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Hope in the time of despair in Bodoland

Posted on: August 4, 2012

The ball soars in the air and lands on Fwidan Basumatary’s chest. He then drops the ball, let it bounce and again kicks it up to his chest. Dressed in black T’shirt and matching shorts, this 16-year old Bodo boy of Titaguri in Kokrajhar plays a mean game. It keeps his mind off death and mayhem.

More than 57 people have been killed, over 3 lakh have been displaced and hundreds of villages have been burnt in the past two weeks after a riot broke out between Bodos and Muslims in the four districts of Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) –Kokrajhar, Chirang, Udalguri and Baksa. “My family members too had to shift to a relief camp. I feel helpless but football helps me maintain equilibrium,” adds Basumatary, who played Asian Football Confederation U14 Festival of Football in Iran last year as part of the Indian team.

A few meters away, another international player, 18-year old Minu Basumatary – a pugilist of Chirang’s Bandaguri is hitting the heavy bag hard. She says it gives her the strength to fight against all odds. “Boxing helps me to channelise my energy in a positive way,” says Minu, who won gold medal at the 1st AIBA Youth and Junior Women’s World Championship in Turkey last year.

At a time when villages in Bodoland are burning due to communal riots, away from home at this residential complex of Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Kokrajhar’s Kathalguri village, there is a different fire singeing in the hearts of these young players. It isn’t easy for them to rise. Yet, these young Bodo men and women have emerged from the strife.

“Local clubs spot such talents. Most of them come from poor families. The first attraction for them was free food and lodging in SAI but now, they have a zeal to create a name for themselves,” says Kokrajhar district sports association general secretary Sarada Prasad Paul. Three other promising Bodo footballers – Milan Basumatary, Situ Basumatary and Kapil Boro from Kokrajhar are presently being trained at the All India Football Federation’s regional academy for U16 team in Mumbai. They were also selected for a Pune camp by Manchester United this year.

Similarly in boxing, besides Minu, Pwilao Basumatary of Chirang won bronze in the Turkey tournament. There were five Bodo girls out of eight Indians who participated in the event. But sports is not the only arena where young Bodos are making a mark. There are stories of success from other fields too. Thirty-one year old Rupjyoti Brahma Karjee of Kokrajhar’s Dotma village is one such example. After former Indian Ambassador Upen Boro, he is the second Bodo to be selected for the Indian Foreign Services (IFS).

But raising a child in the conflict stricken area wasn’t easy, says his mother Himani Brahma Karjee. “First, he used to go to a local government school but when government education system collapsed during the Bodo movement in late 80s, we shifted him to a missionary school,” says Karjee, a clerk at public health engineering department, who had later sent her son to study in Shillong’s St Anthony’s college for graduation and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for postgraduation.

With a population of roughly 11 lakh in Bodoland, traditionally Bodos have been backward, experts say. “Bodoland is the most underdeveloped part of Assam. Only a few Bodos moved out of Bodoland and pursued higher studies but a large number remained illiterate,” says Monirul Hussain, professor, department of political science, Gauhati University. Chief election commissioner Hari Shankar Brahma and Meghalaya Governor Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary are among the few eminent Bodos to make it big.

But not many could rise from Bodoland especially in late 80s as a literary vacuum was created in the Bodo society after All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) started the Bodo movement demanding a separate statehood in 1987. “Students studying outside were called back to join the movement. Violence and disruption jeopardised the future of many,” says Shekhar Brahma, registrar of Bodoland University.

Things continued to remain uncertain in Bodoland for nearly two decades. Though a first tripartite agreement was signed among the ABSU, centre and the Assam government in 1993, paving the way for the creation of the erstwhile Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) and the suspension of the statehood movement, ABSU revived the movement again in 1996. Meanwhile, the erstwhile militant outfit Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) launched an armed struggle for statehood. Then in 2003, Bodo Accord was signed by the BLT with the centre and the Assam government. A Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was created for the administration of BTAD. Things started moving slowly then, says BTC’s deputy chief Khampa Borgoyari. “We have been able to achieve political stability. Education has become a priority slowly,” says Borgoyari.

