Bodoland: The Burden of History


Bodoland: The Burden of History

The burden of history is proving ever so heavy for the indigenous peoples of Assam. Since the 1930s,1 the issues of land, immigration, demographic change and identity have been core ones in this region.


In the years immediately preceding Independence when the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League were ranged against each other on the question of immigration of land-hungry peasants from the then East Bengal, the Assam Legislative Assembly debated at length on the land question, the rights of tribal communities to their lands and the demand by the immigrants to scrap the Line System.2

In 1937 the Assam assembly set up a committee headed by F W Hockenhull to look into the entire issue of land and suggest measures which could be ­acceptable to all the parties concerned. In his report submitted a year later, Hockenhull observed that the indigenous people by themselves would not be able to develop the wastelands, but he insisted that the Line System should continue and suggested stronger and more effective steps to prevent alienation of tribal land. Following the Hockenhull Report, the Congress ministry headed by Gopinath Bardoloi initiated several measures aimed at freeing the protected tribal land from encroachers. But permission for new settlements to landless peasants, both Assamese and immigrants was not stopped. Hence, the pressure from the immigrant lobby continued. Things took a different turn when, in November 1939, the Bardoloi ministry resigned following the AICC’s war directive and Syed Mohammad Saadulla took over with the full backing of the Muslim League. Soon after taking charge, Saadulla signed an agreement with the Assam Tribal League3 which surprisingly did not have any specific clauses on the land question, despite the latter’s insistence that the Line System should be strictly enforced to protect tribal land. Instead, Saadulla went ahead with his plan for settlement of East Bengal immigrants as demanded by the Muslim League which, in its first provincial conference held in November 1939, insisted that the Line System be totally scrapped and land be made available to all immigrants from East Bengal. However, the Saadulla ministry fell in December 1941 because of the withdrawal of support from the independent Assamese member Rohini Kumar Chaudhury and two other MLAs. Governor’s rule followed and in March 1942 the governor scrapped the Land Development Scheme.

But when Saadulla returned to power on August 1942, the situation was politically quite congenial for him to go ahead with his Land Development Scheme which was clearly intended to ensure continuing support from the Muslim League legislators who had made their intentions clear of bringing in more immigrants into the province.4 Meanwhile pressure was mounting also from the Muslim League government in West Bengal where the state assembly passed a resolution calling upon Assam to open up its reserves to land-hungry immigrants from Bengal.5 Within a year of his assuming office, in August 1943 the Saadulla ministry adopted a new resolution on land settlement which provided for the opening up of grazing reserve areas and wastelands in the districts of Nowgong, Darrang and Kamrup to immigrants from Bengal as part of the “Grow More Food” programme6 aimed at helping the war economy.

This scheme called for distribution of wastelands and the de-reservation of select grazing reserves in the Nowgong district, the de-reservation of professional grazing reserves in Kamrup and Darrang and the opening up of surplus reserves in all the submontane areas ­ostensibly for settlement of landless people, the overwhelming majority of whom were Muslim immigrants. Referring to this Amalendu Guha writes:

S P Desai, a senior ICS man, was appointed Special Officer to ascertain what portion of professional grazing reserve could be declared as surplus available for settlement. Desai reported that the forcible occupation of grazing lands by immigrants had already taken place to a large scale, even in predominantly Assamese and tribal areas. His conclusion was that there was no surplus land available for new settlement. Ignoring the report, Saadulla’s Muslim League Coalition Government threw select professional grazing reserves open for settling immigrants.7

Opening Assam to Immigration

It was this scheme which opened up vast areas of central and western Assam8 to immigrants and had grave implications for the indigenes, especially for the tribal population who were accustomed to a different mode of agriculture. The tribal farmers lacked proper land documents and were accustomed to using “unclaimed land” for shifting cultivation. Initially, Saadulla’s development scheme met with roadblocks in the form of ­severe opposition from the Congress which effectively voiced the concerns of the indigenous peoples. But the Muslim League under the leadership of Maulana Bhasani9 had become more and more strident and continued to press its demand for further opening up of grazing reserves and the abolition of the Line System meant to protect indigenous and tribal land from occupation by immigrants. In its provincial conference held in April 1944 in the lower Assam town of Barpeta,10 the Muslim League demanded that the immigrants be given land or the Saadulla ministry should resign. Discussing the differences that had cropped up between Saadulla and Bhasani, Amalendu Guha observes:

