From UDAYACHAL movement to “Autonomy or Death”: Where does PCTA stand now?

The Plains Tribals’ Council of Assam was formed to articulate the demands of the tribal people living in the “tribal belts and blocks” in the Luit valley. This memorandum was addressed to the then President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussain on May 20, 1967. Mr. Biruchan Doley, Mr. Samar Brahma Choudhury, Mr. Charan Narzary, Mr. Praful Bhabara and Mr. Ajit Basumatary were office bearers of the organization and signed the said memorandum in Kokrajhar town in Assam.

The activist, Ms. Golapi Basumatary was a well-known and respected activist who was the general secretary of the Boro Women’s Justice Forum and was a known figure not only in the Boro areas but in other parts of Assam as well. The killing of human rights activists, trade union leaders and others who try to use the democratic spaces to articulate dissent, is a deliberate state policy in Assam, according to reports of voluntary human rights groups (MASS 1999).


 “Autonomy or Death”: Assessing Ethnic Autonomy Arrangements in Assam, Northeast India.


In the past decade, movements for ethnic autonomy have marked the political discourse in Assam. While some have resolutely expressed the need for more autonomy within the present administrative set-up, other movements have evolved more militant, secessionist ideas of political and geographical demarcation of territory. The autonomous districts in Assam, formed under the auspices of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, are a showpiece for the State’s capacity to address indigenous ethnic aspirations in the Northeast. On the face of it, these (autonomous district) councils are meant to devolve judicial, legislative and executive powers to those upon whom it is conferred. The genesis of Sixth Schedule is itself a question that needs special attention. The choices of the field area(s) are not coincidental. Both Karbi Anglong and the recently created Boro(land) Territorial Council offer a longitudinal contrast in the application of the Sixth Schedule to specific territories and people. At the same time, the administrative logic that decreed the creation of these “autonomous” entities/ territories, shows an almost naïve faith where complex (and contentious) issues centred on identity, are seen to be resolved.


            This article seeks to locate these autonomy regimes within a particular framework that focuses on (a) construction of frontiers; (b) negotiating for political space within these frontiers and (c) the ability to redefine sovereignty, citizens and subjects in an “autonomous” space like Karbi Anglong and to an extent, Boro(land) Territorial Council. There is a need to spell out why it is important to understand autonomy regimes within the three areas mentioned above. Karbi Anglong and Boro(land) Territorial Council are in Northeast India, that truculent triangle beyond the populated Gangetic plains. Sanjib Baruah sees the work of colonial and commercial enterprise, in the conversion of the area into one administrative unit (Baruah 1999: 35- 43). In a sense, this is almost taken for granted when one discusses the Northeast. However, there are important considerations involved in the construction of frontiers that need to be broadened in their own right.


 In the 1980s, Boro agitators painted the words, “Autonomy or death” on their bodies. This dramatic position itself has been the product of years of systematic mobilisation of political resources of the community that sees its position of marginalisation as a failure of institutions of representation and participation. In 2001, the government of Assam signed a cease-fire agreement with one of the factions of the armed opposition political groups, the Boro Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF). Subsequently, the cease-fire agreement culminated in the signing of the Memorandum of Settlement of the Boro Territorial Council in 2003. The “treaty” was meant to have been a centrepiece in the conflict resolution techniques available to the State apparatus in India. However, instead of leading to the reduction of violent conflict, it has only added to the volatile ethnic polarisation in the region.


The Boro (or Bodo) are classified as a “plains tribe” and the demand for their separate homeland incorporates territories of western Assam. The territory in question is also home to various other ethnic groups, each with their own claims of being “indigenous” to the area. In addition to such groups, there are also others who trace their place of origin to central India; the sub-Himalayan foothills of Nepal and Bhutan; the Gangetic plains and from neighbouring parts of Bengal (including Bangladesh). Given such a complex ethnic composition, the demand for autonomy for the Boro community is bound to initiate debate on the construction of adversaries of a movement that speaks for a significant ethnic minority, who participate in political processes of a larger nation-state.

            Karbi Anglong was created as a district in 1951 and a year later it was granted the status of autonomous district council. Its hilly terrain kept the region “partially excluded” from direct administrative control of the colonial British government in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather than pave the way for a successful experience of institutional autonomy for the indigenous people of the hills, this arrangement was gradually challenged by the emerging educated classes. The challenge resulted in sporadic outbursts of anger against the arrogance of the valley-based, caste Hindu power brokers.


             In the 1980s, the Karbi, who constitute a shaky majority among the indigenous peoples in the territory (of the present district), the Dimasa (an indigenous group that is dominant in neighbouring North Cachar Hills) and other scheduled tribes,[1] began agitating for greater autonomy. The agitation, once peaceful and led by a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist- Leninist), soon gave way to an armed struggle, which predictably underwent “splits” in the late 1980s. Political issues aside, these splits though couched in the political language of factionalism, have resulted in numerous incidents of ethnic clashes between the Karbi and those perceived to be “encroachers” into their territory. The armed ethnic militia, as well as the more mainstream autonomy demanding bodies are however united in their desire to recreate a more pristine homeland that not only challenges the limits of the autonomous arrangement currently in place, but also seeks to find radical solutions beyond the purview of constitutional means.


  1. The Construction of “Frontiers”

 Ethno-nationalist identities are important categories of identity formation in Northeast India. They constitute a peculiar version of a process that Benedict Anderson terms as an “imagining” of constituent members of a political collective (Anderson 1991: 5-9). However, this process is bound to be a contested one. In the era of modern nation-states, one sees the persistence of ethnicity, sometimes as a vital link to the nation-building process and at other times, as a tool to resist dominance and control. Part of the reason why they exist lies in the geopolitical construction of “frontiers” in the nineteenth century, as well as the manner in which these “frontiers” were incorporated within post-colonial nation states.

