SHRINKING POLITICAL SPACES OF REGIONAL PARTIES IN ASSAM’S SIXTH SCHEDULE AREAS

The Sixth Schedule Areas in India’s Northeast was introduced to provide a political and administrative mechanism to protect the interests of the tribal people in the hill areas. This essay highlights the lack of political space and the decaying of regional political parties in Assam’s Sixth Schedule Areas after the incursion of national political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.

Michael Islary

On April 10, 2021 when the tribal council election results were declared in Tripura, fellow tribals in Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) also shared the euphoria of their brethren in Tripura. This euphoria was because a tribal coalition party emerged victorious in the thirty seat Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections, out of which twenty-eight seats are elected based on adult suffrage and two seats are nominated by the Governor from unrepresented groups. These election results are significant because it not only ended the fifteen year long rule of a non-tribal political party, but also presented an opportunity to regional tribal political parties to stake claim in the governance of the Council meant for tribal development. It is for this very reason that the victory of a tribal coalition party in Tripura echoed in faraway BTC, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is ruling the Council in alliance with United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) and Gana Suraksha Party (GSP). This essay examines the shrinking political space of regional political parties in Assam’s Sixth Schedule Areas with reference to the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).

GENESIS OF AUTONOMOUS DISTRICT COUNCILS (ADCs) 

At the time of the adoption of the Indian Constitution, a robust democratic institution at the ground-level was envisaged by paying attention to the concerns of the tribals (Gassah, 2013). A sub-committee was formed to look into the matters of the tribals in India’s Northeast. The sub-committee headed by Gopinath Bordoloi, traveled to the hill areas of the Northeast to understand the problems and concerns of the tribal people. The Bordoloi Committee recommended – ‘a) about the necessity to maintain and preserve the distinct customs, socio-economic and political identities, b) prevent economic and social exploitation and c) allow tribal people to administer themselves according to their own genius’ (Gassah, 2013). These recommendations were incorporated in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 1949.

The Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) were first introduced in few hill districts of the Northeast, except the Naga Hills in 1952 (Gassah, 2013). The District Councils which were then called as Regional Councils were introduced in the Lushai Hills District which is now known as Mizoram, in 1953. At present there are ten ADCs in the Northeast; the ones in Assam are the North Cachar Hills District, the Karbi Anglong District and, the Bodoland Territorial Council. The ADCs in Meghalaya are the Khasi Hills District, Jaintia Hills District, and the Garo Hills District. Mizoram has the Chakma District, the Mara District and the Lai District whereas Tripura has the Tripura Tribal Areas District. In 2003, the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution was amended and the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was incorporated.  

The District Councils and Regional Councils are bestowed with certain powers to make laws with regard to management of forests, agriculture, minor irrigation, establishment of village or town committees, primary and secondary education, matters relating to village or town administration, public health, sanitation, appointment of village headmen, fisheries etc. The BTC has been given additional powers compared to the other two district councils in Assam. For instance, the BTC has the autonomy to make laws in the field of education up to college level, food and civil supply, handloom & textile, health & family welfare, land & revenue, statistics, tourism, welfare of plain tribes and backward classes, among other areas.

A Council Assembly session in progress at the BTC Secretariat. Image Courtesy: Rinoy Basumatary, Kokrajhar (2020).
A Council Assembly session in progress at the BTC Secretariat. Image Courtesy: Rinoy Basumatary, Kokrajhar (2020).

The ADCs in Assam can be be understood through two paradigms which exist simultaneously. Firstly, as an instrument of  ‘Political Decentralisation’ as argued by scholars such as Aniruddha Kumar Baro (2018) and secondly, as an idea of appeasing the warring leaders by providing a temporary solution including limited self-autonomy as argued by Bethany Lacina (2009). Political decentralisation is best understood as ‘the transfer of responsibility for planning, management and resource raising and allocation from the central government to lower levels of government’ (Rodinelli et.al., 1983).  

