BPF’s Pramila Rani Brahma making a point in a public address. (Pic: Preetam Brahma Choudhury)
Snapshot
  • A complex web of multiple ethnicities constitutes the political fabric of this region.

    And, it is most likely the unwelcome Bangladeshi who will decide who wins the battle.

Kokrajhar may be the heart of Bodoland and the nerve-centre of the demand for a separate state by the Bodos, an indigenous tribe of Assam, but it is Muslims who hold the key to the outcome of the poll battle here, most of them being of Bangladeshi origin.

Kokrajhar, the headquarters of the semi-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), has a history of bloody ethnic strife. The electorate of Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency is as diverse as can be, and thus poses a tough challenge to the candidates in the fray who have to work out and balance complex ethnic and religious calculations to arrive at a winning formula. But given the complex ethnic calculus, a sure-shot winning formula is quite impossible to arrive at.

Ethnic breakup

Bengali-speaking Muslims form the biggest ethnic group in this Lok Sabha seat and account for 3.87 lakh votes. The Bodos, mostly Hindus, form the next biggest group with 3.77 lakh voters. There are 2.03 lakh Bengali Hindu voters, 1.84 lakh Adivasi voters, 1.22 lakh Koch-Rajbongshi voters and 1.3 lakh Assamese Hindu voters. Apart from these major groups, there are 62,000 Kachari (Dimasa, a tribe of Assam) voters, 60,000 Gorkha voters, an 18,000-strong Hindi-speaking electorate, while Rabhas and other tribes account for 58,000 voters.

What makes the electoral arithmetic in Kokrajhar a highly complex one is that none of these groups will vote en masse for any one candidate or party. Even the Muslims, who tend to rally behind one candidate, and are doing so in many other constituencies in Assam, are a divided lot here. The Bodos, too, are deeply divided. Ditto for the Assamese Hindus, Rajbongshis, Adivasis and the other tribes.

The Candidates

According to the seat-sharing formula among the constituents of the BJP-led ruling alliance in Assam, Kokrajhar seat has gone (naturally so) to Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The BPF has fielded its veteran leader and Assam forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma. The sitting MP, Naba Kumar Sarania, is a very strong contender. Sarania is, once again, contesting as an Independent candidate. He is a former ‘commander’ of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and won the elections in 2014 on an anti-Bodoland plank.

Urkhao Gwra Brahma, fielded by the United People’s Party, Liberal (UPPL) is contesting on a pro-Bodoland platform and is strongly backed by the powerful and influential All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU). He was the president of the ABSU and is a Sahitya Akademi Award recipient.

The Congress has fielded Sabdaram Rabha, a well-known lawyer, while the CPI(M)’s Biraj Deka (25) is the youngest candidate in the fray in this year’s parliamentary polls. Rabha and Deka will cut into the votes of the three primary contestants, making the going very tough for them.

History of the Bodos

Bodos, the largest indigenous tribal group of Assam, were the first settlers in the Brahmaputra Valley. They descended from Tibet and Myanmar and the Bodo language is said to belong to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages.

The Bodos were the first rulers of this region and claim that the Kirata rulers of the ancient kingdom of Pragjyotishpur were actually Bodos. Subsequently, the Bodos dispersed all over Assam and even to neighbouring Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal as well as the Garo and Khasi hills.

The Bodo kings were displaced by other dynasties which ruled over Pragjyotishpur (Kamrup) for centuries. The area that now falls under the Bodo Territorial Council was part of the Koch-Rajbongshi kingdom and Kokrajhar was part of the undivided Goalpara district which belonged to the Cooch Behar kingdom. Goalpara was included by the British in the new province of Assam in the late 19th century.

The assertion of Bodo identity started in the early part of the last century with the formation of the All Assam Plains Tribal League (AAPTL) in 1933 for protecting the identities of the tribal people of Assam. Post-Independence, the assertion of Bodo identity started with the demand for linguistic identity that was the fallout of Assam’s Official Languages Bill, 1960, which made Assamese compulsory in educational institutions and for government work. The Bodos started demanding political autonomy from the late 1960s when the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) and the ABSU was formed.

Subsequently, the anti-foreigners’ agitation (against the presence of millions of illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh) engulfed Assam and the ABSU and other Bodo bodies supported the movement.