            The nineteenth century was in fact the era of expansion of capital to hitherto untrammelled landscapes such as Assam. This “discovery” precipitated a move towards a fundamentally different type of economy, where the movement of populations became a condition for growth and colonisation (Hobsbawm 1995: 202- 207). The process of creating “frontiers” became a condition peculiar to the type of economy introduced. Hence, a complicated process of mapping the region within notions of centre-periphery was being undertaken. With it, there was visible move towards what Rumley and Minghi call the “consideration of border landscapes as a set of cultural, economic and political interactions and processes occurring in space” (Rumley and Minghi 1991: 4). Those inhabiting regions that were not immediately earmarked for expansion of capital and colonial administration were clearly subjected to a position of marginality precisely because they constituted a new periphery. It is in the interplay between spaces and peoples that ethnicity becomes an important factor in defining subjects.

            The Boro are an ethnic community comprising a number of groups speaking a more or less common dialect or language and claiming a common ancestry. They have been referred to as Kachari in the pre-colonial historiography of Assam. Until the 12th century, these groups controlled much of present-day Assam. They are considered aborigines of the Brahmaputra valley. Though there is some dispute as to how many sub-groups actually constitute the larger Boro group, it is widely accepted that eighteen different groups are part of the larger family mentioned above (Pulloppillil 1997: 1-3). The question of their homogenous ethnic identity is widely contested by ethnographers and administrators alike. A census conducted by the colonial British government in 1881 listed twelve sub-groups who were collectively termed as “Bodo speaking groups”, whereas others like Endle (1883) counted as many as fifteen such sub-groups.

             It is generally believed that these groups inhabited the fertile plains of the Luit (Brahmaputra) river in the twelfth century and due to frequent skirmishes with waves of migrating groups of people, like the Tai-Ahom from the east and Indo-Aryan speaking groups from the west, they moved to Karbi and North Cachar Hills in the sixteenth century. According to Nath, the Aryanisation of these groups began in the royal houses and the process ceded to hold much sway after the sixteenth century, at least not among the masses (Nath 1986). The acceptance of Hinduisation by certain sections of the predominantly swidden agricultural society, did create some degree of differences among the people who live in the region and many traces of this is seen even today.[2] Using a mix of anthropology and probabilities arising out of myths and oral history, Ajoy Roy says that following “…intelligent guess work [one] does find some physiognomic and temperamental similarities between the Boros and the present Kham tribes of Tibet” (Roy 1995: 2). Similar refrains about the possible origin of Boro people leads to further confusion, typical of any myth of origin that sees the Boro as a Mongoloid aborigines of the Luit valley (Swargiary 1997: 78- 80). This is not as bewildering a position that one may be tempted to think it is. The region known as Assam today was considered the crossroads for several cultures and peoples. It was home to corporate groups of migrants, traders and smaller subsistence-agriculture based ethnic groups. These groups moved constantly between South Asia, Southeast Asia and inner Asia (Saikia 1997). In such cases, it is important to conjure a sense of the geography of resource use among the denizens of the “crossroads”, with the Boro-speaking groups being one among many.

             Similarly, the present day hill district of Karbi Anglong was home to various peoples who practiced a mix of swidden and settled agriculture. During the pre-colonial reign of the Ahom kings, the Mikir Hills (as the region was referred to, prior to being renamed) the region offered refuge for dissidents. Since the hill- regions were not capable of supporting an intensive multiple-crop agricultural system, most of these tribes and clans practiced swidden agriculture and supplemented their meagre resources with hunting and gathering from the forests and seasonal farming in the flood plains. Obviously, the dearth of labour power and surplus pushed these groups into raiding areas where surplus was being produced; in this case the domains where subjects paid taxes to the Tai-Ahom sovereign. These raids often resulted in capture of subjects, destruction of property and retributions from the monarchical authorities. In order to regulate these raids, the Tai-Ahom government constituted a series of grants (of land, labour and forest resources), which served to regulate the entry and movement of the raiders on the sovereign’s domains (Devi 1968: 35- 37).

             In 1838 and 1854, Karbi Anglong (then simply referred to as Mikir Hills) and North Cachar Hills came under British rule and given the topography, were clubbed together as related administrative units[3]. In 1880, the territory was placed under the “Frontier Tracts” and thereafter changed to “Backward Tracts” in 1919. In 1936, it fell under the Excluded and Partially Excluded areas act. Given the new administrative set-up under British colonial authority, this fluid space- the hills of Karbi Anglong as well as the flood plains and foothills hugging the Luit (Brahmaputra) river- was transformed into a landscape where imaginary lines were drawn to prevent the movement of people. In the flood plains, a dubious “line system” allowed landless peasants from Bengal to settle on the lands inhabited by the Boros (Guha 1977: 40- 45). The construction of the “frontier” was carried out simply because the colonial administration could afford to. While restricting the expansion of its influence to probable contested zones that would bring the British into conflict with the French in Indo-China and the Chinese empire, British colonialism also managed to create conditions for extended ethnic conflicts.

             The colonial encounter transformed the social and political structures of the region. Trade routes into Southeast Asia and China were closed and new routes opened. In order to monitor and regulate the trade activities in the region, the colonial authorities constructed an all-weather road from Mangaldoi to Udalguri and moved some troops to Udalguri. In addition to these measures, they also began according obligatory rights to tribal chiefs who lived in the hills. The idea was to pay them to maintain some degree of law and order along the trade route. Hence, seven hill-chiefs, known as Sath Rajahs (seven kings) were to be paid an annual amount in return for their service as surveillance agents of the state (Moffatt Mills 1984: 171). With law and order established just the way the colonial authorities desired, traders started making inroads into the region. Soon, barter gave way to monetary transactions and balance of trade favoured those who used the currency of the British administration. Unlike the older generation of traders, the new traders were from different parts of the sub-continent and belonged to communities whose access and use of capital were legendary. They controlled the wholesale trade in the Udalguri mart.

