A Farewell to Arms
On December 7, 2003, amid tumult, excitement and delight, a large gathering watched history being made at Kokrajhar. On that crisp winter morning, as Bodo musicians played the flute and dhol and brightly as attired young women swayed to the rhythm of traditional dances, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani watched the swearing in of the interim Executive Council of the Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam.
Sri Advani has especially flown in for the occasion after Bodo Liberation Tiger (BLT) leaders baid a farewell to arms and cemented a negotiated settlement with the Government of India by committing themselves to a democratic way of life. Sri Advani called on other militant groups especially the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) to follow the example ste by the BLT, which had renounced violence and embraced peace with justice and development through a democratic process. The meeting was attended by Dr. C. P. Thakur, Minister, DoNER, Sri Tarun Gogoi, Chief Minister of Assam and Governor of Assam, LT. Gen (Rtd) Ajai Singh.
The Previous day, December 6, 2003 had witnessed another significant event when more than 2600 BLT militants bid farewell to arms and surrendered their weapons at a public function at Kokrajhar. The militants shed their camouflage uniforms and laid down their AK-47 rifles as they left the path of confrontation and violence, from an uncertain life in the jungles to a return home, where they can take up productive work without fear or favour. The Governor and Chief Minister of Assam as well as Sri Swami Chinmayanand, Minister of State for Home were present.
During his visit, the Deputy Prime Minister laid the foundation stone of a Central Institute of Technology (CIT) and emphasized the need to tackle the huge infrastructure needs in the area. Addressing the rally, Sri Advani assured the Bodos that the Centre was committed to the economic development of their areas as well as the entire North East, which lags behind other regions. In a step aimed at bridging infrastructure gaps, he announced the setting up of a 100 bedded hospital and nursing college for the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD).
The Bodo Liberation tigers, formed on June 18, 1996 --- had earlier pledged to fight for a separate state out of Assam, but within the Indian Union, through an armed struggle. The demand for s separate state for Bodos was launched for the first time in 1986 by the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) which culminated in the Bodo accord in 1993, after much social unrest, violence and disruption. The 1993 accord led to the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). However, BAC failed to fully meet the aspirations of Bodos and ABSU again lunched an agitation denouncing the accord and demanding creation of a separate state. The BLT also indulged in a few acts of violence during this period. But these difficulties did not deter the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre from making fresh efforts to settle the Bodo issue. The Government of India kept all its channels of informal talks open with the BLT.
After years of struggle, the BLT unilaterally decided to suspend its armed operations on July 14, 1999 and agreed to negotiate with the Government of India. This is an example to other underground groups in the region. Those seeking to improve the lives of their people through armed struggles should realize that this path cannot succeed. The conditions of people can be best improved in times of peace, leading to stability and development.
The BLT gave up its demand for a separate state and settled for the extension of the Sixth Schedule Status to the Bodo areas, which empowers them with rights over land, ensures protection of their traditions and ethnic identity and also enables them to govern themselves. The BTAD is an outcome of a growing understanding that political goals must be realistic and that peace and development must take precedence over emotions.
With their practical approach to a complex problem, the Bodos have shown the way forward to other militant groups in the North East, which are directionless and disruptive. But the road to the settlement was challenging and long. Representatives of the Government of India, Government of Assam and BLT held not less than 30 rounds of tripartite talks between March 2000 and February 2003 before finalizing an accord. The commitment from the Home Ministry was simple and clear: ensure the territorial integrity of the country and at the same time bring peace and development to a neglected region.
The Memorandum of Settlement signed between the Government of India, the Government of Assam and the BLT on February 10, 2003, was a path-breaking event, which seeks to assure all ethnic groups of development, equality, security and growth with stability. All major Bodo organizations including ABSU, Bodo Sahitya Sabha and All Bodo Women Welfare Federation extended their whole hearted support to the accord with the BLT.
Perhaps not since 1986, when the Mizo Accord was signed between the Government of India and the Mizo National Front, has the troubled North East witnessed such a potential turning point. The Mizoram accord brought peace to Mizoram after decades of conflict and it remains one of the most peaceful states of the country.
The latest Bodo accord brings the promise of a lasting peace in the Bodo areas and to a larger extent across the Assam Valley. Its impact in other sttes should also not be ruled out for a major group h as shown that power flows from political wisdom and realism, not just from the barrel of a gun or through angry rhetoric.