BTC to BTR: Election, Pandemic and Debate

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By: Gendra Galla Narzinary

Post signing the third Bodo peace accord on January 27 this year, political parties jumped into campaign for the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) election as the third general council’s term expired in March. The accord entrusting Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) brought jubilation in Assam as the Bodo imbroglio was believed to be resolved amicably having territorial integrity of the state intact. It ends the one of the longest armed conflicts for development and identity quests in Northeast India. However, a few Bodo organisations question the accord otherwise. Even they were part of the accord review meeting engineered by Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) despite being happy in immediate days of post signing the accord. Has sacrosanct demand for a separate Bodoland state been shattered with this accord?

Assam State Election Commission (ASEC) was almost ready for fourth council election on April 4 after finishing all due processes. Even the counting would have been completed by April 8, had everything gone right. But it didn’t happen as per the schedule of ASEC because of the fast spread of COVID-19 pandemic. The autonomous government ruled by BPF didn’t get extension after the expiry of its term although it tried for continuum by another six months as the holding of election was postponed due to the nationwide pandemic-induced lockdown. As a result, BTC having administrative jurisdiction over Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) has been placed under Governor’s rule. It was imposed obviously not because of the failure of constitutional machinery but due to the pandemic-induced failure to have a newly elected council in time.

Many things had happened in last five months in BTC. From imposition of Governor’s rule to mudslinging among the political parties including low level of debate in social media on the accord, the tug of war is going on. Even the special administrator who was appointed to run the administrative affairs under Governor’s rule was criticised after he demolished some internal structures of the room allotted to him inside the BTC secretariat. BPF questioned him instead of focusing people’s problem how he can be indulged in splurging on decorative construction of room.

It is surprising to see that even in pandemic time, joining ceremony and campaigning have been going on full swing. Such programmes didn’t go as per COVID-19 protocols of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing. Even no fresh date of polling has been notified yet. How is campaigning being allowed risking the people?

BTR, in true sense, is an extension of BTC that was an outcome of second peace accord signed in February 2003. We should admit the truth that this extension is in terms of geographic, and powers and functions the BTR shall be enjoying. The number of constituency is increased by 20 up to 60 along with additional 8 new subjects added to existing 40. Even it will have power over the general and police administrations but Dispur may have final say. Importantly, the accord gives a sigh of relief to the Bodo community as it has put a full stop of one of the longest insurgency theatres in Northeast India ensuring permanent closure of the armed conflict for identity aspirations.

United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) that possesses the solid backing of All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and several other ethnic organisations has been defending and projecting the future image of BTR. Former chief executive member and BPF’s supremo Hagrama Mohilary who believed the accord permanently closes the gun culture in the society, on the contrary, took u-turn abruptly. His party has myopia over BTR. This is testified by not creating Bodo-Kachari Autonomous Council (BKAC)–another outcome of the accord. Minister of Welfare of Plain Tribes & Backward Classes department who belongs to BPF in BJP-led alliance government in Dispur didn’t pay hit that eventually broke the bonhomie of BPF and United Bodo People’s Organisation (UBPO). BPF, on the contrary, attempts for credit blaming ABSU for jettisoning the sacrosanct demand for Bodoland state. However, interestingly, it can neither talk what it had achieved nor what it had failed in past 17 years of rule in BTC. In social media manned by BPF’s IT cell, one sees how it uses the strategy of unfiltered allegations aimed at UPPL and ABSU in a hopeful of winning election. Instead of engaging in low standard debate, leaders across parties should tell the public what vision they have to develop BTR that hitherto remained a boiling belt stemmed due to the administrative and development apathy of Assam government what was loosely termed step-motherly treatment.

Where does true power of autonomous council lie? Adequate funding is core for functioning and maintaining the dignity of any autonomous council. Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) of tripartite accord talks about the necessary amendment to Article 280 of the Constitution of India. It deals with the constitution of the Finance Commission that recommends the devolution of financial resources or distribution of tax proceeds between centre and states. This provision keeps BTR avoids purse-strings tied to Dispur that hitherto BTC faced that wrath. Another aspect is the power to legislate the Bills on given subjects having desired social, political, cultural, educational and economic impact. However, mere passing of the Bills does not ensure true autonomy of the council. It is the ability to turn them into the Acts by obtaining assent of the Governor. BTC absolutely failed in this matter as Dispur used political veto on almost every Bill that council passed during past three consecutive terms of BPF. However, BTR avoids political-strings tied to Dispur as MoS ensures the tripartite mechanism involving BTR, Dispur and Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India for periodic review of the status of legislation. This will ensure certainty of the Bills for the assent of the Governor. There may be several fault lines in functioning of a council. Whoever occupies power in BTR, the party shall locate the hidden fault lines. BPF might possess some idea in that matter, if it remembers correctly what it failed in last three terms. Would-be party in power shall engage in political negotiations with state and centre in matters that are tied to Dispur and New Delhi. BTR is not a mere entity but an entity being entrusted with true autonomy. Political analysts believe it a state within a state.

With fast increasing literacy rate in Assam, people understand what lip service is and what works the party in power has done. Therefore, the time is not showcasing oneself being foolish. Instead of illogical blaming each other, engage in visionary debates how BTR can be transformed for better. Many good minds have joined both in BPF and UPPL. We expect them to take the responsibility of disciplining their parties.

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