But the Assam Accord that ended the agitation in 1985 failed to fulfil the aspirations of the Bodos and accord them protection against the Bangladeshi infiltrators. In early 1987, the ABSU launched a vigorous mass movement demanding the creation of a separate state of Bodoland. The suppression of the movement triggered a hardline section launching a militant outfit - the Bodoland Security Force (BdSF) - that carried out subversive activities.

The first Bodoland Accord of 1993 led to the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), but that too failed to meet the aspirations of the Bodos. The BdSF stepped up its activities and targeted the Bangladeshi-origin Muslim settlers in Bodoland for the first time in 1993.

Communal riots (between Muslims and Bodos) broke out later that year, and the BdSF too split and a fratricidal war ensued. The Army and paramilitary forces, along with the Assam Police, launched a brutal crackdown and hundreds of lives were lost in the violence.

The second Bodoland Accord of 2003 led to the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) which has a loose autonomy over the Kokrajhar, Baksa, Chirang and Udalguri districts of Assam (called the Bodoland Territorial Authority Districts). Many Bodos feel the BTC, too, does not meet their aspirations and, thus, the demand for a separate state of Bodoland lies latent among almost all Bodos.

Politics Over Bodoland And Electoral Promises

The non-Bodos in the BTAD, especially the Bangladeshi-origin Muslims, the Adivasis and the Assamese fear that the creation of Bodoland would lead to their marginalisation. Hence, they oppose the demand and tend to support whichever party or candidate opposes Bodoland.

In 2014, Naba Kumar Sarania positioned himself as a vocal opponent of Bodoland. Ironically, Sarania - accused of many acts of terrorism and killings when he was in the ULFA - is of Bodo origin. A section of the Bodos became disciples of Srimanta Sankardev, the 15th-16th century Vaishnavite scholar-saint of Assam, and adopted the ‘Sarania’ title.

The United People’s Party Liberal’s (UPPL) Urkhaw Gwra Brahma, on the other hand, is a vocal advocate of Bodoland. Naturally so, since the UPPL is promoted by the ABSU and one faction of the militant National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) which has given up arms.

The NDFB had, in the past, repeatedly targeted Bangladeshi-origin Muslims and driven them away from BTAD areas. But such is the complex political calculus here that Maulana Badruddin Ajmal (of the All India United Democratic Front) has supported Urkhaw and appealed to Muslims of Kokrajhar to vote for the UPPL candidate. The UPPL holds that only a separate state of Bodoland can meet the aspirations of the Bodos.

The BPF’s Pramila Rani Brahma promises peace and development and a ‘political solution’ to the Bodoland issue. The BPF has given up its demand for a separate state, but wants more autonomy (over and above that available to the BTC) for the Bodos.

It also promises protection of the interests and identities of the non-Bodos in the BTAD. Brahma, who has earned laurels for her performance as the state forest minister (she has cracked down on the poaching mafia), talks of the various development and social welfare projects undertaken by the state and central governments and promises that if elected, she would ensure faster progress of Kokrajhar.

The Congress has adopted a vague stand on Bodoland. While it supports the demand by the Bodos for protection of their identity and measures to give them greater political autonomy, it holds that greater empowerment of the BTC would meet all these demands and aspirations. Rabha, the Congress candidate, has been skirting the Bodoland issue and has been concentrating on whipping up fears over the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

He says that if passed, the Bill would open the doors for unchecked migration of “millions of Hindus from Bangladesh”, thus reducing the Bodos and other indigenous people of Assam to minorities in their own land. He has been appealing to Bodos and Muslims to vote for the Congress, claiming that the Congress is the only party that can defeat the BJP.

As for the CPI(M)’s Deka, his stand on Bodoland is also vague. While the communists support statehood movements in principle, they have held back from openly supporting such movements in the areas where they have political stakes (like in Bengal where they are vague on the Gorkhaland demand).

Instead, Deka says that identity and other issues should take a backseat over issues of livelihood, economic progress and development. Deka has been fighting a desperate but futile battle to steer the campaign away from Bodoland and towards what he says are the “real issues”.

The Complex Electoral Calculus

The complexities in the electoral arithmetic arise from the fact that the various ethnic and religious communities in Kokrajhar will not vote en masse for any one candidate. The largest group - the Muslims - are divided in their choice between Sarania, BPF and the Congress. Ajmal’s appeal to his fellow-Muslims to vote for Urkhaw, say political analysts, will have a very limited impact.

“Ten to a maximum 15 per cent Muslims will, at best, vote for Urkhaw. That is because he is supported by the ABSU and the NDFB that has often been involved in driving out Muslims from BTAD areas. The Muslims are opposed to the ABSU and NDFB.