But many complain BTC hasn’t done much to promote education. There are only nine government run colleges and 213 higher secondary schools in BTAD after BTC was formed. “BTC doesn’t have autonomy to set up schools but it has failed to push the Assam government to open new educational institutions,” a senior BTC official says. In the past nine years since BTC came into existence, only three major institutions have come up in BTAD -Central Institute of Technology in 2006, Bodoland University in 2010 and Bineswar Brahma Engineering college in 2011.

But there are Bodos who have taken it upon themselves to make education a priority in Bodoland. For example, 45-year old Dominic Basumatary of Chirang’s Bengtol village, a first generation literate in his family, started a school called Centre for New Learning for 515 children in 2006. “It is learning through activities such as gardening, paddy cultivation, theatre and dance,” says Dominic, a master of social work from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

ABSU president Pramod Boro however says that the Bodo society has no contribution to these achievements. “Our youth has lot of potential but the Bodo society or the administration has never facilitated them in any way to excel,” feels Boro. On top of it, communal violence like the recent one often discourages people from doing anything progressive.

Forty-three year old tea planter Bijit Basumatary from Nayekgaon in Kokrajhar, who provides employment to 100 workers from all communities of nearby villages, laments that he has incurred a loss of Rs 30,000 each day as his workers didn’t turn up for two weeks during the recent ethnic clashes. “Also, convincing the Bodo and Muslim workers to work together again is the biggest challenge now,” feels Bijit, the sole organic tea exporter in Bodoland.

Instead of making the environment conducive for its people, government often dampens the spirit, complain some. For example, the football pitch of SAI was destroyed and the goal post was uprooted for constructing a helipad for choppers that carried Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former home minister P Chidambaram during their recent visits to the riot affected areas. “Our boys have no place to practice for the inter district tournament this month,” football coach Pranab Basumatary complains. Also, many schools in BTAD are now turned into relief camps after the recent riots thus leaving the fate of students uncertain. “We have no clue when people would start moving back to their villages. Till then, classes will have to remain suspended,” says BTC education director RS Borgayary.

The recent riots are not an one off instance. Earlier, riots have broken out between the Bodos and Muslims in 1994 and 2008 and Bodos and Santhals in 1996 and 1998 over issues of land rights. This has badly affected the image of Bodos. A senior Bodoland university official says, “People think Bodoland is all about bloodbath and violence and Bodos are the biggest troublemakers.” “Hence, it is important for the young generation Bodos to dispel this belief,” feels former Bodo Sahitya Sabha president Brojendra Kumar Brahma.

Experts believe that Bodos have to show to the rest of the world that they are peace loving. “For that, the former BLT militants who have formed the BTC need to give up arms first,” suggests Gauhati-based social critic Udayon Misra. A former BLT militant Bijoy choudhury who have started an NGO called Manas Sousi Khongkor Eco tourism society in Baksa district, could show the way. “Guns have failed to bring any change, we have to look for positive ways of progress and development,” says Choudhury.

Hope floats in this land of conflict as there are young English speaking Bodos like Bhuma Rani Borgayary who thinks Bodoland needs an immediate image makeover. Borgayary, who came back to Kokrajhar to work as an assistant information officer in BTC’s tourism department after working in travel agencies in Mumbai for five years, says, “The onus is on us to promote it in all possible ways, tourism could be one.”

There is a strong sentiment of Bodoland identity that runs in the minds of many young Bodos as archer Mainao Narzary puts it. “One day, we want to represent Bodoland as separate state at the national level,” says Narzary, who won gold in Asian Grand Prix in Dhaka last year. In fact, the BTC is trying to get a no objection certificate from the Assam government to ensure that the Bodo players represent a separate team at national level. “At least 60 per cent players in all sports teams of Assam are Bodos. A separate Bodoland team will boost up the confidence of the players to bring more trophies.” says Mano Kumar Brahma, sports and youth welfare executive member of BTC.

But the bigger question remains if trophies alone can bring peace in Bodoland. “These success stories can’t take away the real problem of land rights of Bodoland which should have a long term solution,” feels a skeptical Misra.

ends

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