Negotiations with Bodo Liberation Tigers (1999)

Dr. P.D. Shenoy IAS

 

Bodos are the plainland tribals settled on the upper valley of the Brahmaputra river in Assam. Their region is very backward compared to the rest of Assam. There are four airports in Assam, viz., Guwahati, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Tezpur, but none in the Bodo inhabited area. There was no college worth its name in the Bodo region. Their per capita income was very low. To fight against injustice – two militant groups were formed: the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The NDFB leaders mostly stayed in Bhutan and Bangladesh and did not come forward for negotiations. BLT members were experts in blowing up bridges, oil pipelines, railway lines and other infrastructure with the aid of improvised explosive devices (IED).

 

BLT leaders were demanding a separate State for Bodos within the boundaries of India. Earlier there was an accord with the Government of India which resulted in the constitution of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) with some financial powers. The BAC did not function effectively as the boundaries of the BAC area were not finalized and also the list of villages and towns in the BAC area was not prepared. Further, the BAC did not have any constitutional backing.

 

The Union Home Minister appointed me as the Principal Negotiator with the Bodo leaders. I was ably assisted by highly competent officers. There were three parties at the negotiating table: The Central Government, the Government of Assam and the BLT. We held six meetings at undisclosed locations. I also met the Chief Minister Shri Prafulla Kumar Mohanta from time to time to seek his advice. As a result of these strenuous and prolonged discussions, the BLT agreed to the suspension of operations (which is akin to a ceasefire). We did not call it a ceasefire as the agreement was not between two countries. This decision was announced simultaneously by the Union Home Minister in the Parliament and the Chief Minister of, Assam in the State Assembly.

 

I held discussions with the leaders of the BLT. Tripartite discussions continued during which the BLT agreed to dilute their demand from statehood to a State within the State of Assam as provided under Article 244A of the Constitution of India (Formation of an autonomous State comprising certain tribal areas in Assam and creation of local Legislature or Council of Ministers or both therefor). Incidentally, Meghalaya was a State within the State of Assam earlier.

 

Shri Tarun Gogoi, the new Chief Minister continued to help our tripartite efforts. The Governor of Assam Gen. S.K. Sinha was very supportive. The Government of Assam was always represented by a team of competent and helpful officers.

 

Bodo leaders later on demanded Union Territory status. During further discussions we were able to convince the leaders of the BLT to give up the demand for a State within the State and also Union Territory status and to agree to the arrangement of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. The Bodo leaders demanded that their language be included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. They also wanted a substantial financial package with the powers to execute several development projects. Acceding to these demands was not an easy task as it required amendments to the Constitution of India and approval from several Ministries of the Government of India and the State Government.

 

During further talks, villages were listed on the basis of the percentage of Bodos inhabiting them and also contiguity. Four contiguous districts had to be demarcated and carved out of the State of Assam. This was a laborious process. On the day before every meeting, I used to prepare a broad contour of the points for discussion and seek the approval of the Home Secretary and the Home Minister.

 

To secure approval for the financial package, I met the Finance Minister, Shri Jaswant Singh. He offered me a seat and sought my permission to smoke a cigarette as he had a meeting with the Prime Minister later on, in whose presence he could not smoke. I was happy to accede to his request.

 

When I nervously broached the subject of a decent financial package for the development of Bodo inhabited areas, he said that any reasonable quantum can be fixed, but the amount should be spent only for identifiable, measurable, viable and productive projects. All’s well that ends well: The Constitution was amended to grant Sixth Schedule status to the Bodoland Territorial Council, the Bodo language was incorporated in the Eighth Schedule and the Union Government gave a generous financial package.

 

I would like to quote from the book “My Country My Life” (Pg.725) by Shri L.K. Advaniji, Former Deputy Prime Minister & Home Minister.

 

“One of the efforts of the Home Ministry that met with considerable success was when, on 6 December 2003, militants belonging to the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) surrendered their arms to end their decade-old struggle. As a result, the Bodoland Territorial District Area (BTDA) came into existence the following day, fulfilling the aspirations of Bodos, a major tribe in Assam living in the areas north of the river Brahmaputra. BLT leader Hagrama Basumatary handed over an AK-47 rifle to Assam’s Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, to begin the surrender proceedings. Earlier, he handed over the BLT flag to Swami Chinmayananda, my deputy in the Home Ministry, and also hoisted a white flag to mark the beginning of new era of peace.

 

This was the culmination of sustained peace negotiations between the Central Government and BLT, after the latter agreed to unilaterally suspend its operations in July 1999. What encouraged me to begin peace negotiations with the BLT, in May 2000, was that, during the Kargil War, it stood by India. I had full sympathy for their concern to protect their language, literature, culture and tradition, which had a strong emotional appeal for the Bodo community and for which Upendra Nath Brahma, regarded as the father of the Bodos, had fought with great commitment. Once BLT leaders agreed to give up the path of violence and accept the framework of the Indian Constitution, our government gave its word to amend the Constitution and widen the scope of the existing Sixth Schedule to facilitate autonomy for Bodos.

 

We also assured them about including the Bodo language into the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and Bodo Kocharis of Karbi-Anglong in the Schedule Tribe (Hills) list. The Centre’s key negotiator was Dr. P.D. Shenoy, a Special Secretary in the Home Ministry, who was successful in infusing the concept of the Bodoland Territorial Council after holding nearly two dozen rounds of talks with their leaders and officials of the Assam government.”

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