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Seminar on Bodo history: The 2nd international workshop-cum-seminar on Bodo history. Jun 17, 2012
Organised by the World Bodo Historical Society, the three-day programme was attended by scholars of greater Bodo groups from different areas, including those from Nepal, Bangladesh, Tripura, West Bengal, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam, present papers on different aspects and subjects related to Bodo history.


“The society was formed for reconstruction of the history of the Bodo community, whose members are now spread in different parts of the globe,” said Sansuma Kunggur Bwiswmuthiary, MP and secretary-general of the society. Inaugurating the seminar, Dr Kameswar Brahma, president of Bodo Sahitya Sabha, lauded the efforts of Bodo scholars and historians in carrying out the work.


“The venture to reconstruct and rewrite Bodo history by deconstructing various misleading historical sources, distorted statements and opinions made by some biased scholars and historians about the historical status of Bodo people, is a Herculean task. There is a need to collect more information from various sources and compile an authentic history of our community. The process of rewriting the Bodo history has already been set in motion by scholars and experts from the community and this workshop-cum-seminar is another effort in this regard,” Bwiswmuthiary said.


Inaugurating the seminar, Dr Kameswar Brahma, president of Bodo Sahitya Sabha, said, reconstructing and rewriting history is a difficult task but we have to do the needful. He lauded the efforts of Bodo scholars and historians in carrying out the work.


Prof. Anandagopal Ghosh, head of department of history, North Bengal University, said the Bodos had a glorious history, which needs to be highlighted through proper research. He said the foothills of the Himalayas were once the melting point of dominant ethnic groups of the Northeast.


“The Bodo groups with passage of time were separated, especially during colonial rule. Had the 18 duars that existed in undivided Goalpara and Jalpaiguri district not divided, the history of Bodos would have been different,” said Ghosh.


Bodoland Territorial Council deputy chief Kampa Borgoyary also attended the programme and released the World Bodo Historical Society journal. Prasanta Tripura, retired professor, Jahangir University, Bangladesh, Ranjit Kr. Borgoyary, president,


All-Assam Tribal Sangha and Mohan Lal Brahma, vice-chancellor of Bodoland University, were also present. Source: Telegraphindia: Jun 17, 2012 –


We are Minority in our own land?

How we have become minority in our own land Why A Bodoland? How does the Book Analyse the reality issues?


(90% People Doesn’t Have Land Ownership in Assam. Report prepared by Hari Sankar Brahma, former Chief Election Commissioner of India.).


Brahma, former Chief Election Commissioner of India and head of the six-member committee which was recently formed by Assam government to ensure protection of land rights of the indigenous people, to recommend measures for protection of land rights of the indigenous people and to review the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, 1886 and other land laws.


Till date the committee has visited 11 district of the state and met several organisations and took the statements of various indigenous people on their visit. “Unfortunately, around 63 bighas of land in 33 district of the state are in illegal possession. Also seven to eight lakh families of the state do not possess any land,” informed Brahma.

bokul b3

He also said that 1,300 villages of the state have not witnessed any land census after British rule.

Meanwhile, a few days ago Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has promised to provide land patta to the indigenous people of the state, “The indigenous people of Assam who have not got land patta (deeds) even after staying on the same plot for decades would be provided patta in the first phase.”

bokul b1

The Books Review: Why A Bodoland?

The author has attempted to analyse Bodo’s historical background, socio-political status, the different phases of the movement so far crossed, the leadership of the movement, the participation of the Bodo people in the democratic electoral politics of India.

bokul b2

This book can be appreciated in many ways;

1 The book readable in many ways. The author had arranged the everything beautifully. Even if, someone find themselves getting lost some time then also they will be able to follow the lines of the book. Book starts with telling the story of. Great History of the Bodos, There Ancient History, we can also read this book as Essay. Where we can find the introduction, advantage, disadvantage and then conclusion. There is a section call ‘Rights of the Bodos as declared by UNO’ you will find this section one of the best section in the Book. This kind of declared is the really good initiative for Boro or Bodo where they’re losing their own Identity in their own land. 


In the End, Author put forward the ‘Proposal for creation of Bodoland’ author clearly says why he wanted every Boro people to keep this book in their home. He clarifies about it in the ‘Preface’. You can also read his Book ‘A Concise History of the Bodos’.


Writer: Bakul Ch.Basumatary
Publisher:Words n Words (Kokrajhar)
Price: 395/-

Others published by the same author

  1. Boroni Jarimin
  2. Bidinthi
  3. Geeta – translation in Bodo
  4. Bodo Civilization in India
  5. A Concise History of the Bodos
  6. A Treatise on the Bodos
  7. Why a Bodoland?
  8. Bodos are the Ancestors of Modern Indians – Under Print
  9. Religious Evolution of Bodos – Under Print.
  10. Innumerable articles published in news papers and journals.
  11. book9

Boroni Jarimin is about the ancient history of Assam.

  1. Bidinthi is about variou historical facts of the Bodos.
  2. Geeta is the complete translation of Madbhagavad Geeta in Bodo language.
  3. Bodo Civilization in India is brief history of the Bodos from pre-christian era till post independence.
  4. Concise history is a complete history of the Bodos till 2003, the formation of B T A S.
  5. Treatise deals with various issues relating to definations of Kamarupa and Pragjyotishpur. It also deals with the evolution of the Bodos with Hinduism and conversion of Bodos into Islam in East Bengal.

These facts are stated in details in the books written by Mr. BAKUL CHANDRA BASUMATATY that are as under.


  1. the Bodos are ancient nation spread over India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
  2. They have a rich culture and rituals.
  3. They have a flourishing language which is one of eight schedule languages.
  4. They have a sound religion called Bathou.
  5. They have their own dress.
  6. They have strict rites.
  7. They are agriculturists by profession since antiquity.
  8. Songs and dances associate with their ways of life.
  9. Prior to independence, they had several kingdoms and rulers of their land for thousands of years.
  10. Post-independence they have been notified as S T.
  11. In 2003 they have been granted B T A D a sixth schedule autonomy.

The Books Review Written By Honourable Bakul Chandra Basumatary

Twitter: mumbai bodo, @mumbaibodo

The Books Review Written By Honourable Bakul Chandra Basumatary.(Retired Legal Advisor, Reserve Bank of India, Regional Director National Housing Board, Advocate of Mumbai High Court, Writer)

The Bodo People Have Their Own  Language, Tradition, Culture, History, Taste.  They Have Leaders, Fighters, And Passion. Faith, Dreams, Patience, Strength.  The Bodos Have Unique Tradition.. The Bodos Are Tough  Fighters For  47 Years Battle For Own Existence.  The  Bodos Were, Bodo Are And Bodo Will Stand United For Own Rights. History Is Evidence, Time Is Witness Them.  The Law Permits Bodo People Ought To Have __ Creat eBodoland.

The author has attempted to analyse Bodos historical background, socio-political status, the different phases of the movement so far crossed, the leadership of the movement, the participation of the Bodo people in the democratic electoral politics of India.

  1. Boroni Jarimin
  2. Bidinthi
  3. Geeta – translation in Bodo
  4. Bodo Civilization in India
  5. A Concise History of the Bodos
  6. A Treatise on the Bodos
  7. Why a Bodoland?
  8. Bodos are the Ancestors of Modern Indians – Under Print
  9. Religious Evolution of Bodos – Under Print.
  10. Innumerable articles published in news papers and journals.

Boroni Jarimin is about the ancient history of Assam.

  1. Bidinthi is about variou historical facts of the Bodos.
  2. Geeta is the complete translation of Madbhagavad Geeta in Bodo language.
  3. Bodo Civilization in India is brief history of the Bodos from pre-christian era till post independence.
  4. Concise history is a complete history of the Bodos till 2003, the formation of B T A S.
  5. Treatise deals with various issues relating to definations of Kamarupa and Pragjyotishpur. It also deals with the evolution of the Bodos with Hinduism and conversion of Bodos into Islam in East Bengal.