             Boro and Karbi society underwent a profound change. Pushed away from agriculture and trading the Boro peasants were led to utilise the thickly forested areas north of Udalguri. Adjacent to the forests there were vast grasslands where a variety of long, thatched grass grew. The peasants became substantially dependent on the forest and grasslands. This survival strategy worked for a while, as the Boro-speaking farmers traded small quantities of lac and rubber obtained from the forests. However, the northward push merchants meant that commercial interests threatened even the livelihood arising from small-scale dependence on the forests. By the time the authorities began getting revenue from the forests; non-Boro merchants from north India had taken control over what had become a lucrative timber trade. The Boro-speaking peasants were thereafter barred from felling trees and extracting any resources from the vast forest region north of the river (Roy 1995: 27- 28). The Karbi once reputed to be a mobile people who traversed the course of Southeast Asia, were sandwiched between the Doyang river and the Shillong plateau. Much of their traditional land along the Kopili and Kollong rivers was converted into tea plantations. Needless to add, the Karbi were excluded from the production process in the plantations.

             Culturally, the “frontier” offered great possibilities for proselytising. Missionaries translated the Bible into Karbi and although the Karbi maintained their indigenous beliefs, an emerging educated class converted to Christianity (Anam 2000: 101). Similar changes occurred among the Boro-speaking people as well. With such changes fomenting in the “frontiers”, the need to establish some political space was also felt. In 1928, as the rest of the sub-continent boycotted the Simon Committee on constitutional reforms, the tribal peoples of the Northeast felt it was necessary to present their case to the Commission (Dutta 1993: 9). Hence, during the moment of transfer of power, two simultaneous processes were seen to be working among the Karbi and Boro peoples of the region. First, both societies were poised at the brink of tremendous changes. Education and social reform had created enough aspirations for democratic rule. Many Karbi and Boro intellectuals sympathised with the anti-colonial struggle. Second, both societies were relatively weakly positioned with respect to the aggressive decolonising nationalist ethos prevalent at the time. This meant that while a section of Karbi and Boro society were optimistic of the changes that were to come, it was still a matter of concern as to just how they would be able to negotiate their place in the postcolonial sun and to seek coherence as communities within a (new) nation-state.

  1. Negotiating for Space within the “frontiers”

 In the province of Assam the colonial state captured its rural subject a by a combination of tenancy agreements and more pertinently, through strict regulation of their traditional resource base. Some relations whereby a subject, as opposed to a citizen is reproduced continue well into the period of consolidation of the post-British Indian state. The Boro and Karbi people had been sufficiently alienated from the major decision making processes that was to shape the course of the post- 1947 state in the region.

             Following the transfer of power in 1947, the Interim Government of India appointed a sub-committee of the Constituent Assembly, called the North-East Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded Areas Sub-committee under the chairmanship of the Assamese political leader, Gopinath Bordoloi. Ostensibly, this came about, as the leaders of the anti-colonial struggle were sensitive to the need for adequate understanding of the situation in the Northeast, especially with regard to the growing aspirations of the tribal people. The sub-committee, also known as the Bordoloi Committee, sought to “…reconcile the aspirations of the hill people for political autonomy with the Assam government’s drive to integrate them with the plains”.[4] The instrument of this integrative devolution of powers was embodied in the concept of the “Autonomous District Councils” designed by the committee. This instrument was thereafter passed by the Constituent Assembly with certain modifications and it now constitutes the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Originally, the Sixth Schedule was to apply to the “tribal”, essentially hill areas of Assam. On January 25, 1950, the Indian Constitution came into force. As would be expected from such an ambitious nation-building project, the Constitution tried to build in some safeguards for the marginalised and oppressed groups in the country. For the people of the Northeast frontier, this safeguard came in the form of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The provisions in the Sixth Schedule dealt mainly with the issue of safeguarding the land and customs of the hill tribes of the region. It drew upon the erstwhile “excluded and partially excluded areas” legislation of the colonial state. Yet again, the Boro people and others were left outside the ambit of Constitutional protection. The Karbi did get a semblance of a territory but the Sixth Schedule was not equipped to handle immigration. As other issues like, cultural and social hegemony of dominant ethnic groups, continued to eat away into the fabric of political discourse in Assam, the realities of the day seemed to lead the tribal people into yet another long series of confrontations with not just the state apparatus, but also with the dominant groups associated with the state.

             The proposition that “backward tribes” reside in the hills shows the residues of colonial notions of which subjects are categorised as “primitive”. Nevertheless, even if one bestows the proverbial “benefit-of-doubt” to the committee for this, it still does not address the issue of who constitute “tribal” groups. Implicit in this problem is the issue of marginalisation and impoverishment, as well as the working through of a cultural dynamic in a region where identity is a matter of life, death and most importantly- livelihood. Hence, the persistence of a policy that originated in negating democratic notions of self by reconstituting the governed subject as something less than a citizen reveals the first discordant notes in the nation-building process in India. The effect that this has on political mobilisation is quite interesting. In numerous memoranda demanding separation from forced union, Karbi, Dimasa and Boro leaders have come up with images of a collective self that does not have a similar resonance in mainstream politics. Hence, in a petition to the Prime Minister of India in 1973, leaders of the Mikir and North Cachar hills stated:


    “…there is an indisputable case for constitution of a separate state for Mikir and North Cachar Hills together with the contiguous tribal areas. Only by this means they (we) will be able to exist unhampered, preserve and develop their (our) entities, languages, cultures and ways of life and at the same time be in tune with the mainstream of national life, to sail the wide ocean that is India and not be restricted to the backwaters of the Brahmaputra valley.”[5]