Replying to Bhasani’s long harangue, Saadulla charged the greedy headmen of immigrant villages, dewanis and matbars, had unceremoniously managed to get for themselves pattas for seventy to hundred acres each, with a view to induct sub-tenants… He cited instances of their driving out even Assamese Muslims from newly reclaimed lands. To drive the point home, he drew a parallel with unrestricted Jewish migration to the Arab homeland. He pleaded for protection of Assam’s tribals in the plains from the onslaught of more enterprising settlers. Finally, he appealed for support to his policy, since the Line System had already been relaxed to a great deal with a view to its abolition.11

Differences with the Muslim League leadership as well as continued resistance to his land policy from the Congress, compelled Saadulla to try to reach a compromise and convene an all-party conference to discuss the issue. But this did not deter Saadulla from bringing in another resolution on the land issue in January 1945 where he tried to arrive at a compromise between the demands of the indigenes and those of the Muslim League. Speaking at the budget session of the Assam assembly in March 1945, Gopinath Bardoloi put up a tough fight against the Saadulla government’s policy of opening up the reserves and grazing areas to the immigrants. Referring to the anti-tribal policy of the Saadulla government, Bardoloi said:

The government resolution makes no provision for Tribal Blocks in areas other than places which have been termed as Tribal Blocks. This will make the position of the tribals impossible…the tribal people will have to move to the hills if they require land for settlement and cultivation. Bardoloi referred to Clause 15 of the government resolution which stated:

 The area required for them (the tribals) will be calculated at double the area occupied by the present people in the submontane tracts…it will also afford provision to other tribals living outside the area to be defined, who may wish to remove themselves within the tribal belt. Superfluous lands in the present loosely defined tribal area will be excluded and thrown open for settlement under the planned scheme. In other words, the tribals are not to find land in areas which are now under occupation by them, but they shall have to go to tribal areas…posterity will blame us if we cannot protect the rights of the indigenous people, the tribals (emphasis added).

Bardoloi was strongly opposed by the Muslim League members and Saadulla went ahead with his land development scheme which led to the opening up of more and more government reserve areas to the immigrants.

In 1946 the Congress was voted to power and one of the first acts of the Bardoloi ministry was to clear the grazing and forest reserves of illegal encroachers12 as per the tripartite agreement of March 1945. But resistance from the immigrants and the fear of reprisals on Assamese villages forced the government to go slow. Hence, the alienation of tribal land continued. However, within a year of Independence, the Bardoloi ministry, in a bid to prevent further alienation of tribal land, amended the Assam Land Revenue Regulations, 1886, and created reserved tribal belts in different regions with the aim of protecting the tribal people from competition from non-tribals, mainly immigrants. Ten tribal belts and 23 tribal blocks were constituted and it was hoped that the measure would prove to be a final check on occupation of tribal land. But in the hands of manipulative officials, most of the provisions were subverted. In the years that followed, continued pressure on land held by the indigenes kept mounting because of immigration from then East Pakistan.

Alienation of Tribals

The denial of Sixth Scheduled status for the Bodos, which would have given them constitutional protection when they needed it most to protect their land and identity, can be seen as one of the primary causes leading to the alienation of tribal land in the post-Independence years. The Bangladesh war added to the changing demographic scenario of the state, with several lakhs of immigrants, mostly Bengali Muslims, staying back in the Brahmaputra Valley. Finally, when the Assam Movement against foreign nationals erupted in 1979, the land issue proved to be the central one. Discussing this, M S Prabhakara writes:

 …The land question in Assam is extremely complicated and even more than the ‘ethnic’ dimension and the ‘threat to identity’, it was the land question which invested the Assam agitation with a measure of legitimacy. Vast areas of the state have for years been settled upon and cultivated by people who have no formal claims on the land.13

Thus, Assam has long been caught in the time warp and what we are witnessing today in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) area is the result of failure as well as unwillingness on the part of the government to act decisively with a political will to put an end to the alienation of tribal land. As for the Assamese middle class, it was too occupied with the language question to give time to the progressive alienation of tribal land owing to continuous immigration, the strong and unambiguous stand that the Assam Congress leaders took during the Assembly debates before and after Partition notwithstanding.

Any attempt, therefore, to understand the present situation in the BTAD must take into account the fact that the Bodos have been a community long accustomed to shifting cultivation and their transition to settled farming is of relatively recent origin. During the colonial days the Bodo and other Assamese tribal communities were known to be averse to acquiring permanent tenure over land. This lack of formal tenure often made them appear as encroachers on government forestland and helped the immigrant non-tribal peasants to permanently occupy the land which was once the preserve of the tribal farmer. During the initial years of migration of peasants from the then East Bengal which was actively encouraged by the colonial state to meet its commercial needs, communities like the Bodos could still move within their land and practise their non-commodity production.14

The colonial administration was not happy with such cultivators because they practised temporary cultivation and were unwilling to pay land revenue. But as the flow on migration increased in the immediate years before and after Independence, tribal land was increasingly acquired by non-tribal immigrants who secured permanent tenure. Therefore, it was a losing battle for the Bodos who were pitted against the sedentary farmers who started raising cash crops.