These facts are stated in details in the books written by Mr. BAKUL CHANDRA BASUMATATY that are as under.

  1. the Bodos are ancient nation spread over India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
  2. They have a rich culture and rituals.
  3. They have a flourishing language which is one of eight schedule languages.
  4. They have a sound religion called Bathou.
  5. They have their own dress.
  6. They have strict rites.
  7. They are agriculturists by profession since antiquity.
  8. Songs and dances associate with their ways of life.
  9. Prior to independence, they had several kingdoms and rulers of their land for thousand of years.
  10. Post independence they have been notified as S T.
  11. In 2003 they have been granted B T A D a sixth schedule autonomy.

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.

The Naga Peace Accord: Separate passport and flag for Nagas approved by GOI.

The Naga Peace Accord: Separate passport and flag for Nagas approved by GOI.

8 Points signed between NSCN-IM and GoI in the Peace Accord.

The 8 points signed under Peace Accord

  1. A separate constitution for Nagaland
  2. Separate Flag
  3. Separate Naga passport
  4. Permanent UN Representative
  5. Joint Foreign Affairs
  6. Joint Defence/Military
  7. Use of Currency Rupees (Right to use Naga Currency)
  8. Pan Naga Government to cover all Naga inhabited Areas


The Naga Peace Accord, a framework agreement as it has been termed, signed between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the Government of India on August 3, 2015 is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it shows the flexibility and realism of the NSCN (IM) in terms of the willingness to alter goals, from complete sovereignty and Greater Nagalim to acceptance of the constitutional framework albeit with a provision for the grant of greater autonomy to Naga inhabited areas outside of Nagaland through the establishment of autonomous district councils. This indeed had been a sticking point in negotiations as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Manipur had categorically stated their opposition to any territorial division. It is pertinent to note here that a similar proposal called the ‘supra-state structure’ was offered by Government of India negotiators in 2011. This involved the grant of greater autonomy for Naga areas without a territorial division of the other states involved.


Second, the signing of the accord at this moment in time discloses that the platform of social support for the NSCN (IM) comprising of Naga civil society groups are insistent on a peaceful path to conflict resolution. Since November 2014, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Nagaland promised a peaceful settlement with the NSCN (IM) within 18 months, Naga civil society groups like the Forum for Naga Reconciliation, Naga Hoho, Eastern Naga Peoples’ Organisation, Naga Mothers’ Association, Naga Students’ Federation and the specific Hohos of the 14 Naga tribes have been regularly holding consultations with the NSCN (IM) and the Government Interlocutor, R. N. Ravi on arriving at a settlement at the earliest. The accord arrived at now ends the ceasefire process in existence since 1997 and locks in the NSCN (IM)’s commitment to peaceful dialogue. The urgency to get a peace deal breakthrough had risen in the backdrop of the rival NSCN (K) abrogating its cease-fire with the Government of India on March 27, 2015, and following it up with the June 4 ambush in Manipur that killed 20 military personnel.


Third, the leaders of the NSCN (IM), Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu (who has been unwell for some time now), have been forthcoming since 2011 to sign a framework agreement that pledges to preserve the culture, history and traditions of the Nagas and grants greater autonomy to Naga inhabited areas outside of Nagaland. Fourth, Modi’s own promise to resolve the Naga conflict within an 18 months’ timeframe must have been a factor in the signing of the framework agreement.

A Brief History of the Naga Movement

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing at the Hornbill Festival, in Kohima, in Nagaland on December 01, 2014.

Started way back in 1918 by the Naga Club, the Naga movement has been asserting a distinct ethnic identity and demanding an independent homeland. In 1929, the Club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in which it emphasised that Nagas and Indians are separate with no common history and hence Nagas should be given independent status. The Naga Club was renamed and reorganized as the Naga National Council (NNC) in 1946 by the charismatic A. Z. Phizo. Phizo contacted Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA) in Burma with the hope of obtaining the latter’s help to overthrow British rule from Naga areas. Interestingly, when the Japanese forces advanced towards Kohima in 1944, Phizo simultaneously advanced to Kohima with a group of armed Naga men in an attempt to liberate Naga areas from British rule. It was during this time that Phizo developed his skills in guerrilla warfare, which he later imparted to NNC members. On June 27-28, 1947an agreement was signed between the NNC and then Governor of Assam, Sir Akbar Hydari, in which the Nagas’ right to develop themselves freely was recognized. However, Clause 9 of the agreement created divisions as it stated that after a period of 10 years the NNC will be asked whether the agreement be extended or a new agreement arrived at. The NNC interpreted this to mean the attainment of sovereignty by the Nagas whereas the Government of India interpreted it as the signing of a new arrangement within the Indian Union. On August 14, 1947, Phizo, along with eight other Naga leaders declared Naga independence. The 1950s to the mid-1990s was a turbulent period with insurgency and counterinsurgency resulting in civilian deaths. In 1960, a Sixteen Point Agreement was signed between members of the Naga People’s Congress and the Government of India as part of which a new state of Nagaland was created in 1963. But even this failed to quell the movement as a majority of Naga inhabited areas was left outside the new state. In 1964, a Nagaland Peace Mission was formed which signed a ceasefire with Phizo, only to last till 1968. In 1975, the Shillong Accord was signed in which the NNC agreed to give up arms and accept the Indian Constitution. Muivah and Swu, who were then NNC members, revolted by terming the Accord as a ‘sell out’ on the Naga sovereignty demand and went on to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980 with S. S. Khaplang. In 1988, the NSCN split due to leadership differences, into the NSCN (IM) and the NSCN (K).

NSCN (IM) then emerged as the major insurgent group and succeeded in integrating rival Naga ethnic groups which stood otherwise divided. This, it did, by holding Peoples’ Consultative Groups (PCGs) meetings across Naga inhabited areas. The network of social support for the outfit’s political causes of establishing the uniqueness of Naga history (that they were independent and never conquered), and Greater Nagalim (integration of Naga inhabited areas in Assam, Arunachal and Manipur) struck a responsive chord in the Naga society that it aspired to represent. But at the same time it also created constraints for the outfit’s functioning. This was observed during the author’s presence at one of the PCGs in 2007 where the civil society bodies and Naga individuals strongly influenced the NSCN (IM)’s political agenda and demanded a stricter Code of Conduct (CoC) for its cadres. With regard to political agenda, Muivah, speaking to a gathering of about 5000 people, asked their opinions on whether to abrogate or extend the ongoing cease-fire with the Indian government. The overall popular consensus was that the ceasefire should not be abrogated and that it should in fact be extended indefinitely, unlike the usual practice of extending it for six months or a year, in order to sustain some level of continuous peace in Naga areas. That year, on July 31, 2007, the ceasefire was indeed extended indefinitely. On the issue of CoC, NSCN (IM) leader Swu, present at that meeting, cautioned and warned cadres to maintain discipline in the ranks especially while interacting with society.

In contrast, the NSCN (K) has suffered severe blows to its organizational structure in recent years. Two of its senior leaders from India, Khole and Kitovi, broke away from the group and formed the NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) in 2011. In 2015, days after NSCN (K) abrogated the cease-fire, two other senior leaders (Wangting Naga and P. Tikhak) disagreed with Khaplang’s decision, were expelled from the group, and went on to form the NSCN (Reformation). Consequently, the NSCN (K) has lost much of its organisational structure and representative base within India. Against this backdrop, the Naga Accord heralds a new beginning of hope, as it has been signed with the strongest insurgent group, the NSCN (IM) which moreover has demonstrated representation across tribes.

