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The absence of women in the peace process of Bodoland – The Diplomat

In September 2023, I conducted fieldwork in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR), governed by an autonomous council constituted under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, in Assam. This was part of my current project on women and peacebuilding in Northeast India. Given the truism that women remain at the periphery of formal peace processes, I delved into women’s informal peace negotiations. I conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with members of the All Bodo Women’s Welfare Federation (ABWWF) and All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), representatives of the current Bodoland autonomous government, villagers of Bhumka village, academics, and a journalist.

After the signing of the Bodo Peace Accord 2020, Kokrajhar was declared the “city of peace.” In 2023, Kokrajhar hosted the 132nd Durand Cup, a football tournament in India, sending a message that the BTR is synonymous with peace. For an outsider (in ethnographic terms) like me, the development in the city since I last traveled there in 2017 for research work was a positive change. The mood, too, was devoid of tension. I vividly remember an incident during my last visit in 2017 when a Muslim student leader was shot dead in broad daylight, sending ripples of anxiety across the region.

Some locals told me that times and the situation have changed for the better with the signing of the 2020 BTR peace accord. Many women I spoke to, however, were skeptical of the accord. They lamented that they were neither consulted nor included in the negotiations. According to them, the formal negotiations and the accord – signed between the central government, state government, ABSU, United Bodo People’s Organization, and different factions of the armed group National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) – were a hush-hush affair.

The statements of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) officials, however, offered a different perspective, highlighting the role of civil society in the talks. According to the agreement itself: “Negotiations were held with Bodo organizations for a comprehensive and final solution to their demands while keeping intact the territorial integrity of the State of Assam.”

I learned during my field visit that a section of the Bodo people are unhappy about the new accord and fear that peace will not be a lasting affair. On the one hand, some resistance remains. For example, Gobinda Basumatary, the leader of one faction of the NDFB, which signed the agreement is an executive member of the new BTR government, while Ranjan Daimary, the leader of another faction, is serving a life sentence.

The various factions of the NDFB have surrendered and signed the peace agreement, but new groups (e.g., the Boro Liberation Army) with renewed demands of a separate state have emerged. Further, the underlying problems of the different communities in Bodoland, such as Adivasis, Muslims, and Koch-Rajbongshis, are still unresolved. Also, none of the provisions of the 2020 accord specifically address any issue related to women and gender.

According to one interview subject, “The third peace accord of 2020 was only a means for some elites to come to power. We are yet to witness the implementation.” Despite their significant contributions, the women in Bodoland have always remained at the periphery of the formal peace process. Bodo women’s contributions to the Bodo society formally began in 1986 after the formation of the All Assam Tribal Women’s Welfare Federation (AATWWF), headed by Pramila Rani Brahma. Brahma is one of the two Bodo women elected to the Assam Legislative Assembly to date, indicating the abysmally poor participation of Bodo women in politics. AATWWF encompassed all tribal women from communities including the Bodo, Koch, Rajbongshi, Tiwa, Karbi, and others, and worked for the welfare of tribal women.

However, as the Bodoland movement intensified, Bodo women’s focus on the movement alienated other tribal women. Therefore, in 1993, the AATWWF was rechristened as the ABWWF, replacing “tribal” with “Bodo.” The members of the organization worked relentlessly on social issues like alcoholism, witch hunting, and polygamy and provided unwavering support to the Bodoland movement.

When interethnic clashes between Bodos and Adivasis, and Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims, and fratricidal killings among different Bodo armed groups intensified, the members of the ABWWF intervened. They negotiated for peace between these groups, as mothers. The ABWWF members engaged in everyday negotiation by organizing rallies, protest marches, and gheraos, a type of protest that involves surrounding a building until demands are met. The ABWWF also holds public meetings, publishes magazines in Bodo language with writings on women’s and social issues in Bodoland, and intervenes between police forces and villagers.

However, like many other women’s organizations in Assam, the ABWWF remained under the directives of the ABSU and later political parties in the BTC, which limited the ABWWF’s autonomy and the political participation of the members. The violence during the Bodoland movement caused unimaginable damage to Bodo society. Women were caught between two powerful armed patriarchies – the insurgents and the state. During the movement, the state armed forces perpetrated violence on unarmed villagers. They raided villages, detained men, destroyed clothes and grains, and raped women.

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