Similarly, the Boro educated youth had already begun to feel the need for more say in the political and economic distribution, the these “belts” and “blocks” were just not enough. As early as 1933, when the All Assam Plains Tribal League was formed under the initiative of the Boro leader- Rupnath Brahma and his counterpart Bhimbor Deori, the need to reassess the condition of the Boro-speaking peoples in the region was of utmost importance. Continuing with the formation of a consolidated political collective, the Boro Sahitya Sabha (Boro Literary Forum) was formed in 1952. The Forum’s main activities were to promote and protect Boro culture and identity within what they perceived was the growing threat to their survival as a people. It also aimed to devise a ‘standard Boro language’, which could be link for all the Boro-speaking peoples in the region.[6] Some years later, in 1967, the educated Boro youth also formed a student body known as the All Boro Students Union (ABSU). In the years to come, these civic organisations would try to steer Boro political discourse against severe odds- both from within and from external forces.

             Similar to the memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister by the leaders of Mikir and North Cachar Hills, the Plains Tribal Council of Assam, a body representing the various tribes living in the plains, including the Boro, sent a memorandum to the President of India in 1967 stating:

 “…the bitter experience of the last 20 years of independence has given rise to a firm conviction among the tribals of Assam that the Assam government is not interested in giving adequate protection to tribal land. It has deliberately rehabilitated refugees from East Pakistan in tribal Belts and Blocks areas, given settlement to the non-tribal encroachers…(in) gross violation of provisions of the Belts and Blocks”[7]

 The main demand of the PTCA was the federal reorganisation of Assam. Symbolic of the fact that the decision to rationally allow for democratic federalism could not be taken by the denizens of the region; the Central government in Delhi rejected the plan submitted to them. Over the next few years, this demand took a concrete shape in the agitation for a homeland for the plains tribes of Assam. This homeland was called “Udayachal”. Almost immediately, the Koch-Rajbongshi community who shared the same spaces with the plains tribes struck a discordant note and opposed the demand for a separate state for the scheduled tribes, in this case the Boro and the Mishing. The Koch-Rajbongshi community were not among the schedule tribe list and the fact that they had been Hinduised seem to weigh against them. Soon after, dissent among the PTCA leaders saw a split in the movement, with one section renaming itself the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (Progressive) with a broader position on who ought to be considered the indigenous communities in such a proposed state.

 Here it is interesting to also note the differences and similarities of political mobilisation in the two cases. It is a matter of concern for most Boro academics and activists that the Bordoloi Commission chose to leave the Boro-inhabited areas outside the purview of the Sixth Schedule, choosing instead to implement the ineffectual “tribal belts or blocks” for the plains tribes of Assam (Swargiary 1997: 80). In a situation where the Boro educated youth had already begun to feel the need for more say in the political and economic distribution, the these “belts” and “blocks” were just not enough. This moment of betrayal is played out in subsequent demands for separate institutional arrangements among the Boro people. The language movement, as it is called today, started in the 1950s itself when the Boro Sahitya Sabha (BSS) submitted a memorandum to the then Chief Minister of Assam, Mr. Bisturam Medhi, demanding the introduction of Boro language in the primary schools in Boro populated areas. The government’s efforts at designing a textbook in the Boro language was rejected by the BSS as it had a disproportionately large number of Assamese words in it. In 1963 the government of Assam recognised the use of Boro language in the Boro dominated areas, albeit with a catch that after a particular age Boro would give way to Assamese as the medium of instruction for primary school students. In a play of positions, the BSS demanded that Boro be taught at least to the middle school level. In 1968, the state government recognised Boro as a medium of instruction at the secondary (middle) school level. As if occurring on a parallel stage, the political movement also underwent a split with a dissident PTCA leader announcing the formation of a militant political organisation that would speak for the Boro community but also represent a wider non-Boro, tribal outlook. It was called the United Tribal Nationalist Liberation Front (Roy 1995: 61). However, despite the “tribal” nomenclature in the acronym of the political formation, it actually accepted the idea of a separate state that would be called Boroland.

 On the other hand, a feeling of betrayal was also prevalent in the political demands for an autonomous state in Karbi Anglong. Time and again, the up-gradation of the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo hills to a full-fledged state is cited as the moment of reckoning for the people of Karbi Anglong (Ingti 1999: 65). That the leaders from Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills decided to stay away from forming a separate state and thought it in their best interest not to merge with Meghalaya, is often explained as prudent bargaining on their part by those seeking to give the movement a teleology of sorts. It is clear that certain Karbi administrators and prominent persons were instrumental in the district being accorded special provisions under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Following a period of lull in political activities, the Autonomous State Demand Committee was formed in 1986. Since its inception, it was poised as an anti-Congress formation led mainly by students who had participated in the Assam agitation and felt sidelined by the caste-Hindu student leaders from the valley. The provisions for creating another state that would sever Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills was always a possibility given the existence of Article 244(A) of the Indian Constitution.[8] However, political manoeuvres resulted in periodic clash of interest between the Congress and the increasingly Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) led ASDC.

 It is therefore interesting to quickly telescope the two cases and compare their effect on the politics of the region. This would centrally entail looking at the autonomy arrangements themselves and see if they address the issue of rights that are central to the political constellations that demand autonomy. It is of great interest to reiterate that the dominant tendency in Karbi Anglong points towards the “lack of autonomy” under the Sixth Schedule, whereas most of the political actors in the Boro movement are today speaking about something on the lines of what exists in Karbi Anglong by asking for a Boro(land) Territorial Council. What is it about the institutions that are supposed to guarantee autonomy that makes them obsolete and ineffective in one context and allows them to assume mythical conflict resolution properties in another?