Advantages of a Non-Territorial Framework

If the news about a non-territorial resolution framework agreement holds true (details of the Accord are yet to be released), then it is worth deep consideration by Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur. It would enable them to maintain the territorial status quo while only giving up developmental privileges in their Naga inhabited areas to a new Naga non-territorial body. A non-territorial resolution framework also favours the Nagas as their core demands – such as recognition of their “unique history” and culture, Naga leverage over deciding the development path for the Naga inhabited areas, etc. – are met through the grant of greater autonomy. This is an optimal solution that would address the concerns of all the relevant parties. For the Indian government too, it results in recognizing the Naga’s “unique” history and culture within the territorial and sovereign framework of the Constitution.

The fact that such a non-territorial resolution package had gained wide acceptance in Nagaland can be discerned from the fact that former Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio along with all 60 Nagaland State Assembly Members including MLAs of the Opposition parties came out in support of such a framework in the year 2012. Being politicians, none of these MLAs would have openly supported such a framework had there been no support for it in Naga society. While the State Assembly passed a resolution on July 27, 2015 endorsing five points, including the resumption of ceasefire with the NSCN (K) as well as integration of contiguous Naga inhabited areas, this does not imply that they would be against a non-territorial framework which safeguards the culture, history and autonomy of Naga inhabited territories outside of Nagaland.

A resolution of one of the oldest armed ethnic conflicts in the Northeast offers a way forward to resolving many other ethnic conflicts in the region such as those involving Kukis, Meiteis, Bodos, Dimasas, Hmars, and Karbis. The recent Bodo violence in Assam against immigrant minority communities only highlighted the dangers of an ethnically slanted territorial council that failed to safeguard the physical security of minorities in Bodo inhabited areas. In that light, a non-territorial resolution framework is perhaps the only feasible outcome to the multiple ethnicity-driven conflicts in Northeast India. Source:Idsa

The Bodo Women’s Justice Fighter, human rights activist, writer and academician to democratic politics and Ms. Anjali Daimary

The Indian security forces under the Arms Force Special Power Act (AFSPA), is committing many heinous crime targeting innocent civilians and easily get away with it in North East India. They are misusing the Act.

ANJALI DAIMARY, has waged war to control the excesses of the armed forces in the North-East.

Indeed, it was only because of the foresight of her father, a priest, that Daimary was able to complete her own studies and still the only female graduate from her village.

Deeply interested in the life of the Bodos, she traces the community’s struggles through the 1980s to the present day. As in most conflict situations, the women suffered the most as the two main militant groups, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), waged their battles. Bodo women faced the brunt of raids by the police and security forces. Many were tortured, molested and raped.

In 1992, Daimary formed the Bodo Women Justice Forum to bring about awareness of the community’s rights. Though only women are members, they discuss issues pertaining to the entire community. “We used to go from village to village to mobilise people. We urged them to be conscious participants,” she says.

Daimary herself was arrested under TADA in 1993. A mother of two and the head of the department of Major Indian Languages (MIL) at Barama College, she was finally acquitted in 2005.

In 1996 and 1997, she had for the first time represented the Bodo tribe at the UN Working Group on Indigenous Population (UNWGIP) in Geneva. She is happy that there is now a UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) that discusses human rights issues of indigenous populations.

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).

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

Bodo women in India writing to rouse consciousness

Bodo women in Assam, a state in northeast India, have been asserting their ethnic and nationalistic pride by participating in the struggle for political self-determination. They are now penning the grim realities of repression and mindless violence that their community is facing.

Incidents of rape by security personnel are not unheard of in Assam, where insurgent violence and ethnic conflicts have been raging for decades. And with the much-hated Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in force in the state, the perpetrators have almost always got away scot-free.

Two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were accused of raping a couple of women in Udalguri district, which falls under the Bodoland Autonomous Territorial Districts (BTAD), but they are yet to be brought to book despite being identified by the victims.

This led to various protests and demonstrations, with hundreds of women of the Bodo Women’s Justice Forum, led by its president, Anjali Daimary, initiating a bold political demonstration with ‘Rape Us’ inscribed on their chests and backs.

Indeed, Bodo women have participated in large numbers in the struggle that the community has been engaged in to gain political self-determination and to assert its ethnic and nationalistic pride and identity.

The Bodos, despite being the largest indigenous community in Assam, have long been dominated by the Asamiya-speaking Hindu community at the helm of all cultural, political and socio-economic powers in the state.

Though the resentment against such domination had often found expression through political protests and submissions of memoranda, it was in 1987 that a full-scale mass movement was launched for the attainment of a separate state of Bodoland, with the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) taking the lead.

It started as a peaceful non-violent struggle but soon turned violent in pockets, while the ABSU floated a military wing – the ABSU Volunteer Force.

Women also participated in some measure – though never as direct combatants – in the violent activities that gradually grew in intensity under the subsequent armed militant formations like the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT).

Only in 2003 was the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) accord signed and the area under the BTC jurisdiction, called the BTAD and which includes four districts – Kokrajhar, Baska, Udalguri and Chirang – was formulated.

But even the BTC control has not been able to put an end to the cycle of violence in the region. In fact, there has been an increase in fratricidal killings, with a handful of the ethnic elite gaining immense power, while the majority lower down in the social and economic chain still lives in deplorable conditions.

Choosing to write

The years of clashes and even the grim problems of today have found a reflection in the writings of some Bodo women, who have chosen to use their pen to describe the realities that their community is facing.

But there aren’t too many of them who have found much recognition. Thus, Renu Bodo, the first Bodo woman postgraduate in Assam, has been endeavouring to create a forum for all Bodo women writers in order to bring them together on a common platform and make their dispersed voices get heard in unison.

Renu has been writing extensively on social and cultural issues and she says that although her literary works are not exclusively on subjects relating to the Bodo community, they do aim at rousing social consciousness and cultural pride among her people. At the same time, Renu hopes that her writings would “inspire us to look within and identify our shortcomings, instead of blaming those around.”

Pramila Narzary is another Bodo woman writer who has in her occasional fiction writing criticised the evils under the new dispensation. Pramila was the first writer/ translator to win one of the highest State-sponsored literary awards – the Sahitya Akademi – for translations in the Bodo language in 2005 after the language was granted recognition under the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 2003.

Her short story, NREGA Jagra Hagra, for instance, talks about how political and community leaders have deprived the common people of their dues under state sponsored schemes for rural development, like NREGA, the 100-days job programme, introduced by the Centre. Her story also carries a message of hope when in the end the people rise up against rampant corruption and it also upholds the importance of political protest. But Pramila maintains that subjects like conflict are incidental to her writing.

Women like Pramila and Renu are few. Though the Bodos have been engaged in a nearly two-decade-long (1987-2003) conflict with the State, not many have directly addressed the issues of insurgent violence and the politics of identity, separatism and sovereignty in their works.

“At the request of our leaders, we would write one-act plays or poetry with political messages during the years that the Bodo movement was going on so that they could be performed in rallies and political meetings. They might have been printed in souvenirs or journals, thereafter, but we have not compiled them,” informs Renu.

And this is the sad story of political literature in Assam – it is occasional and undervalued. That is, of course, where it exists at all.

Indeed, consciously political writers – women or men – are a rarity not just among the Bodo, but also in Assam, in general. Very few writers have dealt with contemporary political realities, and even fewer have used poetry – or literature – for protest. In the highly politically charged atmosphere, it is quite surprising that so few writers have used a potent tool like literature to get their political messages across.

Political activist Anjali Daimary, for instance, has led hundreds of women in public protests, but as a translator, who has also won the Sahitya Akademi award for translation in 2007, her literary pursuits are not overtly political.

There are, however, a few writers who have proved to be exceptions. Anju Daimary, a writer who lives in Kokrajhar – the headquarters of the BTAD – claims, “I am not a consciously political writer. My writing is based on my impulses.”

However, she does recall writing a satire in verse on the ‘corpse of democracy’ after witnessing the many irregularities in the first democratic elections to the BTC.

These elections were held in 2006, three years after the signing of the BTC accord and they were characterised by a mad scramble for power, which led to immediate factionalism among the signatories to the accord as well as the creation of various disempowered sections within the community – including women who were not given any representation in the council.