1 The colonisation scheme which had been initiated by the British officials began in 1928 when large areas of Nowgong district, to be followed by Barpeta and Mangaldai subdivisions, were opened up primarily to immigrants from the then East Bengal. According to Amalendu Guha “during the six years preceding 1936, as many as 59 grazing, forest and village reserves had been thrown open in Nowgong under the Colonisation Scheme for settling the immigrants”. Guha writes: “The land-hungry immigrants, segregated and pitted against all odds, never appreciated the Assamese point of view. If all men were equal in the eyes of Allah, why should thousands of acres of land remain waste, particularly when men in search of a livelihood and lebensraum were available to them to turn into smiling fields?…They wanted the Line System to go”. See Amalendu Guha Planter Raj to Swaraj, p 210.

2 The Line System was first mooted in 1916 and adopted in 1920. It was an administrative measure aimed against the occupation of land belonging to the indigenous people by the immigrants. The clash of interests began when the immigrants started moving into areas held by the autochthones from their initial riverine bases. Under the Line System, a line was drawn in those districts which were under pressure from immigrants so that they could be settled in segregated areas specified for their exclusive settlement. But continuous encroachment by immigrants of lands earmarked for the local Assamese people ultimately made the Line System virtually infructuous.

3 The clauses relating to land settlement of tribal people were quite vague. Though it was agreed that steps would be initiated to defend the Line System, and settlement would be given to landless tribals “after taking into account the condition” of these people, yet no specific guideline or time frame was spelt out. The Tribal League has also been referred to as Plains Tribal League.

4 The majority of Congress MLAs were in jail because of the Quit India Movement.

5 The Bengal Legislative Council passed a motion on 16 July 1943, calling upon the Government of India to take immediate steps to remove all restrictions imposed by the Assam government on the land-hungry, emigrant cultivators from Bengal. See Amalendu Guha, ibid: 281.

6 Wavell termed it as the “Grow More Muslims” policy.

7 Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj, pp 281-82.

8 Central and western Assam is today in the grip of Bodo-Muslim violence.

9 Abdul Hamid Khan, better known as Maulana Bhasani, was a peasant leader of East Bengal but soon emerged as an influential leader of the Bengali Muslim immigrants in Assam. He was elected to the Assam Legislative Assembly in 1937 and as president of the provincial Muslim League mounted a series of agitations for the withdrawal of the Line System and the opening of the tribal belts and blocks to immigrant peasants. In February 1947 Bhasani planned a series of marches against the Line System as part of the Civil Disobedience programme of the All India Muslim League. But when the possibility of Assam being included in Pakistan receded, the move fizzled out.

10 By the 1940s the Barpeta subdivision of lower Assam was emerging as a stronghold of immigrant Muslims. In 1911 Muslims constituted 0.1% of the population of Barpeta subdivision; by 1941, they constituted nearly 49%.

11 Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj, pp 282-83.

12 Primarily post-1937 encroachers.

13 M S Prabhakara, “Land, the Source of All Trouble”, The Hindu, 15 July 1987.

14 For a discussion of the two land systems refer to “What Ails Western Assam?” by Arupjyoti Saikia, Seven Sisters Post, Guwahati, 10 August 2012.

15 As early as 1989, United Minority Front legislators in the Assam assembly accused the ruling Asom Gana Parishad of inciting the Muslim settlers against the Bodo tribals.

16 The Bodo movement for autonomy and separate statehood has passed through several stages. Initially, under the leadership of the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) the demand was for a homeland for the plains tribal communities of central and western Assam inhabiting the north bank of the Brahmaputra. But owing to reservations expressed by the Mishing and Rabha communities, the demand got focused on an exclusive homeland for the Bodos who were the largest plains tribal group although clearly not a majority in the area earmarked by the agitators for a separate Bodoland. Under the leadership of the All Bodo Students Union which had the support of the militant United Tribal Nationalist Liberation Front (UTNLF), the movement acquired an increasing violent turn with government buildings. Schools and bridges destroyed and scores of civilians, both Bodo and non-Bodo being killed… Following the infructuous accord of 1993, Bodo militancy took on new wings with the formation of organisations like the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). There is evidence to suggest that the central government under the Congress encouraged Bodo separatism in order to create difficulties for the Asom Gana Parishad government of the state. Finally, with a change of government in Delhi, an accord was arrived at between the BLT and the GOI which paved the way for the amendment of the Sixth Schedule and the creation of the BTAD with electoral reservations for the Bodo community in the BTC which was given a large range of powers minus law and order which remained with the state government. With 30 of the 46 seats in the BTC reserved for scheduled tribes (Bodos alone in this case), and only five for non-tribal communities and another five open seats, the other communities which constituted almost 70% of the population felt left out of the democratic process. Though the accord provided for the protection of the land rights of the non-tribals, and did not bar any citizen from “acquiring land either by way of inheritance, allotment, settlement or by way of transfer if such citizens were eligible for such bona fide acquisition of land within the BTC area”, the clause was later on seen by the Bodos as a ploy to continue acquisition of tribal land while the non-Bodos felt that this particular clause was not respected by the Bodo leadership.