 Sovereignty, Citizenship and Subjects: Autonomous Institutions or Governance

 The Karbi comprise 63.36% of the total hill (scheduled) tribe population in Assam. The territory of the autonomous district (Karbi Anglong) has been redefined over time. In the elections to the Executive Council in 1989, the ASDC won as many as 22 of the 26 seats. In its election manifesto, its leader Jayanta Rongpi stated that the objective of his party and the movement it had established was to “achieve more decentralisation of the political, economic, socio-cultural and parliamentary power and restore them…to the people of the region through the formation of an Autonomous State” (ASDC 1989). He further went on to assure other ethnic groups in Karbi Anglong that the movement was not hostile to non-Karbis and promised to check fratricidal strife among the different ethnic groups living in the territory. In June 2000, members of the United Peoples Democratic Front- an ethnic militia comprising militant Karbi youth- carried out attacks against Hindi-speaking agriculturalists in Hamren sub-division of Karbi Anglong. In retaliation, the settlers armed and aided by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) stationed nearby attacked Karbi villages, looting and killing many Karbi farmers (MASS et al: 2002). These violent events against settlers were repeated in 2001 and 2002. In 2003, a fresh series of ethnic conflicts erupted mainly due to the divisions between the Kuki[9] and Karbi communities around the area of Singhason Hills. In March 2004, suspected members of a Karbi militia killed six Kuki ginger cultivators who had refused to pay them the taxes they demanded. In retaliation, members of the Kuki Revolutionary Army (a Kuki ethnic militia), raided three villages and killed as many as 30 Karbi farmers.

             These events would read like an indictment of the autonomy arrangement and assurances put across by advocates of an autonomous state. Under the aegis of the Sixth Schedule, provides that for any area notified as an autonomous region by the Governor of the state, a district council comprising of 30 members will be elected. Of these, four are appointed by the Governor of the state. Thereafter, it is the Governor who makes the rules for the first consultation in consultation with tribal representative organisations. As may be noticed, it is the Governor who has the final say in the creation and dissolution of the council. For finances, the autonomous district council gets a meagre amount from the business and commercial enterprises and some land revenue. A district and regional fund, endowed and managed by the Governor, is the main source by which the autonomous body is financed. The powers of the autonomous council are varied, but it in their capacity to regulate land transfer that their discretionary powers are most interesting. Following the colonial policies of allowing land in the hills to be under “community ownership” and not bringing such land under its revenue scheme, the Sixth Schedule also mentions that tribal land is not be sold to anyone and that it belongs to the community. However, by 1979 the overwhelming logic of doing away with community property is noticed in a notification wherein private property is not only acknowledged but also encouraged.[10] In that sense, the councils and village chiefs become the most likely figures of authority to be able to grant and renew leases and land titles. Furthermore, this leaves open the space for political manipulation, wherein it has been known that village chiefs who belong to one or the other political party, would try and push the leases (or titles) of their party members if the executive council is dominated by a friendly party.

             This discrepancy between formal rules of the game and informal occurrences; the tension between valorising “tribal tradition and community” and undermining community by extending the logic of private property; all contribute to the reaction- sometimes violent and always aggrieved. In 2003, a publication from the United Peoples Democratic Solidarity, partly addressed to its cadre and partly to the authorities says:

 “…(therefore) our substantive demands are: 1). Full restoration of land rights to the tribal traditional authority- namely the sarthe[11], 2). Full political security to the indigenous tribes and complete disfranchisement of non-tribal infiltrators who have settled within the territory after 1951, 3). Complete control over law, order and justice, 4). Complete control over natural and human resources of the territory and 5). Complete authority over all financial and developmental matters (and) direct access to the financial and economic authorities of India[12]

 The demands are couched in the progressive discourse of indigenous rights and well within the juridical limits of the constitution. However, these demands also have an underlying logic of excluding people from a homeland- Hemprek- that has been constructed in the imagination as a pristine homeland that might have existed in the moment of pre-contact with the world and political structures of the colonisers. Today, after several rounds of ethnic clashes and military operations where several people have been affected, the demand for an autonomous state has run into calm waters. It seems to have lost steam, largely due to recurring splits within the movement and the overwhelming power that electoral politics is capable of exerting in obfuscating issues. For the ethnic militia, radical students and cultural leaders, Hemprek, is still an ideal though the road ahead is still perceived to be mired with compromises.

             In 1999, leaders of an armed opposition group- Boro Liberation Tigers (BLT)- declared a unilateral ceasefire with the government and said that it would sit for talks. In response, the government announced that it would agree to create a territorial council under the sixth schedule for an area demarcated in consultation with representatives of the Boro groups and the government of Assam. Almost immediately, non-Boro groups launched a massive agitation claiming that such a move would not only encourage more ethnic clashes, but also lead to evictions and population transfers from the proposed area. The story, however, predates the 1999 ceasefire announcement. In 1988, the Boro Peoples Action Committee (BPAC) was formed to try to incorporate all the different tendencies within the Boro movement. However, this could not stop the rupture within the ranks of the Boro movement, with the All Boro Students Union scaling down its 92 point demand to just three that included the creation of a full-fledged state on the North Bank, the creation of autonomous districts for Boros on the South Bank (of the river Luit) and also the inclusion of non-Karbi tribals of Karbi Anglong in the Sixth Schedule. This position obviously would not be acceptable to other trial groups and the government of Assam. The central government intervened and initiated a tripartite talk between the ABSU-BPAC combine, the government of Assam and the central government itself in 1989. The central government, as if throwing a bone to the Assam government said that further division of Assam would not be carried out, however pressed upon the Assam government to accept some of the secondary issues around which the movement had managed to gain ground. The government of Assam accepted, with the classic divisionary tactic that sought to provide the same benefits to other plain tribes of the state.[13]