Anju is also one of the very few Bodo writers who have focussed on the human angle of the protracted armed conflict that has perhaps dehumanised many, including members of her community.

One of her short stories, The Test, deals indirectly with insurgent violence. Its protagonist, a trainee militant, debates on questions of mindless killings. Ordered to assassinate an innocent old man, the trainee feels “…sweat on my forehead. When I set my target on birds, cats or dogs, I didn’t have to battle with my feelings. Now I felt my hands heavy, as if all the weight of my whole body had gathered in my right arm”. In the end the task is done.

“Dumbly now, I followed the lieutenant across the river. I couldn’t turn my head back. The bright moon was shining as a witness over my head.” Her words create a powerful image of the human response to the conflict and struggle the region has witnessed for decades.

For readers, writers like Anju and Pramila certainly hold forth the hope that there will be others like them who will – whether consciously or inadvertently – speak out against the protracted conflicts plaguing their community.

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).

As reported by a staff reporter in the Assamese daily, Dainik Janambhoomi on November 25, 1998. Uddipana Goswami . Sep 16, 2009.

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. 

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.

Tribal political affairs in the Assam during 1933-1947

There should be a enormous effort and endeavor to spotlight on how the tribal leadership constructed a united platform based on a common distinctiveness to fight for their issues in the pre colonial period of Assam. There should be an undertaking to study how they had disintegrated into individual autonomy activities of each tribe in the post colonial period of India.The formation and structure of bourgeois politics introduced by the British colonial state in India was limited and preventive. In spite of the domination of great nationalities in it, a number of insignificant groups could grasp a space for themselves in this bourgeois politics. At the same time as the hill tribes of north east India were constrained by colonial laws barring them from active politics, the plain tribes were not so providential. Taking benefit of this situation, the original tribes of the Great Luit or Brahmaputra valley stimulated themselves in the political showground. Fascinatingly, these tribes to begin with united into a multinational group to fight back for socio political empowerment as well as fight the supremacy of caste Hindus. The focal point of their politics was in the order of issues of defining and constructing a “tribal” characteristics. Their most important focal point was to turn down to be absorbed into the Hindu high caste society, temple entry, access to their land, displacement from customary habitation areas and wide-ranging backwardness.

Associative politics prior to 1933

“Plains Tribes” is a term used in the contemporary political and administrative discourse from the 1930s when it was introduced by the British as a generic term clubbing the valley tribes like the Kacharis (Bodos), Mikirs (Karbis), Miris (Mishings), Lalung (Tiwa) and Rabhas together. Its continued usage by the tribal leaders is indicative of the appropriation of the term in an attempt to unify these varied communities on a single platform for political purposes.

Parallel to the efforts of the colonial state and ethnographers to define and locate the “tribal” of the Brahmaputra valley, there was also an effort by the various “tribal” communities to locate themselves in the socio political milieu of the colonial state. The early 20th century saw the emergence of various associations within these communities, which culminated in the emergence of the Tribal League in 1933. A direct cause and effect relation cannot be established between those early quasi political organisations and the Tribal League, but their importance in shaping the nascent political and sociocultural consciousness of the people is undeniable. The Mels, inspired tribal conventions (like the Kachari convention, Miri convention, etc), matured the nascent “tribal” consciousness, which resulted in the formation of the Tribal League as a mode of organised tribal politics.

From the 1920s onwards, growing political consciousness with Congress mobilisations and emergence of caste associations (like Ahom Sabha, Kaivartta Sanmilan) gave an impetus to the emergence of associations of “tribal” communities like Chutiya,Moran, and the Kacharis. Early in the 20th century, through the initiative of an educated middle class, the Kacharis, Mikirs, Miris and Rabhas made certain progress in comprehending the politics of rights, representation and emancipation. In their effort to “develop”, “uplift” or “improve” the conditions of the tribes, various attempts were made by this emerging leadership to locate the reasons for their backwardness and to introduce reforms in social practices. Kalicharan Brahma, Sitanath Brahma Choudhary among the Kacharis and Samsonsing Ingti among the Mikirs were the real pioneers. Their attempts to redefine tradition, adjusting to colonial modernity, were also the first steps towards the construction of the tribal identity.

The arrival in 1929 of the Simon Commission in Assam provided them the scope to put forward their grievances and aspirations to a royal commission for the first time. The memoranda and petitions presented to the Simon Commission show the presence of a strong political consciousness cent ring on the notion of the tribal identity. Various associations, especially of the Kachari (Bodo) community, submitted a number of memoranda to this commission. The commission took into consideration the memorandum by the Bodo community of Goalpara and few representatives from the “Primitive and Backward tribes” were inter viewed. The petition by the Bodo community observed that the benefits of reforms were enjoyed by the upper castes, thereby depriving the backward communities. In order to safeguard their interests, the community demanded separate representative in the local council and one reserved seat for the Bodos in the Central Legislature. They deplored their backwardness and recognized education as a means of development and fight against exploitation. They complained that they were illiterate because people are always misled, they cannot understand the value of reforms, they cannot save themselves from the hands of the foreign moneylenders. The leaders, as representatives of respective tribes, used the colonial imagery of the tribe as backward, semi savage, ignorant to put forward their political claims and for seeking colonial protection. The 10th convention of the Assam Bodo Chattra Sammilon in 1929, under the supervision of Rupnath Brahma, reiterated the necessity of education for progress and better utilisation of the opportunities offered by the colonial state. Therefore they urged the setting up of schools to struggle against illiteracy, rather than depending on the government. Likewise, delivering the presidential address to the Assam Kachari Jubok Sammilan in 1929, Benduhar Rajkhowa stressed on establishing schools in every village through the people’s own initiative, and by pressurising the local boards to fund them.


The leadership also contested the classification, in the census reports, of these tribal communities as low caste Hindus. The memorandum submitted by the Assam Kachari Jubok Sammilan, suggested that to regard the tribal as Hindu was misleading, for the latter do not receive them into their society, do not dine with them and are mostly unsympathetic with their ideas and aspiration. They asserted that the Kacharis were never a part of the caste divided Hindu society, and were “independent” by virtue of not being bound to the “chariot wheels of the Hindu community”.  So by the late 1920s ideas about the  distinctiveness of tribal culture became an important part of what was defined as “tribal identity”. The notion of a tribal unity was initially conceived during this period, though the attempt was made on a small scale in imagining a unified “great Bodo/ Kachari” tribe whose past was traced through the invention of a common history. Interestingly, they also refused to totally severe this identity from the Assamese one. On the question of territo- rial transfer of Goalpara to Bengal, members of the various Kachari organisations claimed themselves to be Assamese on the basis of cultural affinity. As mentioned earlier, Kalicharan Brahma’s efforts to introduce Assamese as the medium of instruction also point to a parallel political and cultural identification to an Assamese identity.

The formation and emergence of the Tribal League in 1933 as a common platform of all the Plains Tribes also involved a parallel process in self representation. The numerically small, educated tribal elite attempted to define their tribal identity as a “community of the Plains Tribes”. The Tribal League envisioned the unity of the various tribal communities. Thus, there emerged the single, monolithic notion of the “Plains Tribes”. Though essentially it was a geographical term delineating the tribes of the Brahmaputra valley as distinct from the tribes who lived in the hills, the tribal elite, and later tribal representatives in the assembly, asserted this community’s interests in opposition to the interests of other communities (like the Muslims, caste Hindus, hill tribes and tea garden labourers). The “Plains Tribes” category was invented by the colonial authorities to ethnographically classify the tribal section of the population in the plains, which was later, after the 1935 Act, given the status of a separate constituency. The tribal elite appropriated this construction to articulate their political aspirations.

