The Quasi-federal Indian Constitution recognizes territories of states along with provisions for alterations and reorganisation in its initial four article. While Articles 1 and 2 simply deal with recognition of territories as a part of the Union of India and admission of newer states respectively, Articles 3 and 4 deal with a more controversial issue. Under Article 3, which deals with the formation of a new States or any alteration of boundaries of name of existing states, the proviso requires that the Reorganisation Bill should be recommended by the President and that it should be referred to the legislature of the concerned state in order to present them with an opportunity to express their opinion and to be heard. However, the provision has often been criticized as it gives the Centre an upper hand in this matter as the views and opinions presented by the concerned State Legislature are not binding on their decisions. Similarly, another controversial provision which deals with reorganisation of state is Article 4(2) which states that territorial changes made through Article 2 and 3 would not be considered as constitutional amendment for the purpose of Article 368 as legislature’s power to establish and alter states is conceptually different from the Parliament’s amending powers.
Since its independence, India has witnessed the formation of newer states several times, from splitting of the Bombay State into Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1960 to the recent Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 and the merging of Union Territories of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli in 2020. In this history, many of the states are formed as a result of demands for a separate state based on linguistic identities however in recent years, there have also been various demands that are based on ethnic or tribal identities. One such ethnicity-based demand for statehood emerged from the North Eastern region of India in the late 1960s, when Bodo people demanded autonomy to become Bodoland state separate from Assam.
This paper looks into this agitation for demand for reorganisation of state in the case of Bodoland by Bodo people in the Assam region. It also briefly examines the legitimacy of demand for Bodoland based on the recognition of their ethnic identity by analyzing the relevant constitutional provisions.
The Bodoland Territorial Region, simply referred to as Bodoland, is an autonomous region situated in the Northern west part of Assam. The region is primarily inhabited by the Boros, the largest ethnolinguistic group in Assam and was established in the February of 2003, its autonomy was extended further in 2020. This four districted region is administrated by the Bodoland Territorial Council which an elected body that was established as a result of the agreement signed in 2003.
Historical Context for Bodoland
Officially recognized under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India as ‘Boro, Borokachari’, the Boro tribe forms the largest ethnolinguistic group inhabiting various districts of Assam but primarily concentrated in the Bodoland Territorial Region. They are a historically marginalized community with a rich history of distinct culture and identity and are considered an important plain tribe in Assam as they constitute more than 37.5% of the total tribe population in the State. The Bodo tribe has identified themselves as a distinct community since the colonial period when the Britishers encouraged systematic immigration of landless peasants in the Brahmaputra valley. The Britishers did so for the cheap labour for tea planation, coal mines and the cultivation of wasteland but this opened up floodgates for immigration of peasant from Bangladesh who were mainly Muslims. This created tension between the tribal population and the increasing number of immigrants who were ethnically different from the local population. The threat of losing their tribal lands along with being opposed by the Upper caste Hindu landlords, and the imposition of Assamese as the official language of the state caused a serious distress among the tribal population which later became a factor for the start of Bodoland movement.
The Demand for Statehood
The commencement of the Bodoland Movement can be said to have originated in the year 1967 when the first organized demand for statehood was made by the Plain Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA), a political organization that came into existence in 1967 and raised the demand for full autonomy through a separate state for Bodo people. However, when PTCA joined hands with the Janata government, its demands for statehood came to a halt and was later on changed to making a new administrative region within Assam. Dissatisfied by the Assam Movement, the Bodos in order to protect their own identity sought aspiration from the Assam Accord as the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) in 1987 renewed the demand for a separate state called ‘Bodoland’. The ABSU led this movement by using socio-cultural and historical symbols to mobilize people and submitting memorandums to the Central Government expressing their demands and justifications. These demands mainly included creation of Bodoland, a separate state for Bodos, establishment of a District council, and the incorporation of Bodo-Kacharis in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
The agitation for these demands to get fulfilled gradually grew with time as another organization called Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC) joined ABSU and launched rallies and slogans expressing their demands for a “50-50” division. But since these demands required a lot of deliberation from both the State and the Central Governments who were both till then were silent on the issue, the movement soon took violent turn to pressurize the government. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), an armed group demanding Bodoland as an entirely separate sovereign state, was also involved in spreading violence in Assam generating terror and destruction in the state.
