a vision to the common Bodos. Instead, Mohilary is running BTC as a monopoly, as a personal business. His only agenda is how to get more money from the state and Centre. Before entering into a poll alliance with the BJP for the assembly polls this time, he announced in a public rally in Kokrajhar that he will go with any party that would give him money. It is so unfortunate. Where are the ethnic aspirations of the Bodo people in it? Is it just only money? The common people are tired of this attitude. There is no proper system in place in the BTAD areas.
In the last assembly polls in 2011 and the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, he sided with the Congress only for personal interests. The BPF came third in the tally of parties in 2014 and could get only 2.1% of the total vote share. This time, it will sink even more for betraying the common people.
The ABSU has accused Mohilary of siphoning off 750 crore rupees meant for the development of BTAD. Have you taken any legal action against it?
We will soon start legal proceedings against the BPF. When BTAD was formed in 2005, the Centre gave a grant of 500 crore rupees at 100 crore rupees per year for a term of five years. Then the Centre gave another 250 crore rupees in 2008 as central discretion funds. Now, what we ask is accountability of the 750 crore rupees. Where was that money used? Because people have not got any facilities. But Mohilary has not been able to give any clear account of it to the public.
Mohilary reportedly sought 300 crore rupees in the 2016-17 Union Budget allocations for the BTAD but received only 100 crore rupees. He has written a letter to Modi opposing it. Do you think this will become a cause of friction between the two allies in the poll season?
I don’t think it will escalate into a problem before the polls. He will be pacified. But if in the months to come, the Centre keeps tightening the purse strings and does not agree to his demands somehow or the other, he will certainly have problems with it.
The BTC area has only 16 assembly seats but Bodo voters have influence in 31 other seats of the state. Mohilary formed the United People’s Front to bring as many as nine tribal bodies under one umbrella. What is ABSU’s hold in those areas?
Well, that just after a month of its formation the Front got disbanded says a lot about what the real idea behind it was. In fact, to strengthen the voice of the tribal people in Assam’s politics considering a demographic change has taken place in the state, the idea was acceptable to a lot of well-thinking tribal leaders. But Mohilary only wanted to run it through money. He wanted to barter a few assembly seats with the BJP for money through that idea. He apparently promised some tribal political leaders that the Centre will sanction a 1000 crore-rupees package to the BTC from which he will give them money. Since Modi didn’t announce any package during his Kokrajhar visit, those hopefuls got disinterested in the idea.
My point is also that Mohilary might have said the Centre was giving a huge package to the BTC but the tribal leaders should also understand that the BTC is not directly under the Centre. Its funds have to be routed through the state government since it is an autonomous council, not a separate state. So such claims by Mohilary should not be believed in the first place.
And as far as ABSU’s reach among the Bodo Kacharis living outside the BTAD areas is concerned, it is considerable. In today’s date, whoever we support will win the elections.
The Centre has decided to give citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis, which many Assamese people are opposed to as it is a clear violation of the Assam Accord. How important is the issue for the Bodo people considering violent friction has taken place between the Bodos and the allegedly illegal immigrants in the BTC areas?
It is not as big an issue for the Bodos as it is for the Assamese people. They fought against it, many people died for it. The Assam Accord clearly says those who entered the state from Bangladesh after 1971 will have to be deported without differentiating their religion. So it is understandable that it is a big concern for them. The changing demographics of the state because of illegal immigration is certainly a cause of worry but what surprises me is the frustration I see among many Assamese intellectuals about not being able to do anything about it. Holding the census report and worrying about it in one’s drawing room is not going to help. They will have to act on it. I am not saying deploy bombs, cause violence; I don’t support violence but people have the right to fight for their ethnicity. Even the UN supports it. I can assure you that the ABSU will fight its corner well in this regard and the Assamese people should also do it if they want to survive in their own land. They should see that the issue is beyond just winning an election.