Tribal politics and land Questions

Tribal land alienation was intensely debated in the legislative assembly in relation to the issues of immigration and occupancy of agricultural land by the immigrants. Immigration from east Bengal had assumed significant proportion in the 1930s. Though the colonial government encouraged the immigration as a means of settling cultivable waste in the hope of raising more revenue, the government also introduced the Line system in 1920 as a means of protecting the tribals. The Line system envisaged the drawing of an imaginary line demarcating two distinct areas and no occupation of land by the immigrants was allowed beyond this “line”. It was introduced in Nowgong and by 1930 it was operating in most districts of upper Assam. The Tribal League saw it as a colonial intervention to safeguard tribal lands. But the system did not work in reality in the same manner as it existed on paper. It was never strictly implemented, nor was it very effective in the absence of a strong government authority at the local level. Despite its existence there was land alienation, which led to numerous sessions of questioning, adjournment motions and heated debates in the assembly.

In 1937, the Muslim League moved a resolution for the abolition of the Line system. Members of the Tribal League, Rabi Chandra Kachari, and Rupnath Brahma opposed the resolution and it was eventually withdrawn. The necessity of the system as a protective measure was reiterated by Rabi Chandra Kachari in the following words, “There should be a Line system to protect the weak and backward people.Without a Line of demarcation it is not possible to look into the interests of the poor people who require special protection.” The tribal representatives in the as- sembly thus defended the continuation of the Line system and expressed their fear that if it was abolished “crores and crores of immigrants will come in and the original ruling people of Assam will have to leave the place for the jungles and hills”. This argument, of endangering the tribal by letting them face the immigrants, displacement from their areas, and the crucial question of their existence in peril, was repeated throughout the period of 1937-47 with growing intensity  Rupnath Brahma demanded enforcement of the Line system in Goalpara because “many tribal people in Goalpara have been compelled to leave their homes and settle elsewhere. Even some non tribal members of the assembly like Naba Kumar Dutta and Mahi Chandra Bora also condemned the efforts to abolish the Line system and criticised the government’s lack of concern for the ousted indigenous people including the backward classes like the Kacharis and the Lalungs, who were driven out from their villages and had “taken shelter in the forests.Under the colonisation schemes the government opened up reserve lands, dereserved forests and professional grazing reserves, displacing the indigenous people. The colonisation scheme also entailed paying a premium for occupying the land, which, the Congress and Tribal League representatives claimed, the indigenous people could not afford to pay. However, as Maulvi Sayidur Rahman said in support of the colonisation scheme, legally there was no bar for the indigenous people occupying land. Members like F W Hockenhull insisted that the indigenous people did not occupy land because of the ample availability of free cultivable lands to them, and not because of want of capital. But, as claimed by others, there was “practically no suitable arable land outside the colonisation areas and almost all cultivable lands have been occupied by the immigrants” and urged the government to stop the process of settlement of lands.30 Karka Dalay Miri, the representative of the Miri tribe in the assembly, opposed colonisation because of the growing scarcity of land, which would restrict further expansion for the indigenous people. In view of the escalating pressure, colonial administrators like Hockenhull asserted that there was “no real issue at all between the indigenous and immigrant population”. The logic was that the type of land (char-riverine land) favoured by the immigrants was not being cultivated by the indigenous people. Even Purna Chandra Sarma, the Congressman, illustrated with examples from Nowgong district the defective and biased functioning of the scheme. He complained that the tribals of Nowgong were without land “and there has been no consideration to those people because they are not immigrants and cannot afford to pay any premium”. It was also pointed out that these lands originally belonged to the tribal communities like the Lalungs and Kacharies which were opened for colonisation in Nowgong.35 Protest against such violation of rules and regulation evoked, according to the leaders, only mild responses and often biased enquiries. For the officials, the system was working satisfactorily despite reports of violation of rules and regulations. Addressing the 1940 Budget session, Beliram Das, representative of the backward castes, attacked the Sayid Muhammad Saadulla ministry for its policy on the immigrants. The flow of immigrants was compared to an “invasion” into the “lines and reserved areas” causing great panic.36 The deliberation of the legislative assembly, the subsequent land settlement policy and conflicts over land made it amply clear that available arable land was becoming scarce. It was further aggravated by occupation of vast wastelands by tea gardens and the opening up of professional grazing reserves for occupation. As the anti-displacement voice grew stronger, various en- quiries were set up by the government to look into land alienation by tribals. These discovered that, in many cases, the tribal sold off their lands to the immigrants. The Deputy Commissioner’s report stated that there were other instances where the tribals sold their land to the immigrants and themselves migrated to central and upper Assam in the hope of getting rehabilitated by the government under some developmental schemes.  The absence of cash to pay taxes also forced the tribals to sell their lands. The tribal representatives emphasised the cultural differences between the Muslim immigrants and themselves and op- posed creation of immigrant settlements near tribal villages. Karka Dalay Miri, representative of the Miri tribe, drew the assembly’s attention to the displacement of the Miri people of Gorumara in Sissi Mauza, Dibrugarh, and also to the cancellation of pattas (land records) to Miris and Deuris, who had settled in Bahgara and Dhunagiri in Bihpuria Mauza, North Lakhimpur.The Assamese middle class and the Congress also articulated fears that “land hungry” immigrants were a threat to the existence of the indigenous peasantry.The aggressive attitude of the immigrants which manifests itself in wanton trespass on the land of the indigenous population, offences against women, mischief upon the crops of the indigenous population and various other crimes disturbed the peaceful atmosphere of the lo- cal rural people.The 1931 census aggravated the tension on the question of demographic balance. The superintendent of census operation, M Mullan termed the coming of the immigrants an “invasion”. J H Hutton, the census commissioner of India in his report wrote,These immigrants, who are prolific breeders and industrious cultivators, are unruly and uncomfortable neighbours. These immigrants threaten to swamp entirely the indigenous inhabitants and in the course of two or three decades to change the whole nature, language and religion of the Brahmaputra valley.The sense of vulnerability increased because of reported cases of forcible occupation of tribal villages and lands. But such cases were often exaggerated. For example, the Hindu Mahasabha claimed that it was “getting alarming reports of forcible occupation of lands in massscale by Muslims in Meteka Borbeal, and many other villages in Namati Mauza in Mikir Hills, Nowgong. Mikirs (were) becoming panic stricken at this lawlessness”. Another telegram mentioned that “innumerable Muslim immigrants, Surma Valley Muslims occupying lands in Meteka Borbeal,    Hatipara,    Jamunagaon,    Maudonga,    Howraghat,Dighae pani, Dakmaka, Chulani, Parakhowa, Sorgathi villages within Mikir Hills area, Namati Mauza, Nowgong against all previous restrictive prohibitive order. Great consternations amongst Mikirs prevails. Pray Excellency’s immediate intervention. The tribal representatives and the Congress leaders attributed the land grabbing to the connivance of Muslim government officers and the immigrants. Thus, they protested, even genuine complaints and eviction orders were left without any action being taken.Gradually from 1937 to 1947 such demands become more persistent against increasing violations of rules and regulations. A committee was constituted to inquire into the working of the Line system. The report submitted by F Hockenhall, of the “European party”, emphasised that the “…. indigenous people alone would be unable, without the aid of immigrant settlers, to develop….but it was also in favour of the Line system and strong measures to protect tribal lands. The Bordoloi ministry, after much deliberation, agreed to evict all immigrant squatters from areas declared “protected tribal blocks” in the submontane regions. Following the committee’s report, the Congress coalition adopted a land settlement policy, which was published in a gazette extraordinary of 4 November 1939. The points it emphasised were (a) the importance of maintaining grazing and forest reserves meant for public use and ordered immediate eviction of encroachers – immigrants or non immigrants; (b) the interests of the tribal and backward people were to be jealously guarded and large blocks in sub-montane areas inhabited by tribals were ordered to be made prohibited areas; and (c) due provision was to be made for the reservation of large areas for the natural expansion of indig- enous populations. During the Saadulla ministry the Muslim League again demanded the abolition of the Line system. Regarding the issue of the protection of the tribals and for that pur pose allowing the system to continue, Maulavi Syed Abdur Rauf said, …the Line system question has been harped upon by the opposition to win over tribal friends … But if they require protection, they require it against all non tribals. Most of the tribal representatives felt that the protective measures that were adopted were inadequate so far as the interests of the tribal people were concerned. The Congress criticised the Saadulla ministry for failing to provide protection to the tribal. They feared that these “indigenous people of the province – the tribal and the scheduled castes are soon to be driven away to the hills to make room for the invading hordes of immigrants.