At present, in all the three ADCs of Assam, the North Cachar Hills District, the Karbi Anglong District and the BTC, the BJP is at the helm of affairs. In the first two, the BJP is administering the Councils on its own and is in coalition with the UPPL and GSP in BTC.

DARK PAST AND THE SIGNING OF PEACE ACCORDS

Before getting into the central theme of this essay, we need to rewind the clock and re-look at the past events that got us here. The Bodos belong to the Indo–Mongoloid racial group and speak one of the Tibeto–Burman languages. They are the largest tribal group in Assam comprising about fifty percent of the total tribal population in the state. In brief, the Bodos have been demanding a separate state on the grounds of political and economic underdevelopment and to preserve the language and identity of the community (George, 1994). The demand for a separate state can be traced back as early as in 1930s, when social reformers of the time such as Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma, awakened the Bodo masses on social and cultural lines by reminding them that the Bodos are not inferior to the Assamese caste society, even in the socio-cultural realms. However, it is only in the 1960s that the demand for a separate state translated into a political form with the formation of a political outfit known as the Plain Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) in 1967. The PTCA demanded for a separate tribal state Udhayachal but the movement died out eventually. During this period, a new organisation emerged in the form of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU). The ABSU was formed in 1967 as a non-political student organisation and it was mostly involved with organising or mobilising people about their socio-economic and cultural rights at the village level until 1987. In the 1980s, Assam experienced mass movements led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to detect and oust illegal foreigners from the state and for granting greater autonomy to the indigenous people. Many Bodo youngsters participated and supported the Assam Movement with a sense that the same would be reciprocated to the Bodo cause. However, they felt betrayed and dismayed when the new Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government (formed mostly out of the leaders of the Assam movement) ignored the demands of the Bodo leaders. The Bodo community soon realised that the new state government was no different than the previous ones and the only option left for the community was to start a mass movement for a separate state (George, 1994).

In 1987, the ABSU came to the forefront and took the leadership to demand for a separate state of Bodoland under the leadership of Upendra Nath Brahma. The movement took a violent turn with the emergence of an insurgent group which was then known as Bodo Security Force (BSF) and later, rechristened as National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB). During the movement, the popular modus-operandi of the activists were to block roads and railway lines to capture national attention. The statehood movement that spans a little more than a decade with cessation of fire for short-intervals in between, not only affected the state’s economy but also people’s lives and livelihood. In the cross-fire between the state’s repressive use of force and that of insurgent’s counter attacks, thousands of innocent people lost their lives. Justice still evades those women who were raped by military forces, some are still languishing in jails branded as insurgents and some families, even to this day, are in search of their sons who disappeared overnight.

Over the years, three Peace Accords have been signed between various Bodo organisations, the Assam State Government and the Central Government. The first Bodo Accord was signed in 1993 between the Assam Government and the leaders of ABSU along with representatives from the Bodo People’s Action Committee (BPAC). The Accord led to the formation of a forty member Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) out of which thirty-five seats were to be elected based on adult suffrage and the five remaining seats were to be nominated by the government. The Accord handed BAC with thirty-eight departments such as education, forests and health, among others (George, 1994). But the Council got dissolved after a few years of its establishment as the leaders realised no development of the Bodos was possible out of that Accord and moreover, the state government actually controlled the powers of the Council. There were also differences of opinion among the leaders of the Council.

The second Accord was signed in 2003 between the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), the State Government of Assam and the Central Government. This tri-partite agreement was much more comprehensive as compared to the previous one, because it led to the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) by amending the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The BTC has four districts – Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. The council comprises of forty-six members of which thirty seats are reserved for tribals, five seats for non-tribals, five seats for the general category and six seats are to be nominated by the governor from underrepresented groups. The Council enjoys autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution to make laws on over forty subjects or departments. Another significant landmark achieved through this Accord was the recognition of the Bodo language under the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

The Bodoland Territorial Council Legislative Assembly at Bodofa Nwgwr, Kokrajhar. Image Courtesy: Rinoy Basumatary, Kokrajhar (2020).
The Bodoland Territorial Council Legislative Assembly at Bodofa Nwgwr, Kokrajhar. Image Courtesy: Rinoy Basumatary, Kokrajhar (2020).