17 For an analysis of the early phase of the Bodo movement, refer “Bodo Stir: Complex Issues: Unattainable Demands” by Udayon Misra, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XXIV, No 21, 27 May 1989.

18 That demographic change was a major concern was reflected in Clause 8 of the Memorandum of Settlement between the GOI and the All Bodo Students Union signed in February 1993, which stated that “the BAC shall, within the laws of the land, take steps to protect the demographic complexion of the areas falling within its jurisdiction”. Though this clause does not figure in the Bodo Accord of 2003, it points to the demographic challenge that small nationalities in the north-eastern region have been facing primarily from immigration.

19 Though exact figures regarding occupation of tribal belts and blocks and government reserve land are not available, it is a known fact that over the years there has been continuous encroachment. In figures released by the state government as way back as 1986, immigrant Muslims, former tea-garden workers, Nepalis and non-tribal Assamese constituted almost half of the total number of settlers in the 25 forest divisions of the state where some 1,74,489 hectares were under occupation.

20 Prabhakara, The Hindu, Madras, 2 August 1994.

21 It was this faction that has been held responsible for the highly coordinated bomb blasts which shook Guwahati and several other towns on the 31 October 2008 which claimed scores of lives.

22 The Bodo People’s Front which is a coalition partner of the Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi is made up of former BLT members.

23 Till date official figures put the number of killed at 97, with the immigrant Muslim settlers bearing the brunt of the violence. But many Bodos have also lost their lives and over a lakh have been displaced.

24 According to observers, there has been a Christian-non Christian fault line within the Bodo movement right from the beginning.

25 Even the state government has, in so many words, accepted the presence of migrants from Bangladesh in some of the camps and the chief minister has gone on record saying that his government would provide relief to foreign nationals but the question of rehabilitation did not arise.

26 Muslim and adivasi (Santhal) victims of earlier rounds of violence in 1993, 1996 and 1998 are still lodged in camps in Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar.

27 For details about displacement figures from 1993 onwards, refer to “Conflict-Induced Internal Displacees and Their Security: A Case Study of Lower Assam” by Subhash Barman in Akhil Ranjan Dutta (ed.), Human Security in North-East India: Issues and Policies, Guwahati, 2011.

28 Up to April 1989, for instance, as many as 150 civilians were killed and these included those gunned down in fratricidal strife between the supporters of the All Bodo Students Union and the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) as well as state government employees and schoolteachers.

29 These settlers included, apart from the immigrant Muslims, non-tribal Assamese, adivasis and Nepalis.

30 Subhash Barman, op cit, p 227.

31 It may be recalled that the growing tension between the immigrant Muslims and the tribals was highlighted as way back as 1989 when during a session of the Assam Assembly a United Minorities Front member accused the Asom Gana Parishad of inciting the Muslim settlers against the Bodo tribals.

32 Recently, BTC chief Hagrama Mohiliary announced a grant of several lakhs of rupees for the setting up of centres at the initiative of the Asom Sahitya Sabha for Bodo and Assamese language training in the BTAD area.

33 During the Bodo movement, scores of Assamese civilians, schoolteachers, petty businessmen were targeted and Assamese peasants in many Bodo-majority areas were compelled to sell off their land at throwaway prices.

34 Clause 10 of the Assam Accord reads: “It will be ensured that the relevant laws for protection of encroachment on government lands and lands in the tribal belts and blocks are strictly enforced and unauthorised encroachers evicted as laid down in such laws.”

35 A long-standing demand of the All Assam Students Union and other Assamese organisations.

36 Though Clause 4(3) of the Bodo Accord contains safeguards for the “settlement rights, transfer and inheritance of property, etc, of non-tribals”, yet the general complaint of the non-tribal population has been that their citizenship rights have been totally marginalised by the accord and that they have been reduced to a second-class citizen status.