In the 1940s, on the issue of amending the conditions of the Line system, the tribal representatives demanded legislative changes and laws to evict all illegal settlers; whether they had settled before or after April 1937. In June 1940 a government resolution put a ban on settlement of wastelands by any immi grants entering Assam after 1 January 1938. The Saadulla ministry was continuously pressurised by the tribal representatives and Congress members inside and outside the assembly to prohibit the settlement of wastelands by immigrants coming after 1 January 1938. The Muslim League members opposed this for there was no way to distinguish a pre-1938 immigrant and a later “intruder”. The Saadulla coalition ministry was throughout criticised for its anti Assamese, anti tribal and pro immigrant stand, through its minister Abdul Matin Choudhury declared officially that protection of the backward tribals was the “bedrock of their policy”.

In this period the debate was around the question of land alienation. As the question of the Line system and protection of the backward classes became a contentions issue, the Congress used this as a political instrument against the Muslim League, though its own concerns remained suspect with the Tribal League. Due to the absence of funds, the tribals could not avail various developmental schemes.56 Blocks continued to be opened as also the professional grazing reserves. The Congress contin ued to stress on the necessity of maintaining the professional grazing reserves and also demanded that wastelands should be measured and areas reserved for the indigenous population before settling the immigrants. However, the Congress’ national level leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru felt that immigration was an economic necessity and, though not supporting its abolition, wanted a relaxation of the Line system. The conflict around the land question acquired new dimensions when the tribal people began occupying areas where the immigrants were settled. According to Md Amiruddin, “some 350 Mikirs, Lalungs and Kacharis headed by the gaonburas (village headman) came … not only broke down the houses … set fire to most of them and turned the colonists out of their homesteads and holdings as well.”59 He tried to convey that the allegations against the immigrants were baseless and condemned the tribal as “rioters” and “trespassers”. The Congress successfully won over the tribal representatives, by focusing on Saadulla and his “pro Muslim politics”. Saadulla was caught between the two groups – the tribal representatives demanding protection and the Muslim League calling for the abolition of the Line system. From 1937 onwards, the tribal representatives in the assembly demanded more stringent legislation to stop land alienation and blocked efforts of the members of Muslim League to abolish the Line System.

1941 census as the site of contestation

The 1941 Census refrained from providing religious classification in Assam. Compilation for communities was done with reference to “race, tribe and caste” and not religion, as it was in the case of the 1931 Census. It evoked strong criticism from various sections of Assamese society and led to a debate in newspapers as well as in the assembly. The Congress criticised the government for manipulating the census operations so as to conceal the correct figures of the followers of different religions. An adjournment motion was called to discuss the census operations. It was under the Assam provincial government’s insistence that K W P Marar, the census superintendent, issued a special circular to the deputy commissioners and census officers in Assam to compile data on the basis of community. He wrote,

the basis for community is the answer to questions 3, but generally the communities are unavoidably mixed up and where community cannot be ascertained in answer to question 3, to question 4 will be the basis; e g, if a Kachari has not in answer to question 3 mentioned that he is a Kachari, and is returned under question 4 as Hindu, Muslim or Chris- tian, he will be shown as Hindu, Muslim or Christian as the case may be, but if he is returned as a Kachari against question 3 he will be en- tered such irrespective of his religion.

The government stated that the purpose of clubbing communities professing different religions was to create a “separate entity under the constitution for the purpose of franchise. Siddhi Nath Sarma, for instance, clarified that as the tabulation would be done on the basis of “community”, and not on religious lines, it would simplify the problem of treatment or classification of the primitive tribes. He added that in this way their total number regardless of their religion could be recorded. These efforts on the part of the colonial government to seek out community iden- tity corresponded to the Tribal League’s own efforts to project the community identity as one, unified, tribal people. And for this purpose the Tribal League carried out propaganda. A bulletin of the League was taken out with the main objective of instructing the tribal people about enumerating themselves in the census. The Tribal League’s definition of tribal was broad-based and included those who were otherwise classified as “Hinduised”. Religion was a secondary aspect of the identity. The essence of tribalness was the existence of distinctive rituals and customs, rules and regulations, which were retained, therefore, aiding the preservation of a distinctive lifestyle often in totality and some cases partially.

Further, the Tribal League also emphasised the separateness and differentness of the social structure of the tribals and caste Hindu Assamese. The focus was on two polarised societies where no intermingling ever existed. The “independence” of the tribal from the Hindu society was claimed. By rejecting placement in the caste hierarchy, which was perceived as degrading in the Tribal League’s discourse, it sought to acquire equality on their own plane, within the restricting political space provided by the colonial state. By not subscribing to the worldview of the caste Hindus the tribes had already taken a step towards redefining their identity. The discourse contested the efforts of certain groups to classify the tribals as “Harijan Hindus”, which was per ceived as a ploy to club them together with the low castes. The Tribal League persistently opposed various moves by more con- servative circles and the Congress, to categorise them as a part of the Hindu society.

According to the Congress and some others, the enumeration should have taken into consideration the important factor of religion while classifying the communities. The colonial state claimed that it wanted to simplify complex categorisation in tab- ulation and wanted to “avoid in their argument provoking terms such as ‘Hinduised’. The superintendents, though, could dis- cuss complexities and it was noted that some discussions on the religious affiliations of the tribals and the degree of their Hinduisation would be both of interest and value. Hinduisation was not the sole concern but conversion to Christianity also drew official attention, and it was suggested, “…it is important to know to what degree they have entered the Christian or other fold”. The Guwahati Rajhowa (Public) Census Committee along with others published a public notice stressing that, despite the instructions of census officers and the Tribal League, the tribal population need not necessarily state their religion, as instructed, according to their jati, i e, Kachari religion or Lalung religion. They could enumerate “as they were”, i e, accordingly stating their religion Hindu, Muslim, Christian and animist. Such an appeal was made to save the interests of the “Assamese”. It was also emphasised that the definition of a Hindu was not narrowly confined to the people in the caste hierarchy but was wide enough to incorporate people who could be termed as Hinduised. It was observed, “A lot of tribals who have been converted to Vaishnavism, Saraniyas, still stick to certain food habits like eating pork and fowls, but on that basis they should not be classed as otherwise, i e, according to their tribal name, but be classified as Hindus.”

Ambikagiri Rai Chaudhuri of the Assam Siksha Prachar Samiti appealed to the tribals to think twice before enumerating themselves. He stressed on their being a part of a greater Assamese society calling them its backbone and asked them to desist from supporting the community based enumeration to preserve that identity. He referred to be colonial situation and suggested that such divisive tendencies would prolong colonial domination. More or less similar sentiments were echoed through the articles and editorials of the newspapers.

The Saadulla government came under increasing attacks from the Congress. The Congress accused the then provincial government, of using the census as an instrument to encourage fissiparous tendencies. The Tribal League was also criticised for being a pawn in the hands of the colonial government. The Saadulla government and the Muslim League were accused of attempting to alter the demographic structure of society, in a bid to join Pakistan. The overarching concern was the decrease in the population of the Hindus. The concern towards the tribals arose from the fear of growing immigration from east Bengal and census data showing “alarming” increases in the population of Muslims. The only way visible to the middle class leadership to maintain a demographic balance was to conflate the figures of Hindus by adding to it the numbers for the plains tribe’s populations.

