Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Boro people share many of the characteristics of the Adivasis and many of their demands characterise those of the other indigenous peoples of India. Boros are of Sino-Tibetan origin. Their ancient language originates from the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. In addition to a distinct language, Boros take pride in well-developed traditions and customary tribal values. There are difficulties in establishing an accurate number for the Boro population currently living in India: the official Census reports of 2011 advanced a figure of 1.48 million as those speaking Boro language. Though concentrated in Assam’s north–west, Boros also inhabit West Bengal, as well as Bangladesh and Bhutan.
In common with other Adivasi communities as well as indigenous peoples around the world, the Boro people have developed a culture which is deeply rooted and inter-connected with their immediate environment and lands. Ninety-nine per cent of the Boro population lives in villages and therefore agriculture is the mainstay of their economy. Notwithstanding commercial development and enterprise within India, Boros have firmly attached themselves to the agrarian mode of production with their lands being an indispensable element of their existence and identity.
Developments in the latter half of the twentieth century have been highly disturbing since over time Boros have witnessed encroachment of their lands by outsiders (including from East Bengal and Nepal) as well as by people from elsewhere in India. It has also dramatically changed the demography of the region. At present, amidst the four districts of Assam (Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta and Nogaon), immigrants have become the predominant population and so Boros are now a numerical minority, with frequent tensions reported between them and the more recent arrivals.
Some progress appeared to have been achieved in 2003 when the Indian government signed a peace accord with Bodoland Liberation Tiger Force (BLT) after a six-year long conflict that had led to thousands of deaths. An earlier peace deal had been concluded in 1993. The agreement paved the way for the Bodoland Territorial Council. The new body was intended to represent all communities in the area, with 30 indigenous and five non-indigenous reserved seats among its 46-person membership. The remaining six places would be chosen by the Assam government from among under-represented communities. The news was, however, met with some criticism. Non-Boro communities feared that they would be side–lined by the new arrangement, while some Bodoland nationalists vowed to continue the struggle for independence.
Western Assam continues to be affected by violence as a result of tensions between Boros and what are perceived as settler communities. These include Bengali–speaking groups who are primarily Muslim as well as other Adivasis, mostly belonging to tea–planting communities originally from central India. Despite earlier peace accords, tensions arise due to pressures over land and natural resources, as well as competition over political power in what is called the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts.
Tensions have flared periodically, for instance ahead of the elections in 2014. In May that year, over 30 Muslims were killed in multiple attacks on villages ahead of the national elections. The government blamed the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S) for the attacks, although the NDFB-S denied responsibility and accused the government of attempting to stoke communal tensions. The elections resulted in the first ever non-Boro parliamentarian winning the seat for Kokrajhar, headquarters of the Bodoland Territorial Council, an indigenous self-government body. Similarly, (tea–planter) Adivasi villages in Assam were also attacked later in the year, reportedly by Boro separatists: in December 2014, at least 80 Adivasis were killed and another 250 reported missing in a series of attacks, again attributed to the NDFB-S faction, resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of Adivasis escaping the violence. Several Boros were reportedly killed in retaliatory killings. Within a few days, the government announced its ‘Operation All-out’, with as many as 9,000 troops deployed in the province in an effort to eradicate NDFB-S fighters.
In January 2020, a new peace tripartite agreement was signed between the Indian and Assam governments and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). This represented the third peace accord concerning the region. Compared with the agreements of 1993 and 2003, there is some added reason for optimism. The government claimed that it was a comprehensive accord since it included four splinter groups of the NDFB, as well as the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) and the United Bodo People’s Organisation. Under the terms of the deal, armed groups will be disbanded, and 1,550 Bodoland independence fighters will be disarmed and given financial assistance. More powers will be granted to the Bodoland Territorial Council and there is a prospect of redrawing the geographic limits of the Bodo Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) to reflect demographic shifts in the region. However, it is unclear whether the new accord will resolve the tensions between Boro and other communities, given that access to land and resources is a key cause.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in