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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

Assam’s 2020 Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Election: a Fractured Verdict | Nurul Hassan

Saturday 20 February 2021

by Nurul Hassan *

The high voltage 2020 Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) election has witnessed a triangular contest among the candidates of Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was an opportunity for most of the political parties in Assam to substantiate their existential strength on the eve of next Assembly election. The verdict was neither directly based on identity politics nor promulgating ideologies but has changed the entire political equation of Assam and Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) in particular. Despite a tight competition, the election has remained relatively free and fair, no reporting of any major untoward situation usually occurs more or less at the time of elections. Undoubtedly, the admittance of BJP in BTC and at the same time standing of BPF will determine the future course of Bodoland politics. In BTC, it is apparent that the identity politics has been transforming in an uneven way with a democratic conclusion but uncertainty prevails everywhere as the chances of disorder pervade across the spectrum.

Transgressing all these, the most volatile region of Assam has arrived on the verge of democracy. However, the post election scenario of 2020 has witnessed a dramatic change and probably it would be unstoppable even in the days to come. This paper aims to explore the political processes of BTAD based on recent elections. It would be interesting in digging out BJP’s megalomaniac politics across the states and BTC in particular.

Since the formation of BTAD, the BPF has been remained as a dominant party in every format of politics. Even after 15 years was in power, the political grounding of BPF has been remained intact and people have rendered their blessing once again in 2020 too. However, at present, despite the single largest party, BPF has not only failed to form the Executive Council for the fourth consecutive term but the five years old BJP-BPF alliance has been formally defused. The BJP-BPF confrontation was crystal clear as most of the leaders were indulged in allegations and counter allegations during the campaign. From the very beginning of campaign, BJP tried to consolidate its position with the induction of defected leaders basically from Bodo community and at the same time had maintained equal distance from BPF and UPPL to get need based support to usurp political power at any cost in BTAD. Accordingly, in the aftermath of elections, BJP is capable to form the Executive Council with UPPL, bringing a new political equation in BTAD alias Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) [1]. Perhaps the success story of BJP would be projected either as a clear message or a kind of psychological pressure among the electorates in coming days.

The Trajectory of Bodo Politics

The Bodo politics has been getting pivot importance for variety of reasons. As we know, the Bodo as a community had a long history of struggle for political consolidation within the larger democratic framework of Indian politics. Despite a plain area, the BTAD is incorporated under the Sixth scheduled of Indian Constitution for the maximization of autonomy in the fields of social, economic, educational and cultural advancement of Bodos. Definitely it is essential for the acceleration of developmental projects in BTAD. The presence of different political parties and periodic elections provide an advancement to acquire democratic culture. Basically, most of the leaders are from undemocratic background, had direct or indirect linkages with rebellion outfits. Perhaps, their involvement in administrative process has changed the entire socio-political setting of BTAD.

The society of Bodoland is plural and can be divided sharply as Bodo and Non-Bodo usually stands diametrically opposite to each other. There is diversity within the Bodo community from religious point of view i.e. Bathouism (ethnic religion), Christianity and Hinduism are most practiced religion in Bodoland. Accordingly the non-Bodos are again admixture of different communities as well as sub nationalities i.e. Asomiya caste Hindu, Bengali Hindu, Koch Rajbanshi, Rabha, Muslims, Adivasi, Tea Tribes, Nepali etc. In BTAD, the Bodo have around 30 percent of share in population compare to 70 percent non-Bodos. To substantiate their dominance, the Bodo needs to strengthen their numeric position. The autonomous status is a constitutional safeguard but to increase their numeric strength, on one hand they are engaging in concentration of Bodo population from different localities and at the same time non-Bodos are targeting time and again to wipe out from the Bodoland. Hence, the society is witnessing outrages, volatility, panic, disturbances created by one group against the other in different capacities. Admittedly, Bodoland is considered as one of the disturbed regions in Assam.

