If the initial first few overs are anything to go by, then Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s opening spell in the Northeast has been disappointing. It is not unfamiliar territory for him; he has worked here earlier.
His dramatic election campaign and “quit Bangladeshi” notices had managed to grab some attention. But what has happened in the Northeast following Modi’s coronation? And why have these events failed to elicit an adequate response from the mainstream media?
In the same month that Modi became PM, Baksa, a district in Lower Assam suddenly turned bloody. In May, the district counted 50 dead bodies of Muslims killed, allegedly, by a splinter Bodo militant group called National Democratic Front of Bodoland-S. The dead are all civilians, including several children.
A few days ago, four more bodies were recovered. With virtually no provocation, an armed group that had earlier called for a ceasefire went berserk, killing Muslims and extorting from Hindu residents. Every day, there is news of abduction, a disappearance or a killing. Meanwhile, the state’s Home department gave the flimsiest excuse for the killings. They said Baksa is forested and since the villagers are residing inside the forest, it is difficult to control the area with a limited police force.
No minister from the Modi government has visited Baksa yet. Has this been highlighted?
In 2012, riots in the same area and around the same time killed more than a 100 people and displaced a few lakhs. The majority of the victims were Muslims. This is not as complicated an issue as it’s made out to be. It all started with land ownership and wet rice cultivation back when Muslims owned land and the Bodos were forest dwellers.
Since 1967, the Bodos have been demanding a separate state. Initially, they called it Udayachal, but later rejected the Sanskrit word for Bodoland. Two armed groups ran amok for decades, killing people at will and pushing lakhs of people out of what they claim is their land. One group – Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) joined the political system and they run the autonomous council. The other group, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) is negotiating for their pound of flesh. The third one, NDFB (Songbijit) was created from the second and is still underground, carrying out these killings.
The Bodo leadership managed to get autonomy under the 6th Schedule though it was strongly resisted and contested by non-Bodo groups residing there. The statehood demand is also facing tough opposition. Muslims are its strongest opponents and that is why they are the targets of successive rounds of violence. (There is a conspiracy theory too, of an inner-party feud within the Congress fuelling this divide to discredit the government.)
The worrying question is whether it has the tacit approval of other sections and political parties, given that Assam politics has rested heavily on the illegal Bangaldeshi migrant issue and these victims are often identified as migrants, which is not entirely correct.
The second most important signal that the Modi government has sent out on its Northeast policy is that it has no policy; it has only dumped the inconvenient governors to Northeastern states. So Kamla Beniwal from Gujarat gets Mizoram. Sheila Dixit in Kerala was asked to go to Nagaland. For years, the Indian government pursued an unwritten policy of posting ex-generals and retired IPS officers as governors to the Northeast. Modi has done away with that, but made it worse: a dumping ground. Why on earth would a Northeast posting sound like a punishment to Modi unless he too stereotypes it as an island where people are exiled.
This also points to a tactical error from the I-know-it-all PM. The Governor’s office is a very critical constitutional post. In fact, in the 5th Schedule and 6th Schedule areas, the Governors play pivotal roles that have been affected grievously because of random Governor appointments. One expected Modi to have seized the opportunity to restructure this systemic failure and take the gubernatorial responsibility much more seriously. The callousness of this move is a disappointing reminder that nothing may have changed despite electing a strong new government. They are as myopic as the previous ones – they have no vision and they fail to notice people and places far from the Centre.
(For those journalists who followed the last details of Muzaffarnagar riots and think Baksa is too far, a train ticket will cost you around 600 rupees only.)
The author can be contacted on Twitter @Kishalay