Though the Congress ought to be their natural choice, a large number of them will vote for Sarania because he is a vocal opponent of Bodoland. Many of them have benefited from the BPF - the BPF which is ruling the BTC has given them jobs and extended many facilities to them - and thus many of them form a loyal support base of the BPF,” said Upendra Bwismutiary, a college teacher in Kokrajhar town.

As for the Bodos, a majority are expected to vote for the UPPL. That is because, says Naren Brahma, a medical practitioner, all Bodos have a soft spot for the ABSU. But many Bodos also support the BPF and will, thus, vote for Pramila Rani Brahma.

The Bodos will generally ignore the Congress, and not the least because the Congress candidate is a Rabha (another tribe of Assam). The Bodos blame the Congress for the sufferings they have had to endure during the dark years of militancy. And the CPI(M) holds no charm at all for the Bodos.

Bengali Hindus are strong supporters of the BPF. However, points out Bwismutiary, one section of Bengali Hindus also supports Naba Sarania and a small section have veered towards the UPPL.

The Bengali Hindus actually rally en masse behind whosoever they feel will rule over the BTC and if they feel that the UPPL could come to power in the BTC in the next elections, a large number of them would support Urkhaw.

As for the Adivasis, about a third of them are traditional Congress supporters and this vote base of the Congress among this community is largely intact. A large number of them are expected to vote for Sarania since the latter opposed Bodoland.

The adivasis have also been targeted in the past by Bodo militants and have been displaced from their villages. Hence, the support for Sarania who even promises to scrap the BTC. Many of the adivasis are Christians and since the BPF’s Pramila Rani Brahma is a Christian too, a sizeable section of them are likely to vote for her.

And one section - especially the tea garden labourers - will support CPI(M)’s Biresh Deka because of his party trade union’s hold on them.

A large section of the Koch-Rajbongshis support Sarania for the very same reasons as the other non-Bodos do: they feel threatened by Bodo nationalism and fear that if a separate state of Bodoland becomes a reality, they will be marginalised.

Also, their own demand for a separate Kamtapur state (comprising all areas of Bengal and Assam that were ruled by Koch-Rajbongshi kings) competes against Bodoland because many BTAD areas are claimed by the advocates of Kamtapur.

The Assamese Hindus are, say political analysts, inclined towards the BPF because it is aligned with the AGP and no longer talks of breaking up Assam, but one section supports Sarania (for opposing the Bodoland demand), while another section (about 10 per cent of the community) are traditional Congress supporters. Some of them will also support CPI(M)’s Deka this time.

The Hindi-speaking electorate, the Gorkhas, and the other smaller tribes are expected to support the BPF. “But one section of the Gorkhas may support UPPL’s Urkhaw since the ABSU (which backs Urkhaw) has supported the demand for Gorkhaland in neighbouring Bengal. There are rumours of the ABSU reaching an understanding with the leaders of the Gorkha community.

In the 2014 elections, Sarania polled 634,428 votes, trouncing Urkhao (who contested as an Independent backed by ABSU and other Bodo groups) by more than 3.5 lakh votes. The BPF’s Chandan Brahma trailed in third place with under 35,000 votes less than Ukhrao.

The results and the huge margin with which Sarania defeated Ukhrao came as a huge embarrassment and insult for the Bodos. “Kokrajhar is part of BTAD and Sarania winning on an anti-Bodoland agenda came as a big blow to us”.

Thus, Bodos are determined this time to defeat Sarania and ensure Ukhrao’s victory. To make this happen, the ABSU and other Bodo organisations have reached out to leaders of other communities and solicited their support.

The ABSU, NDFB and other Bodo bodies have assured them that their interests would be protected in Bodoland or any other political dispensation in future. The ABSU and NDFB have been pointing out to the non-Bodos that the BPF-ruled BTC has not discriminated against them and, thus, all communities can co-exist happily in a political dispensation under the Bodos,” said Rajen Brahma, a lawyer who has strong links with the ABSU.

But given the past history of animosity and ethnic strife between the Bodos and the non-Bodos, it remains to be seen how far these assurances by the Bodo bodies work. It is a very complex calculation, and with so many issues, insecurities and aspirations playing on the minds of the ethnicities, the final outcome will be decided by even a 5 per cent vote swing by one particular community in favour of or against a candidate.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details.

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