The problems of BTAD can be considered from horizontal as well as vertical points of view. The adverse geopolitical location of Bodoland and particularly the issue of head quarters has become a bone of contention for the people of peripheral region. The mandate also unveils that the claim of egalitarian development was remained cryptic in BTAD. Another historic but essential factor is the exclusion of National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) at the time of 2003 BTC agreement. It is pertinent to mention here that Bodo-non Bodo, BLT-NDFB factors are remained conspicuous in BTAD. Looking at the party performance in recent elections has given a clear picture as BPF outperformed in western region comparing to the UPPL and accordingly the BJP performed well in non Scheduled Tribes (ST) and open category seats rather than reserved ST constituencies. Even, the BJP is capable to accentuate overwhelming support of non Bodo replacing the Gana Suraksha Party (GSP). The rift of BPF and BJP inroads for BPF to gain the Muslim support in different localities as the anti Muslim stand of BJP remained intact throughout the campaign. But it would be immature to surmise the standing of all Muslim against the BJP; actually the performance of BJP makes it crystal clear that the Muslims have also voted in favour of BJP.

Bodoland has been witnessing multidimensional volatility for last couple of decades. The Bodos are enthusiastic for establishing cultural prominence, ethnicity, and revitalization of identity etc. through political bargaining. Initially, the Plain Tribal Council of Assam [2] (PTCA) had fought for the determination of Tribal and indigenous Scheduled caste communities’ state called as Udayachal since its inception in 1966 and later on propelled to conservative and become radical to intensify their demand. Earlier the proposal for Autonomous Council by Samar Brahma Choudhury, Charan Narzary and others was outwardly rejected by the Central government without going to the gravity of problem. Similarly All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) since its foundation in 1967 has been demanding for a separate statehood dividing Assam 50-50. The selfless efforts of Bodofa Upendranath Brahma provided an extra mileage in the entire process to revive the Bodo politics. Prior to that, Bodo Sahitya Sabha had enlightened the community to revive Bodo identity and culture accentuating the idea of relative deprivation in different capacities. Basically the revivalism of tribal politics in North East India and the reorganization of states inspired the Bodo people for claiming separate political entity. Thereafter, the language movement, refinery movement and the historic Assam Movement (1979-85) also inspired a lot to fight against the state for preserving community interest. Similarly the Assam Accord, 1985 usually considered as a milestone for the Assamese inspires the Bodo for negotiation. Apparently with a new determination they have been fighting both in democratic as well as undemocratic process to get attention from the ruling dispensations. Different radical groups have been struggling for Bodo resurgence with variety of demands; however a section of them preferred to return to the mainstream society. Accordingly, the student organization ABSU has tremendous contribution in leading the struggle in a democratic maneuver. Hence, all round efforts make it easy for the Bodo to attain their feat. Even the matter has got international attention too basically for human rights violation, attempt for ethnic cleansing, massacres etc. Such brutal incidents are sporadically going on but the indigeneity provides permanent indemnity to them.

Perhaps the initiation of Autonomous Council in 1993 was a situational demand to deviate the Bodo agitations in Assam. However, a section of agitators were not satisfied with such political arrangement and intensified their battle through and subsequently a second round of negotiation was propelled to settled with the BLT in the year 2003. As per the agreement, four districts i.e. Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri were allocated as Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) under the sixth scheduled of Indian constitution. Wherein, the NDFB fraction was remained static demanding for more autonomy in the line of sovereignty. Very recently, in 2020, another agreement was signed as BTR replacing BTC with the four fractions of NDFB along with ABSU. By these agreements, government intends to provide self rule and at the same time demoted the insurgent activities permanently from Bodoland.

Deserving peace is nothing more than a charade in Bodoland as murder, extortion, conflicts, political disruption etc. including recovery of arms and ammunition were going on in regular intervals. Undoubtedly, most of the cadres belonging to different militant outfits have been coming out from underground and persisting politics in accordance with their capacity. Even they confidently pursue double standard both as dystopia and democracy to achieve their destination. The relentless fighting against the state is helping to consolidate power for perceiving community interest and at the same time bitter experience propelled the state to realize to take special attention for them. Undoubtedly these people are facilitated with different advancement but in reality their hostile attitude has been penetrated across the spectrum. The Bodo—non Bodo conflict would remain sharpened throughout the system. The conflict of interest is reflected in different layer of Bodoland politics.

The recent election has brought a new trend in the electoral politics of BTAD. The turning point is that the Covid-19 induced Governor’s rule had created a political vacuum for couple of months in BTAD. Wherein, the BPF pursued for early election while BJP tried to delay election as a part of their political tactic. Precisely, the BPF was kept out of power and at the same time BJP aggressively but cautiously delved into the society and politics of Bodoland. Furthermore the BJP government tried to control all forms of unscrupulous political interference at the time of election. On the contrary, the cadres are gradually losing their fighting spirit for two basic reasons, firstly engaging in party politics and secondly lack of cadres with fresh blood. Comparing the setting of BPF, the UPPL is a newfangled party with similar background. As a result, BJP has taken the maximum opportunity to strengthen its foundation in Bodoland.