The 1941 Census was perceived as an attempt of the government to fragment the unified Hindu community by stressing on community identity than on religion. This propaganda urged the Lalungs, Rabhas, Kacharis, Mikirs and other “communities” to demand classification as “Hindus” as opposed to “tribals”. Editorials in newspapers also addressed the same issue. It was conceded that there was nothing novel or wrong in calculating the tribal population but doing so solely on the basis of community, not qualified by religion, gave a distorted impression of reality, like showing a huge increase in the tribal population.

Many protested against their classification as “animist” or according to their tribes. The Sonowal Kacharis were, for example, stated to be Hinduised for a long time and followers of rules and regulations of Hinduism, and had priests officiating the rituals. Various associations of the tribal communities like the Assam Bodo Sammilan, Assam Kachari Sammilan, Assam Miri Sammilan were not consulted by the Tribal League to discuss the issue of enumeration and therefore the latter could not be said to represent all the tribes. Some sections of the Kacharis refused to be classified as tribals along with Miris, Deuri and Mikirs. The tribal representatives were criticised for attempting to distort reality by categorising all tribals en masse together under one head. The Rabhas asserted that they be recognised as a separate community and not be treated as a branch of the Kachari tribe. It was argued that religion-wise they have to be classified either as Hindus, Christians or animists. Other than the Congress, the Christian representatives in the Assembly opposed such a classifi- cation as, “Figures given in the last census are defective and incomplete inasmuch as that Christians have been shown at such a low figure. The word ‘community’ itself could not be explained, it is a misnomer, when we mean a community, whether religion is to be taken into account or the race that is a question which very few people will be able to explain. In the face of such evident protest from various sections Rupnath Brahma, member of the Tribal League and then a minister in the United Party government, claimed that he would present before the House “the exact feelings of the tribal people on the matter. The Tribal League’s position was reiterated in the Assembly. “As regard the tribal people of the plains they have their own Tribal League and there is a feeling, and indeed there had been a solemn resolution of that League to the effect these tribal people should be shown together irrespective of any religion and they feel that unless and until that is done their future is doomed and they will stand nowhere. He also denied the reports that tribal people in some places had protested against classification on community basis and emphasised the fact that “the existing Tribal League is the only provincial organisation under which all the plains tribal people of the province function. According to Rev L Gatphoh, classification on the basis of community brought out the strength of the tribal people and contradicted the impression given by censuses till 1941 “that tribal people in Assam were a dying race or races.”

Protest, against the manner in which the census was conducted, was registered by people like A V Thakkar, a Gandhian. He also called the enumeration on the basis of community a “strange phenomenon” and questioned the classification which clubbed various tribes under one head, the plains tribes. “But under the new classification, now adopted in 1941, they are all classed as aborigines or one community of tribals (unless they declined to fill in column 3 for race or tribe) though there is nothing like one com- munity but a number of (more than 20) communities, each tribe being a community by itself.”88 He also criticised the colonial state’s communal award, facilitated by the 1935 Act, which granted separate representation to the tribals for the first time. “They have since 1935 got separate representation to the tribal for the first time…we have since 1935 got certain political rights and importance, a tribal gentleman and a tribal lady MLAs are included in the Cabinet, (by the Congress coalition government only the former and by the present non Congress government both) and a wave of awakening has come over them.”

The great increase in the population returned as tribal is thus explained not in the positive aspect of identity consciousness but as politically motivated. “Thus religious faith and cultural affinity have proved to be nothing before political power. This because of the colonial state’s policies and the tribal elite’s manipulation, the tribes who sought to assimilate and were “slowly absorbed amongst Hindus on one side and among the Christians for the last 50 years on the other, must have en masse swung to the ‘Tribal Community’.”91 As a rejoinder to the comment, the editor published a note, which defined tribal in the context of community, and noted that,

As the word ‘tribal’ in the present census is not used to indicate religion but only community or tribe, I think, the Assam Census Superintendent would appear to have been quite correct in classifying as aborigines such aboriginal. In fact it is advantageous to the aborigines to be classified as such and injurious to them to get themselves returned as Hindus. For by becoming Hindus they sink into the degraded class of ‘Harijan’, or depressed classes. Moreover, by recording themselves as ‘aboriginal’ or ‘tribals’ they stand a chance of political advancement. For in the next Indian Government Act, an increase in the recorded number of aboriginals is expected to ensure them a larger number of seats in the Legislatures. We think that lovers of abo- rigines should rejoice rather than grieve over the recorded increase of ‘Tribals’ or ‘aborigines’ in any province.

Entry to the temples

The Tribal League’s efforts to distance itself from caste Hindu Assamese society in carving out a “tribal” identity was also evident when the Assam Temple Entry Bill was introduced in the Assembly in 1940. Ghanashyam Das, the mover, regretted the fact that most temples were not open for some sections of the so- ciety, the so-called depressed and backward classes. According to him, temple entry was not restricted in the past and came into existence only recently. He illustrated how the Vaishnava preacher Sankardeva believed in equality and that is why “even a Javan like Jayahari Ata, a Miri like Bolai Ata, a Bhot like Damudar Ata and a Kachari like Ram Ata were given equal status in his re- ligious society.” His treatment of the tribes was reflective of a dominant trend, placing them in the hierarchy of the caste struc- ture and the discourse of “upliftment” which defines them as low-caste Hindus. The preconceived assumption bracketed the tribal with the low caste Hindus, who were denied entry into most temples. The dominant Assamese caste Hindu society did not perceive the plains tribals as a separate entity. Such an attitude is evident in Ghanashyam Das’ speech:

…. in the Doul festival in Barpeta a man having sympathy for his fellow brothers cannot bear to see the sight when the tribal and depressed classes are refused, with harsh words, entry to the Kirtonghar. You cannot look at their eyes when they return with tears running down their sad faces.

He compared the equality shared by tribal and non-tribal representatives in the Assembly house where he saw no apparent distinction between Rupnath Brahma, Rabi Chandra Kachari, Rohini Choudhuri and himself. The presence of discrimination in the social structure would not allow the above-mentioned tribal representatives’ access into any temple. He pointed out, if my friend M Rabi Chandra Kachari wants to enter the Barpeta temple, he will also get no access there. Is it not painful, sir, and is it not humiliating? Should this distinction remain? No matter, sir, their sympathy with me for their depressed and tribal classes will surface…. I have a duty. I should perform that duty.

Doubts were raised by the government about the extent that the Temple Entry Bill would benefit the tribals. Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri questioned whether the bill would help the Kacharis

and other animists. He also stated the bill’s definition of a Hindu, which was defined as “one who is such by birth and reli- gion and one who is a convert into it excluded the tribes. By that logic “the animists will be clearly excluded by this definition of the term ‘Hindu’. So this bill will not at all give them any right. Rupnath Brahma, then a minister in the provincial government and representative of the Tribal League, clarified his organisation’s position whether tribes can be termed Hindus and whether the bill would benefit them:

I have been asked by the honourable mover whether I myself and my people are Hindus or not. On this point I do not like to enter into any open discussion in this house, but this much I can tell the house that amongst the tribal people there are Christians and there are some who have adopted the Hindu religion and the rest of them  have  been treated as animists. I may say that they are quite independent of the Hindu society – they are certainly not so called low caste Hindus, they have got a distinct form of religion of their own, and they do not care if they are allowed to have entrance in the temples. I think these people are not so much anxious to have access to public temples, or any temples.

Another member, Gauri Kanta Talukdar, rejected the necessity of classifying the tribal separately as animists, such categories being largely colonial constructs:

It is a matter of great regret that following blindly the Christian missionaries and their friends, the European writers and some of our own countrymen are calling the tribal peoples ‘animists’. Sir, I vehemently protest against the use of the expression ‘animists’ in the case of our brethren of the tribals communities. It is a misnomer, it is an insult levelled against these people to call them animists. Who has been us- ing this expression? Has it not been done by the missionaries with the object of exploiting these peoples? Is this not a surreptitious attempt to alienate a portion of our brethren from the Hindu fold?