The third and the ‘final’ Accord was signed on 27th January, 2020 between the Union Home Minister, the State Government of Assam and ABSU leaders along with representatives from four factions of the NDFB. This Accord leverages the earlier ones signed with the BLT in 2003 in terms of areas under the Council as well as its legislative, executive and financial powers. Besides that, the Accord renames the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) to Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR). The Council now also has a say in the transfer of Indian Administrative Service (IAS)/Indian Police Service (IPS) officers in the region, control over the earlier forty departments plus another eight additional subjects and direct funding from the Centre. Economic incentives as well as a host of new educational institutions to the region are also part of the Accord (Pandey, 2020).

SHRINKING OF POLITICAL SPACE

Since, the creation of the BTC in 2003, four Council elections have taken place so far, viz., 2005, 2010, 2015 and as recently as 2020. The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) was at the helm of affairs in the Council for seventeen long years apart from being a  coalition partner in the State Assembly, first with Congress and until recently, with the BJP. Violence marred the Council elections held in 2005 and 2010 and although, the 2015 council elections were not completely free from violence, but it was in a much lesser intensity as compared to the previous rounds of BTC elections (Siddique, 2015). If we look at Table 1, BPF managed to win only twenty seats out of the forty that it contested in the 2015 Council elections, which was a reduction by eleven seats that it won in 2010. The reduction in BPF’s seats can be attributed to the non-tribal votes going in favour of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the emergence of Peoples Coordination for Democratic Rights (PCDR). The PCDR is a conglomeration of different Bodo organizations such as ABSU, Bodoland Peoples Progressive Front (BPPF) in collaboration with the pro-talk group of NDFB (Siddique, 2015).

Table 1: Seats Contested and Won by Political Parties in BTC Elections. Source: Compiled by author from the website of the Assam State Election Commission (https://www.secassam.in)
Table 1: Seats contested and won by political parties in BTC Elections. Source: Compiled by author from the website of the Assam State Election Commission (https://www.secassam.in)

PCDR contested the 2015 council election as an independent party, taking advantage of the rampant corruption, lack of transparency and inclusivity in the governance process of the ruling regime. The PCDR has transitioned itself in to another political party which is now known as the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL). As we can see from Table 1, the national political parties such as the Congress and the BJP, have been contesting in the Council elections since 2010 or even prior to it, but with little electoral success.

There are two explanations for this lack of electoral success – first, considering that this is a local level election, until 2015 national political parties have either stayed away or partially contested in these elections without much effort and enthusiasm. Secondly, local people have always voted for regional political parties in the Council elections. However, that changed in 2015 (see Table 1) as both the Congress and the BJP contested in all forty seats of the Council but the former drew a blank and could not even retain the three seats that it won in the 2010 BTC elections. As far as the latter is concerned, four Union ministers took part in political campaigns to make in-roads in the BTC, but the BJP had to be contended with only a single seat (Siddique, 2015).

This brings us to the fourth BTC elections which was unprecedented in many ways as it was a close contest and the election results redirects the future course of regional politics in the BTC. The Council election was postponed due to the spread of COVID19 from April 2020 to December 2020 and it only heightened the mass hysteria and theatrics adopted by different political parties. In the run up to the elections, social media was flooded with pictures and videos of people changing or joining new political parties, and the regular jibes that the  UPPL were taking against what they called the seventeen long years of BPF’s misconduct and nepotism in selection for jobs in the BTC. Numerous social media profiles and ‘news’ web-pages were created to further their own agenda. In the meantime, amidst all this chaos and confusion, senior politicians and leaders were poached by the BJP and new political alliances were silently made in the background. Among the high profile politicians to make a switch to the BJP was the sitting Rajya Sabha MP Biswajit Daimary, who vacated his seat only to be reinstated to the Rajya Sabha in February 2021 by the BJP. He contested the recently concluded Assembly elections from Panery constituency and won with a margin of 35,852 votes. Daimary, for his role in BTC elections got his dues from the BJP as he was made the Speaker of the 15th Assam Legislative Assembly. Emanuel Moshahary, a former MLA from Tamulpur, is the other senior politician to change sides from BPF to BJP. To make inroads in Bodoland, the BJP not only poached tribal politicians but also took advantage of the latest peace Accord signed in January, 2020.