As of now, the expectations and achievements of Bodo as a community are the driving force of Bodo politics. The Bodos are advocating multiple ways to influence the government. Undoubtedly, as an indigenous group, they deserve rights and privileges, but their activities sometimes deserve harsh criticism from humanitarian ground. The process of negotiation is also interesting as every agreement is signing with different stakeholders ensuring lot of promises. Every agreement provides different level of satisfaction. Again the constant support of common people is instrumental for ethnic based politics in Bodoland. However, the presence of BJP would change the entire equation in coming days as BJP is establishing their political perspective denouncing their ethnic based regional sentiment. Even the post poll alliance of BJP-UPPL-GSP is the new equation on the eve of next Assembly election. However the election result would determine the life span of BJP-UPPL-GSP alliance in the context of BTR. At this juncture, the Bodo-non Bodo politics would become more susceptible in the days to come.

Significance of BTC Election 2020

For the first time in the political history of Bodoland, most of the parties were being emphatically participated in election without major external hindrances. The Covid-19 induced pandemic situation and the Governor’s rule had created an ambience of political vacuum in BTAD. The 2020 election has witnessed a triangular contest accentuating maximum gain for BJP securing nine seats out of 26 contested of their own. The BPF could manage 17 seats, 12 for UPPL, one each for Congress and GSP. Although elections in BTAD have been occurring in regular intervals but political competitiveness of recent elections have changed the orientation of entire BTC politics.

The campaign in BTC election was quite interesting. Basically the allegation and counter allegation between Himanta Biswa Sharma, the prominent leader of BJP and Hagrama Mohilary, the supremo of BPF was remained appalling in a multi ethnic democratic setting of Assam. Belying the expectation whatever BJP claimed during the campaign, BPF could manage 17 seats has proved their existential strength in BTAD. However, the defeat of Executive Members including Hagrama Mohilary and Kampa Borgoyari indicates partial dissatisfaction to BPF, but the narrow margin of vote share and triangular contest were advantageous for the ruling dispensation. Undeniably the strength of BPF has been receding gradually but it doesn’t mean that BPF is rejected by the people overwhelmingly. Furthermore, the emergence of BJP and UPPL denotes that a substantial portion of Bodo as well as non Bodo electorates were switching to this combine instead of GSP, Congress and others. The BJP has come out successfully in most of the open category or non ST seats, in reality apart from Muslims, the non Bodo people found as a political alternative of one man party GSP. The BJP has tried to establish its presence in Bodo concentrated area through the induction of defected Bodo leaders having political prominence and which is quite instrumental for the next Assembly election.

With the presence of multiple options, the voting behaviour of electorates has been also changing. Earlier, the Bodo voters had preferably supported BPF; but at present there are different options for them i.e. BPF, UPPL and even the BJP too. Similarly, the non Bodos had supported GSP, nevertheless a marginal portion were with BPF as well as Congress or AIUDF; but with the presence of BJP, there is a substantial shift of non Bodos apart from Muslim considering their religiosity. The support base of Muslims is remained fragile as Congress-AIUDF has little presence in BTAD and subsequently BPF is better option comparing to BJP. The apprehensions of religious minorities about the BJP’s ideological standing finally have tended to favour BPF in some constituencies. Their standing with BPF makes it clear that Muslims realize more security under BPF or their inclination with BPF is essential for the safety of life and property in BTAD. In reality, Muslims are the one of the major targeted community in BTAD in last couple of years.

There is a new political equation after BTC election 2020 as not a single party got clear majority and to keep BPF out of power, UPPL leader Pramood Boro, although placed at second was supported by BJP and GSP for the formation of Executive Council in BTAD. Noteworthy to mention here that, the next Assembly election result will determine the future itinerary of BTAD. Basically BJP is capable to maintain equal distance from BPF as well as UPPL, but the options are remained open for any possibilities in near future. Apparently BJP is strengthening its position through political bargain at the same time diminishing probable alternatives other than BJP. Furthermore BJP has an intension to acquire even need base support from both the parties at all cost.