Bodo Accord (1993)
The government made several attempts to suppress the movement and stop the widespread violence but could not succeed and as such agreed to settle the issue by signing the Bodo Accord in 1993. This Memorandum of Settlement created and introduced the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) to the Assam State Assembly and gave maximum autonomy according to the constitutional framework so that it could administer Bodoland area as an autonomous administrative unit. Although signing of this accord had significantly reduced the violence and distress caused by the movement, with time BAC not only could not meet its expectations but also caused tension between Bodos who were ideologically divided into two sections. Eventually the ABSU withdrew from the Bodo Accord Agreement and went back to its demand for statehood.
Bodo Accord (2003)
As the ideological difference between the two sections of the Bodos gradually increased, the struggle for leadership started causing an increase disruptive activities in the region and more problems arose when the Bodo militant groups relaunched the movement for Bodoland by ethnic cleansing several regions which later caused riots between communities. The 1993 Bodo Accord had failed to satisfy Bodos as the BAC was unsuccessful in resolving the territorial issue and there could not be any agreement on demarcations of boundaries for the administrative unit. To avoid any future violence, there were negotiations between the Central and State Government and the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) which led to the signing of the Bodo Accord of 2003. This second Accord created the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) as a self-governing body recognized under the Sixth Schedule for the administration of Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD).
From meeting the various expectations of both Bodos and Non-Bodos population residing in the BTAD and fulfilling its responsibilities for the development of the region to countering NDFB which continued its demand for a sovereign state, the BTC faced a lot of challenges in the administration of the region. However, the violence in the region did not stop as a faction of NDFB continued violent attacks even after the others came to agreement with the government and ceased fire and in 2012 – 2014, there was again communal tension in the state which led to the Bodo-Muslim riots in which hundreds were killed and many were displaced.
Bodo Peace Accord 2020
This Accord is an attempt to find a peaceful and permanent solution for the Bodoland issue which has been signed between the Central government, State government and Bodo groups including the different factions of the NDFB. The 2020 Accord presents a new model of power sharing and governance under the Sixth Schedule as it reduces BTC’s dependence on State funds and provides for territorial expansion as well. It empowers the Council to contribute in the appointment of Deputy Commissioners and Superintendents of Police and provides them with more legislative and administrative powers for effective functioning. As the Accord seeks to put an end to the insurgency in Bodoland region and bring permanent peace in the state, it provides for rehabilitation of surrendered NDFB militants and special development plans. The Accord also renamed the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District as Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).
Dissatisfied by the 2020 Accord, the Bodo people claim it to be an inferior accord which reduces the administrative area for the BTC. It puts pressure on the successful implementation of the accord as the opposition voiced by the non-Bodo population can again give rise to communal tension and the peace sought by the 2020 Accord would be stake.
Upon an analysis of the provisions of the constitution on the reorganisation of states, it can easily be said that such a possibility of creation or formation of a new state based on linguistic or ethnic identity exists. As many states in India has previously witnessed division on these basis, a future possibility of the same happening again cannot be completely denied, however, there have been strong opinions that suggest the contrary. According to many such opinions and views, it is very unlikely that the government would surrender to these demands for separate statehood in the near future as they consider such a demand as futile and believe another territorial division of Assam is inconceivable. They also consider the renaming under the recent accord of 2020 to be designed to satisfy the identity and aspirations of the Bodo people. According to this opinion, surrendering territory could also affect the Naga peace process and cause further tension in the state. Considering both these stances, though the Boro tribe has the right to protect their ethnic and cultural identity, the fulfilment is this demand is uncertain.
The struggle and the agitation for Bodoland can be traced from colonial period which provides a context to the demands for a separate statehood which allows a better understanding of their justifications as well. The constitutional provisions under Article 2, 3 and 4 deal with the reorganisation of states and provide the procedure for the creation of a new state. The Union Parliament can through these provisions establish Bodoland as well as per the demands of the Bodos. However, there are many complications considering the history of the violence and distress in the region, as a result the government has always looked for other ways of settling the issue but all such attempts have been successful for a period of time. As the India and its Constitution have witnessed reorganisation of states based on linguistic identities and ethnic groups, there is still a possibility that in the future the government might give into the demand for statehood for Bodoland.
The Indian Constitution (Article 1-4)