             After eight rounds of talks, the government of India proposed a three member expert committee, in 1990 to examine and demarcate the areas of the Boro and other plains tribes of Assam and submit its report within forty-five days to make recommendations on autonomy. The committee submitted a report with a proposal to grant maximum autonomy to the Boros, short of a separate state within the Indian union, which the BPAC-ABSU leaders resolutely rejected. However, the fact that the recommendations did place some concrete points over which the leaders would possibly soften their stand and accept a compromise. The main issue remained that of the inclusion of a certain number of villages within the proposed homeland. While a section of the Boro leaders insisted on as many as 4443 villages to be included in the proposed territory, the state government offered another sop saying that it would be the contiguity of the region that would determine the basis of the creation of an autonomous Boro territory. Wherein villages in which Boros constituted even a mere 1% of the tribal population, would be included within a compact territorial area. A section of the BPAC- ABSU leadership debated the issue and came up with a counter demand where an additional 1035 villages were to be added to any proposed autonomous territory. The issue was referred back to the central government.

             In 1993, the central government herded the Boro leaders who had sent friendly and frequent feelers for a honourable resolution of the conflict as well as the government of Assam to sign on what came to be known as the “Boro Accord”, in Kokrajhar. The accord created what it called the “Boroland Autonomous Council”, that was to comprise an area covering 2000 villages and 25 estates stretching from the Sakosh river to Mazbat Pasnoi on the north bank of the river Luit (Brahmaputra), via a government of Assam notification (No. TAD/BAC/26/93/18).[14] The area also included reserved forests as per the guidelines laid by the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Environment, Government of India. The actual difficulty in the demarcation of the boundary continued to be the vehement opposition of the non-scheduled tribe population living in the area. A considerable number of people residing in the said area are actually classified as “scheduled tribes” outside Assam. This is especially true of the time-expired indentured labourers who left the tea plantations. Hence, there are large pockets of Santhal, Munda and Oraon villages and these ethnic groups are considered “scheduled tribes” as per the Central list. The government of Assam has not included these tribes among the list of “scheduled tribes” in Assam.


             On the other hand, there was also an internal split within the broad spectrum of political discourse in within the Boro community, with an armed section of the movement declaring the accord to be “sell-out” of the original goal of an ethnic homeland for the Boro community. A more militant armed opposition group called the Boro Security Force denounced the accord and vowed to continue what it perceived as the resistance to colonialism (Roy 1995: 76). This organisation was later renamed the National Democratic Front of Boroland and continues its armed activities against the state. Importantly, the armed oppositional activities began to articulate the idea of self-determination for the Boro-speaking people. This included the complete and total secession from India. The rejection of the Indian Constitution marks an epistemological break of sorts in the movement. Although it is difficult to assess the efficacy and successes of such a political strategy, given the fact that it is proscribed, one can however say that this radical ethno-nationalist voice is an important sub-text in the political discourse in the region (Baruah 1999: 6- 8). It projects into the Boro imagination a vicarious notion of what forms of institutions of collective action that it could reproduce. Following the transfer of power, civic mobilisation within the plains tribes of Assam concentrated on civil disobedience and explicitly stated the cultural basis of economic deprivation. The Boro groups were perhaps more organised than their other tribal counterparts. This also meant that they were already capable of using the constitutional machinery and at various points of the agitation; the Boro political discourse took recourse to the constitutional machinery. However, abstentions from the armed opposition defined the future scope of action. Both armed factions soundly repudiated the formation of the BAC, though their positions were considerably different. NDFB had an ideological problem with the idea of a “deal” that diluted the movement for self-determination. Since the year 1996, the BLTF and NDFB had been engaged in a series of internecine wars, in which both sides took extreme steps to target each other’s cadre and sympathisers. In 1996, the BLT killed a prominent woman activist claiming that her organisation was working as a front for the NDFB.[15] This sent a message to the other group that such acts of violence could be justified. It also brought about a flurry of accusations and counter accusations about the role of the state in arming the BLTF to annihilate the supporters of the other armed opposition group.[16] The fault-lines between the two groups spilled over into the public sphere as well. It was obvious that a section of Boro political opinion, especially the students and the literary bodies, favoured a settlement brokered by the central government. In this settlement, they saw the beginning of a barter where they gained more resources and made it possible for them to control the ethnic competition that would arise with other groups. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of the armed struggle for any variety of autonomy in the Boro-inhabited areas is the fact that successive episodes of violence makes it look like a campaign for ethnic cleansing of the area. There is a continuing debate on what constitutes the historically demarcated Boro areas and the contemporary demographic realities. This adds a potentially intractable angle to the question of who “belongs” to a particular version of ‘national space’.[17]

 Echoing a concern along these lines, Biswas and Bhattacharjee state that “(ethnic) movements in the Northeast can be understood in terms of a contest over greater social, political and cultural spaces, the spaces in which the ethnic communities were not hitherto represented. This non-representation is further explained within the contexts of rights, power and authority, which cause ethnocentric concerns to find their expression in contestations in many possible ways (Biswas and Bhattacharjee 1994: 232- 245). Here, contestation against the “other” assumes the most explicit form in social spaces (to mobilise). The ‘other’ is characterised in terms of an undifferentiated concept of citizenship, as enshrined within the constitution of India where the Constitution does not recognise the claims of an identity in separation from others as represented within the Nation and the State. This contrast between the statist view and collective aspirations is sharpened through a number of meditative measures (undertaken by the State) that apparently negotiates the variegating representations between communities in spaces within the concept of the Nation. One wishes to locate the ethnic polarisation in the Boro areas within this process of the lack of a meditative measure that can accommodate the different responses. Splits within the movement are a prime example of the kind of ad-hoc policies that are taken up by the state apparatus in containing the problem posed to the nation-building process by ethno-national projects. The persistence of colonial tones in the political structures in the region only account for one aspect of the “ends” to which governments strive- that of political and territorial unity. In the process, the Indian state’s propensity to carve out states to satisfy the political elite might suggest that it is more “tolerant” of ethnic aspirations. However, the fact that it has a definite “ethnic agenda” of its own- an agenda that is shaped by policy machines that are not “ethnically neutral”- is a condition that negates the provisional safeguards in its Constitution (Brown and Ganguly 1997: 7- 19).[18]

