Amidst the national party's growing footprint and sidelining of a familiar stalwart, new aspirations jostle old fears among Assam's largest tribal group.
On April 1, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the stage to address a large rally in Kokrajhar town in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), Honok Khaklary, a 40-year-old Bodo car mechanic, was among those cheering.
“It’s great that the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) has gone with the BJP. Hagrama (Mohilary, leader of the Bodoland People’s Front) has done nothing for us. Roads, water supply, infrastructure… all need development in the region. The BJP will bring progress, peace,” said Khaklary.
The single largest tribal community in Assam, Bodos constitute over 5-6% of its population. Following years of insurgency, the narrative in the Bodoland region is now seeing a major churn, as the BJP tries to make an entry.
The BTR, spread over four districts — Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalguri and Chirang — and comprising at least 12 seats, votes on April 6. Covered by Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, that provides autonomy in administration to certain tribal areas in the Northeast, the BTR is governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
All the 12 seats are currently held by the BPF, led by Hagrama Mohilary, a former militant-turned politician. An ally of the BJP in the outgoing government, with three Cabinet ministers, the BPF parted ways with the party before the polls and is now allied with the Congress-led Mahajot. The BJP has a new Bodo ally, the UPPL, led by Promod Boro, the former president of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU).
While the BJP is contesting four Assembly seats falling in the BTR, the UPPL will contest the remaining eight. The two parties are also in ‘friendly’ contests in three seats — in a bid to cut the vote of the BPF. The only seat where the UPPL is not in the contest thus is Panery, where the BJP has fielded ex-BPF leader Biswajit Daimary.
Apart from these 12 seats, the BPF will be a factor in 18 others with large Bodo numbers.
On paper, the Mahajot has a more solid alliance, having sewn up both the Bodo vote, with the BPF, and the Bengali-speaking Muslim vote, courtesy Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF. The two communities have historically been opposed to each other.
Having been chairman of the BTC since it was formed in 2003 following a peace accord with the Centre, till 2020, the popularity of Hagrama, referred to as ‘Chief’, is unparalleled in the region. A functionary of the BPF in Kokrajhar says, “Chief sir is like a god to us.”
But the 17 years of anti-incumbency has caught on, even as the UPPL rides on the BJP promise of development and claims of “inclusiveness”. In a highly publicised event in early 2020, the Modi government had signed a peace accord with Bodo insurgent outfits following which over 1,600 cadres of militant outfit NDFB had laid down arms. Boro of the UPPL was among the signatories.
In the BTC elections that followed, in December 2020, out of the 40 seats, the UPPL had won 12, the BJP nine (up from 1 in 2015), the BPF 17, the Congress 1 (who later joined the BJP) and another party called the GSP 1. The BJP had joined hands with the UPPL and GSP to deny the BPF power.
U G Brahma, a former Rajya Sabha MP and the UPPL founder, says they are confident of winning 11 of the 12 seats. “Hagrama does not have a base, he will bank on the Congress and AIUDF,” Brahma says. “People also have a pro-government tendency now. We are in power in the BTC and the BJP-led alliance will form the state government. People tend to vote for the alliance which will win.”
Also at Modi’s Kokrajhar rally was Santosh Rabha, a 31-year-old graduate belonging to the Rabha community who is looking for a job. “The UPPL is not dividing people or talking only about the Bodo community,” he said. “They are taking about all communities living in Bodoland. Hagrama’s politics is divisive and Bodo-centric. That thinking has been responsible for bloodshed in Bodoland.”
This sentiment is shared across communities. In Bijni town of Chirang district, which has a large Bengali-speaking population, Shukomol Mollick, a Bengali local UPPL leader, says, “Non-Bodo communities of the BTR have found acceptance in the UPPL.”
The BPF disputes this, while defending the AIUDF’s presence in the Mahajot. Senior BPF leader Kampa Borgoyary, says, “It’s the BJP’s propaganda that we are only about Bodos… Should we not ally with the AIUDF only because Muslims support it?”
BPF leaders also caution that the BJP’s bid for power in the BTC, as well as keeping four Assembly seats for itself, are signs that it will eventually take over the UPPL, as it has done with other allies.
In a market in Sidli in Chirang district, Phinal Basumatary, 31, says, “The BJP wants everything for itself. Sab chahiye. They want to swallow all kinds of regional politics — and that’s very scary.”
Says the BPF’s Borgoyary, “When we were with the Congress, it never tried to crush us. But the BJP will use both money and muscle power for that.”
The UPPL’s Brahma dismisses such apprehensions as not “realistic”, saying the local party will always matter