He used a broad definition of Hinduism, as given by the Hindu Mahasabha, which was inclusive of all religions which had originated in India. According to him the simple act of calling oneself Hindu (irrespective of practices and rituals), made one Hindu because of its all-inclusive paternalistic nature. Rupnath Brahma’s denial of the positive effects of the Temple Entry Bill for the tribals people was criticised by the Congress, with its populist claims for social upliftment. According to Ghanashyam Das, Rupnath Brahma represented only the tribal elite and was “modern” in his views and therefore did not attach importance to entry into a temple. Brahma’s opinion was called a personal viewpoint and not representative of the voice of the tribal people. The tribal society being a part of the wider Hindu society there was, asserted Talukdar, “people who are religious minded and who like to worship God inside a temple”, and they should not be deprived of that right.

Education as a Means to empowerment

In the Legislative Assembly, through the articulation of the Tribal League members, the construction of another image of the plains tribes took shape: the image is of a “backward” community. In the speeches of the tribal members we find a sense of self- depreciation, which drew heavily from the internalisation of colonial, official and ethnographic images of the tribes.

The sense of cultural inferiority integral with the term ‘tribal society’ enunciated by the colonial ethnology was too embedded in the psychology of the educated tribals to inspire them… not surprisingly, the tribal leaders consciously presented themselves as ‘backward’ people before the statutory commission amounting to negation of their own culture.

By virtue of not being a part of the dominant mainstream culture the appellation of backwardness in various aspects, subsequently, entitled protection and special provisions so that such conditions disappear. It was stressed that the tribes not only inhabited back- ward tracts but were backward in every aspect, be it in education or other social conditions. The reasons of backwardness, accord- ing to Rabi Chandra Kachari, could be partly attributed to internal inability or handicaps to progress and partly (probably most importantly) “due to indifference of our more fortunate brethren and want of proper encouragement at the hands of the government.” The necessity of “protection and special treatment real and substantial” for large tribal populations, which were “poor, weak and ignorant”, was the dominant mode of articulation.

Therefore, the tribal leaders perceived education and employment as modern means of empowerment and social emancipa- tion. The emerging tribal elite, who constituted the Tribal League perceived modern education as empowerment. There was the re- alisation that in order to create, and preserve, an identity one needed instruments like education. As one tribal member of the Assembly observed,

At present, education is the most vital problem for the tribal, backward and scheduled castes people. They now feel what is education and they are now realising that without education they are nobody and nowhere in the civilised world.

So within the scope of provincial politics, another aspect of assertion by the representatives of the Tribal League was for securing the right to education. The level of education in colonial Assam was quite low, and the plains tribes were lagging behind in this aspect more than other communities. So with the commu- nal award of 1935, and their own representatives in the Assembly, demands for better educational facilities and opportunities were put forward. These demands were mostly for setting up more schools in tribal areas, increase in funds, reservation, scholarship and free studentship for tribal students. Bhimbar Deuri, one of the founding member of the Tribal League and also member in the Legislative Council, while discussing the various problems of the tribals, also focused on the question of education;

Amongst these problems the amelioration of the condition of the masses, the eradication of the opium habit and the spread of education among all classes, particularly among the backward classes, are the most urgent needs.

But cognition of the problem and acting upon it were two sepa- rate processes. The initial jubilation among the tribal elite for the communal representation in the Assembly and over provincial autonomy soon evaporated. It was evident that development under the colonial government would not be easy. Rupnath Brahma’s speech during a budget session reflects this attitude,

Nowadays we hear a great cry in the country for the upliftment of these backward people, we have been given to understand that the government also have taken up special responsibility for safeguarding of the interests of the minority people… but it is surprising that no- where in the budget we find any specific provision for the upliftment for the backward tribals of the plains.

In fact, inadequate budget allocation for education and grants to fund schools were perennial problems. Rupnath Brahma, another tribal representative in the Assembly, expressed his disappointment and dissatisfaction in such a situation:

We expected this time our popular and responsible government would come forward with definite scheme for education of the backward tribal people of the plains, but unfortunately to our utter disappointment no specific earmarked provision has been made for the plains tribals in the present year’s budget also… it is a known fact that the tribal people of the plains are the most backward people in the whole province and I think government has greater responsibility for the education of these people. If there is no definite move from the government for education of these people, then I think all nation building projects will be left far behind in Assam.Not much was done to address those grievances and condi- tions did not improve radically as evident in Rabi Chandra Kachari’s speech.…the tribal people of the plains are very backward in the point of education. But we find a small amount of  rupees,  8000,  has been earmarked for the expansion of primary education among the tribal people of the plains. This money is quite insufficient because on aver- age only 4 schools from each of the 12 subdivisions will be benefited from this grant. But in each subdivision we have got more than 50 lower primary schools. We are also neglected by the local boards, as we cannot be properly represented in the boards. So I request government to earmark a sufficient amount for the expansion of education in the tribal areas of the plains, so that we may have a special impetus in education.The reliance on liberal policies of the colonial state to improve their conditions and “civilise” them soon disappeared and most of the tribal representatives lamented that after more than a cen- tury of British rule in Assam there was a lot to be done yet. Karka Dalay Miri, representative of the Miri tribe, complained that though hill tribes and the Muslim students were conferred free studentship and scholarship, no such special provisions had been accorded to the backward tribals of the plains. The backwardness was due to the absence of supportive provisions. According to him, groups like the Miri, Kachari, Deuri, Lalung, Khampti, Mikri, etc, were backward in education due to the lack of adequate schools. Khorsing Terang, representative of the Mikir Hills, stressed that education was necessary to transform the “inhibited, animal like Mikir”, into a “proper civilised human being”.The tribal representatives came up with various solutions to the problem of providing education. It was suggested that such problems could only be solved if the government established one lower primary school in every five to six villages. In many areas the local people (the tribals) took the initiative to open schools in the hope that such venture schools would be taken over by the local board. But not many schools were actually taken over by the local boards and very few scholarships were provided. Another demand was that a special officer for education of these people should be appointed, as it was done for the Muslims. Under such pressure the Congress ministry, when in power, increased funding of tribal education. It was also decided that eight tribal students will receive free studentship. The earlier norm was that out of 13 free studentship eight would be for the Muslims and rest to others. Lack of adequate funding and disinterest on the part of the colonial authorities was observed by the tribal representatives and the Congress members who criticised their motives, “Instead of giving us better facilities for education they have given us facilities for opium pills and some doses of liquor only”. Haladhar Bhuyan, congressman, pointed to the self interest of the colonial government in their policy towards the tribes, for whom nothing was done till the declaration of provincial autonomy. The awareness of the tribals regarding the necessity of education was also attributed to the spread of Congress’ message since 1921.

By the 1940s the Tribal League had reified the idea of a distinctive tribal identity, mostly for political and social reasons. The tribal elite, in envisioning an identity constructed a discourse of backwardness and different-ness in opposition to other commu- nities. Though on the latter there was consensus, on the former it came into conflict with other political organisations like the Congress. On issues of land alienation, displacement and deprivation also the tribal leadership received the support of the Congress. The controversy around the census gave rise to sharply defined notions about religion and identity. The Tribal League’s support for the community based enumeration bereft of any religious content, illustrated the strength of the idea of unified plain tribes as a political category. Likewise, in the temple entry issue the clear position maintained by tribal leaders, of not being part of the Hindu society, also points towards efforts of engendering identity in opposition to the caste Hindu society. In this, it came into conflict with that section of the Assamese society which believed that the Assamese community was endangered from the immigrants and was trying to build a greater Assamese nationality. This Assamese intelligentsia wanted the tribals to remain an integral part of the Assamese nationality. The tribal leadership had the option of either recognising the ties with the Assamese and accept a subordinated position in a caste society, or move away from it and claim independent identity which would ensure development and empowerment. It is the negotiation of this relationship that has defined politics in colonial and post colonial Assam to a large extent.