 It is also interesting to note that the persistence of ethnic identity, as part of (or parallel to) the growth of modern institutions such as literary bodies, students associations is not peculiar to the Northeast. In the case of the Boro and Karbi struggle, an important tendency that accompanied the cultural revivalist and economic deprivation tendencies was the use of physical force.[19] As some theorists argue, rather than decrease ethnic heterogeneity, modernisation tends to in increase it in many ways (Olzak and Nagel 1986: 1- 14). However, in the Northeast this process follows a set pattern where groups consolidate around issues of cultural unity; engage with the state for some concessions and in this engagement, the outcome is often one of intractability and violence (Barbora 2002: 1287). This is woven in with the hard realities of fighting for political (and as the case shows) geographical space within contested territories such as “frontiers”.

 There seems to be a pattern to ethno-nationalist demands for autonomy in the Northeast, and the lack of institutional capability to handle these demands. Most political demands for self-determination are centrally linked to the idea of a distinct identity of an ethnic group. The manner in which this identity consciousness is articulated is precisely the subject of discussion. It is against this backdrop that much of what appears as guarantees of autonomy compatible with the aspirations of given groups of people within the framework of the constitution, or even within international law, can actually be seen as a condensed body of intricate political negotiation. In essence, these negotiations are supposed to appear as processes that lead to further democratisation of society and politics. In the Indian context, this idea was supposed to form the core of the federal ethos of the republican tradition. Hence, provisions like the Sixth Schedule, Article 371 A and even the recent Panchayati-Raj Bill are seen as efforts to ensure the devolution of powers of administration and governance to the grassroots. In each case, legislative, resource mobilisation and executive powers are supposed to somehow address the complex web of people’s aspirations. Yet in the manner in which the filter down, they are leave more questions than answers in their wake. One senses the overwhelming assertion of the concerns of the (centralised) state in losing its locus as the sovereign font of law and administrative processes. Indian democracy is defined by its constitution, inasmuch as it is defined by a particular notion of the rule of the “majority”. On one hand, a ‘statist’ view asserted that it was the individual citizen, rather than seemingly amorphous collectives, who were the backbone of the state. This view harked on the tensions between notions of citizenship and that of communitarian collectives and reiterated that the state “was above all gods”.[20] This view that the individual’s loyalties as a citizen of the state supersede her or his loyalty to other identities is constantly being challenged by a second discourse that is articulated against the backdrop of inadequate representation in matter of governance and administration. It would be tempting to see the persistence of primordial identity in the shaping of demands for autonomy in such a situation. Perhaps it would help to see some semblance of political leverage at work here. The definitions of an indigenous collective self, is meant to challenge a “settler” nation state. In both cases, indigenous cultures within post-colonial societies find themselves excluded from the decision processes that central to the state. Their subsequent declaration for separation from a “mother body” is based on an implicit declaration of people-hood based on genealogy and descent ties function “not only as other sub-national units do in, say, the assertion of ethnicity, but point to the history of pre-contact and raise questions about legal and moral legitimacy of the present national formation” (Murray 1997: 11). In this significant development, one sees that ethnicity and notions of ethnic contiguities begin to change almost as soon as the community sees itself as the purveyor of a smaller national space. In just a matter of two or three decades, the organic solidarity of the groups classified as plains tribes, against caste Assamese society changes to one of mutual distrust and competition between groups who are placed on the same social and economic plane.


 Central to both discourses are certain principles that govern the quest for autonomy. Autonomy and autonomous institutions have not delivered justice. Hence, it is rare to find an instance where autonomy has sought to work on the principle of restitution, by acknowledging that an injustice has been committed, or that some form of reconciliation has to undertaken. Moreover, autonomy- as framed within a statist discourse- does not address the issue of control of resources, finances and costs of running autonomous territories in a comprehensive manner. When they do, as in the Sixth Schedule, they seem ineffectual and laden with contradictions that make the principle of custodianship appear more like a managerial policy. As long as autonomy arrangements are seen as a tool to manage the political demands of people in the region, there will always be problems with its implementation. For every instance where an ethnic group is promised autonomy, there will remain others who will claim to be aggrieved by that arrangement. As one has seen in the case of Karbi Anglong, where the autonomous council already exists, it is hardly a guarantee that such models can be upgraded to include other ethnic groups and/ or economic and political developments. If anything, it is seen as an impediment and a “Trojan Horse” that leads to further loss of lands of indigenous people. The political processes that oil the workings of such autonomous arrangements (as in Karbi Anglong) lead to an overarching reliance on institutions that need not have a democratic ethos. For example, in a bid to solve an immediate crisis arising out of ethnic conflicts, political and public opinion waste no time in calling for armed intervention by the army and the police. This is self-defeating to say the least. Where these autonomy arrangements are sought to be bestowed as a “peace measure”, as in Boroland, they have only worsened ethnic and political relations between Boros and others who share the same space. Academic concerns have to take these factors into consideration if any intervention or mitigation strategies are to be thought of.