Voters stand in queue at a polling center in Chirang during the 2020 BTC elections. Image Courtesy: Michael Islary, Chirang (2020).
Voters stand in queue at a polling center in Chirang during the last BTC elections. Image Courtesy: Michael Islary, Chirang (2020).

The BPF, despite, receiving flak for inefficiency in administration managed to win seventeen seats, just four seats shy of the magical number twenty-one. Though, the number of seats won is reduced by three as compared to 2015 BTC elections, BPF won the highest number of seats than any other political party. The events that unfolded post-election results are even more dramatic than the pre-poll events. Immediately after the Council election results, the only winning candidate from the Congress party moved to the BJP. He was followed by the BPF’s Reo Reoa Narzihary, who was elected as an MCLA (Member of Council Legislative Assembly) from Jamduar constituency. The Chief of BPF, Hagrama Mahilary filed a petition at the Gauhati High Court against the invitation to UPPL-BJP-GSP to form the government in BTC. The BPF alleged that it is unconstitutional to not invite the single largest party to prove majority. As uncertainty prevailed over the formation of a new government in the BTC and fearing poaching by the opposition party, the newly elected members of UPPL, BJP and GSP were kept in a hotel in Guwahati, and the BPF whisked away their elected candidates to Bhutan. The Gauhati High Court ordered a floor test to be held on or before December 26, 2020 in which the UPPL-BJP-GSP managed to show their majority. The begrudging MCLAs of the BPF didn’t attend the ensuing BTC Assembly session held on January 8 to show their resentment. Further, not a single MCLAs of the BPF attended the budget session held on 24 May, 2021.

Unlike the Council elections, in the run up to the State Assembly elections there was not much intense campaigning nor excitement among the people of BTC. However, people were shocked to hear about the defection of the BPF candidate from Tamulpur constituency to BJP just few days prior to the voting day. Perhaps, a year-long of political activism for the Council elections saturated the people and it is well-known anecdotally among the people of the region that whichever party comes to power in the Council are the eventual winners in the Assembly elections. For fifteen years, the BPF continued to win from all twelve Legislative Assembly Constituencies (LAC) in BTC, but that changed after the recent Assembly election results in which BPF managed to win only four seats. Whereas, UPPL, the party in power in the Council managed to win six seats this time. Following the State Assembly Elections, we have witnessed an exodus of MCLAs from BPF to UPPL and BJP, respectively. Earlier, Saoraigwra Basumatary and Prabhat Basumatary joined BPF’s arch-rival UPPL and the latest to follow them is Bijitgwra Narzary, an MCLA from Darangajuli, who jumped ship from BPF to BJP.