Another crucial point is that BJP is getting more bargaining power as support of BJP is essential for all. Therefore, the BTC politics would be shaped or reshaped in accordance with the aspirations of BJP’s. At present, BJP is gearing up to induct more and more leaders belonging to Bodo community i.e. one BPF Member of Legislative Council (MLC) along with the lone Congress MLC were already defected to BJP’s fold, perhaps it would continue gradually in different segments of politics. However, the acceptability of BJP leaders from Bodo community would remain a matter of concern as the Bodo sentiment detrimental to the present form of imposed nationalism.

The Way forward

The ambitious BJP is playing as a big brother’s rule in the newly formed government of BTR. Although the BJP is novel in BTR, it is in advantageous position as the BTC is dependable on BJP led Central as well as State governments for multiple administrative as well as financial functionaries. Usually the mighty BJP creates such an atmosphere that the elected representatives of other parties are either propelled to defected or targeted through political poaching at all cost. In fact it is unstoppable in the days to come. Despite all, there will be a tough competition between the BJP-UPPL combine with the BPF in at least 12-13 Bodo concentrated constituencies in the next Assembly election.

Although the BJP had followed different political tactics i.e. massive campaign, presence of local faces, neutralizing politics etc. but result was not as satisfactory as it desired earlier. Even the anti incumbency factor has become extraneous in BTC. As a result, the margin of victory in most of the constituencies was quite thin. Even some heavyweight candidates of BPF have lost election; it was a clear indication that popularity of Hagrama led BPF has been shrinking gradually. On the contrary, for the narrow political interest some of the prominent faces of BPF would be targeted politically in near future.

After the BTAD election, the confidence of BJP was quite high and subsequently it has outperformed in Tiwa Autonomous Council election capturing all seats leaving just one for the Congress. Notable point is that on one hand BJP is patronizing the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and on the other hand intending to play the indigenous card through the protection of tribal belt and blocks. For this, the Sixth Scheduled areas were cautiously exempted from the purview of CAA 2019. In fact, replacing BTC with BTR is the biggest calculation of BJP on the eve of 2020 BTC elections.

One of the dominant parties of Assam, the Congress had lost its political ground two decades back; perhaps the alliance with the BPF weakened the organizational strength in BTAD. At present, the Congress led grand alliance is in a dilemma to deal with Hagrama Mohilary and subsequently there will be a triangular contest among the representatives of BJP-UPPL combine, BPF and Congress led grand alliance in coming days. No one can deny the limitation of grand alliance but it is essential to fight election of its own targeting Minority concentrated areas. Furthermore, it needs to improve their organization strength through confidence building inducting more and more Bodo leaders in the days to come.

Perhaps the arrangement of BTC is for entrusting political autonomy with greater expectation. Even the political arrangement under the sixth schedule of Indian constitution provides healthy environment for self determination. The ethnic based partisan politics is essential for achieving community aspirations but no one can deny the interest of non-Bodo people in an inclusive society. The non Bodo politics is remained as patchwork but the performance of BJP in 2020 indicates a phenomenal change in ethnic based politics of Assam. The militants groups are part and parcel of ethnic based politics and subsequently the issues of ex-militants should be considered adequately for bring amicable environment and permanent peace in BTR.

In conclusion, it is pertinent to mention here that the control of BPF is replaced with a dominant party in 2020 election. Ultimately, the admittance of BJP would be the turning point of Bodo politics. It would be immature to surmise the end of ethnic based political parties from Bodoland. Political change is desirable whether it is in BTC or somewhere else only when it accomplishes all round aspiration of common people.

* (Author: Nurul Hassan, PhD (GU) (nurul.hassan88[at] is teaching in Kampur College, Nagaon, Assam and also associated with the survey agency People’s Pulse.)

[1The Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) agreement was signed on 27 January, 2020 for redrawing the boundary of Bodo Autonomous Districts. The signatories are on one hand Central as well as State Government and other hand ABSU, United Bodo People’s Organization and four factions of NDFB cadres. The agreement has proposed to increase in number of membership from 40 to 60. It is an initiative for bringing peace in Bodoland as more than 1500 cadres of NDFB have returned for settlement.

[2Plain Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) was a quasi militant organization formed in 1966 under the leadership of Samar Brahma Choudhury and Charan Narzary. Basically the organization demanded for ‘Udayachal’, a separate state for the tribal and indigenous Scheduled Caste communities comprising the plain area of Assam

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