 [Published by Calcutta Research Group, Calcutta (2005)]

 Sanjay Barbora·


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[1] “Scheduled tribes” are those that appear in the Scheduled Tribe list of the Indian Constitution. This rather fixed categorisation seems at odds with the dynamic process of re-creation of identities in the hills of Northeast India. Groups once classified with generic appellations with one tribe during colonial times, today vehemently claim their distance from those they were arbitrarily linked. Hence, the embarrassing colonial categorisation of the “Kuki-Naga” today stands in stark opposition to “Kuki” and “Naga” identities.

[2] Hence one sees the dominant Boro students’ organisation- All Boro Students Union (ABSU)- delineate those who it considers to be of the same racial stock but not among the ethnic claimants of a Boro territory because they “have completely forgotten the language” (ABSU, 1987: 11- 15). ABSU is referring to the Rajbongshi ethnic group who inhabit parts of North Bengal and western Assam. The Rajbongshi say that they belong to the Hindu fold, whereas the Boros cannot make such an unambiguous claim.

[3] It mattered a great deal that the hills were clubbed together for administrative purposes. This becomes an important political consideration when autonomy, or separate state arrangements are being worked out in the pos-colonial milieu. The political logic of creating new states and autonomous districts seems to favour an arrangement wherein a people are seen to “naturally” inhabit a given space- like a hill range. So, while the clubbing together of the two hill districts might have given the Karbi (and Dimasa) a relative advantage, it is only expected that the Boros (who lived in mixed populated areas along the plains) would feel appropriately bitter in the years to come.

[4] Cf. Bhupen Sarmah, 2002. “The Question of Autonomy for the Plains Tribes of Assam” in Social Change and Development (October), Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development: Guwahati. pp. 91. Sarmah’s assessment of the constitutional safeguards and the context in which they evolved are comprehensive but they do not deal with the dynamics of social movements within such regimes.

[5] The memorandum demanding a separate state comprising the Mikir Hills, North Cachar Hills and the Contiguous Tribal Areas in Assam, was signed by Mr. P.K. Gorlosa and Mr. S.R Thaosen, secretary and president respectively, of an action committee of the Mikir and North Cachar Hills Leaders’ Conference in Haflong in June 1973.

[6] Boro-speaking peoples are dispersed all over the region. The Dimasa, speak a variant of Boro as do the indigenous peoples of Twipra (Tripura). Rather than suggest a pan-Boro identity, the BSS move seems to suggest that Boro-speaking people traversed the course of the region at different points in time. There is an implicit agreement that the geographical and political boundaries of a Boro homeland are limited to western Assam.

[7] The Plains Tribals’ Council of Assam was formed to articulate the demands of the tribal people living in the “tribal belts and blocks” in the Luit valley. This memorandum was addressed to the then President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussain on May 20, 1967. Mr. Biruchan Doley, Mr. Samar Brahma Choudhury, Mr. Charan Narzary, Mr. Praful Bhabara and Mr. Ajit Basumatary were office bearers of the organization and signed the said memorandum in Kokrajhar town in Assam.

[8] Article 244(A) recognises that some states can be created by upgrading existing autonomous districts and councils. This was true especially in the case of the formation of the state of Meghalaya and has been retained exclusively for Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills.

[9] Some political commentators say that the Kuki were actually “invited” to settle in Karbi Anglong by politicians following ethnic conflict between Naga and Kuki peoples in Manipur in 1992. The idea was to use the Kuki as a “vote bank” during Council elections.

[10] Karbi Anglong District Council Notification of July 2, 1979; No. KAC/XVII/1/63

[11] Sarthe was appointed to mediate cases in a village. He was usually the most respected person in the village and could adjudicate on any matters except murder and sex.

[12] Excerpt taken from: UPDS. 2003. Lakhya (Goals): Bixex Smriti Grantha, UPDS Publicity Wing: Central Office.

[13] One cannot expect that this to be a magnanimous and enlightened gesture on the part of the Assam government, given the fact that it was probably aware that the discursive politics of ethnic homelands in the region had already become exclusionary.

[14] The Bodoland Autonomous Council Act 1993 (

[15] The activist, Ms. Golapi Basumatary was a well-known and respected activist who was the general secretary of the Boro Women’s Justice Forum and was a known figure not only in the Boro areas but in other parts of Assam as well. The killing of human rights activists, trade union leaders and others who try to use the democratic spaces to articulate dissent, is a deliberate state policy in Assam, according to reports of voluntary human rights groups (MASS 1999).

[16] As reported by a staff reporter in the Assamese daily, Dainik Janambhoomi on November 25, 1998.

[17] Analysing the exigencies of a ‘white nation(al)’ space, Ghassan Hage pints to the incongruous similarities between a white supremacist fantasy about what and who controls a particular political landscape in the contested terrain of Australian politics. Although the context is entirely different in Boroland, the process of systematic creation of a well-worn political path that precludes other ethnic groups in a multi-ethnic social milieu, has some uncanny resonance in Boro political discourse (Hage 1998: 16- 28)

[18] This view is often reinforced by the support that settlers receive in areas where the potential and realities of ethnic conflict are common occurrences. For many indigenous rights activists in the Northeast, the Sixth Schedule seems like a “Trojan Horse” for greater centralisation that would allow the state to fill up the lands (belonging to indigenous persons) with ethnically acceptable groups (MASS, ASMS, NPMHR 2002).

[19] Conflict managers often say that there is a political nexus between student associations, armed opposition group and cultural and political organisation. This diversionary rhetoric does not take into consideration the absurdity of a group of small albeit militant youth posing a national security threat, when all such display of militancy actually seems to be aimed at protecting a small community against domination.

[20] G.B. Pant, cited in the Constituent Assembly Debates- Vol. VII, p. 865.

  • The author is a Research Associate at North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, Assam and is currently enrolled as a PhD student in North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, Meghalaya and research associate, North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC), Guwahati. This paper is partially based on work supported by the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North–South: Research Partnerships for Mitigating Syndromes of Global Change.