UNCERTAIN POLITICAL FUTURES   

The critics of BTC for reasons best known to them, have termed BTC as a failed experience because it could not fulfill the objectives of the Peace Accord [1]. There’s some merit to the argument as far as corruption, unemployment and development is concerned, but to term the whole of BTC as a complete failure is totally uncalled for. The establishment of BTC under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution provided an administrative apparatus to a region and a community that has always been at the ‘periphery’ of not just the Indian nation-state but also the mainstream Assamese caste society. It is also a region that ranks dismally as far as social development indicators are concerned. Therefore, the formation of the BTC not only provides a mechanism for development of marginalised communities, but most importantly, it has become a political gambit that political parties (be it regional or national) do not want to miss out on. There is no better example to illustrate this point than the recent Council-Assembly elections. The BJP campaigned vigorously in the Council elections to end BPF’s seventeen year long tenure and hand the power to UPPL, who in return would help the former to retain power for a second-term in Dispur. Both the objectives have been fulfilled now, but it does jeopardise the political futures of regional political parties. For instance, the BPF, which was all mighty and powerful until the 2020 BTC elections, but following the Council-Assembly elections, it is now fighting for its survival. Not only have senior political leaders and elected MCLAs left the party, but also its ground workers along with financial donors have abandoned the BPF. For the party to stay relevant in politics as well as in public consciousness, the BPF must not boycott Council meetings nor budget sessions, but play the role of an opposition party to perfection. Further, there should be an organisational reshuffle in the party by infusing new blood into the party leadership and they must maintain transparency and accountability. Failing to do this will only lead to its further downfall.

As far as the UPPL is concerned, with resounding back to back victories in the Council-State elections and as part of the government both at the state and the Council, its future looks optimistic.The recent political events and the manner of incursion of the BJP or a national political party in the Council primarily meant for development at the local level, caught the attention of the citizens of the BTC. People have started questioning the value of lives lost during the statehood movement and furthermore, the significance of the Peace Accords signed. A region that has a dark past and has always been lagging as far as development indicators are concerned, can ill afford to play politics and lock horns with national political parties.

Now that the BJP has ‘tasted blood’ in BTC elections, will it be content to just play a second fiddle to the UPPL and not go all out to form a government on its own? After all, the BJP is in power both at the center and the state and now has twelve MCLAs in the Council to boast of. Nonetheless, the entry of national political parties in the council defeats the very purpose of establishing the ADCs and tribal self-rule.

NOTES:

  1. See Smitana Saikia (2015) for reference.

REFERENCES:

  1. Baro, Aniruddha Kumar. Political decentralization and ethnic violence in sixth schedule areas of Assam. Unpublished PhD thesis. Guwahati: Indian Institute of Technology, 2018.
  2. Gassah, L. S. “The sixth schedule and the 73rd amendment: An analysis”. In  Power to People in Meghalaya, (eds.) M. N. Karna, L. S. Gassah and C. J. Thomas, 3-12. Delhi: Regency Publications, 2013.
  3. George, Sudhir Jacob. “The Bodo movement in Assam: unrest to accord.” Asian Survey, 34, no. 10 (1994): 878-892.
  4. Lacina, Bethany. “The problem of political stability in Northeast India: Local ethnic autocracy and the rule of law.” Asian survey, 49, no. 6 (2009): 998-1020.
  5. Pandey, Ranjan. “Why the BJP Is Going All in to Contest a Local Council Election in Assam”. The Wire. URL: https://thewire.in/politics/bjp-bodoland-council-election-assam-himanta-biswa-sarma-hagrama-mohilary (accessed 1 June’ 2021).  
  6. Rondinelli, Dennis A., John R. Nellis, and G. Shabbir Cheema. “Decentralization in developing countries.” World Bank staff working paper 581 (1983): 13-28.
  7. Saikia, Smitana. “General elections 2014: ethnic outbidding and politics of ‘homelands’ in Assam’s Bodoland.” Contemporary South Asia, 23, no. 2 (2015): 211-222.
  8. Siddique, Nazimuddin. “Bodoland territorial area district elections 2015.” Economic and Political Weekly, 50, no.31 (2015): 1-6.

[NOTE: The essay has been appended to reflect the demography of the Bodo community with more clarity. The earlier statement that the Bodos ‘are the largest tribal group in Assam comprising five to six percent of the total tribal population in the state’ has been appended to ‘they are the largest tribal group in Assam comprising about fifty percent of the total tribal population in the state’.]


Michael Islary is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore. He is interested in Political Economy, Livelihoods, Tribal Development, Biodiversity Conservation, Natural Resources Governance, Protected Areas and Environmental Justice.

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