Where Are the Women in Bodoland’s Peace Process?

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Where Are the Women in Bodoland’s Peace Process?

As is too often the case, women in Bodoland, Assam, have been relegated to the periphery of formal peacebuilding.

Where Are the Women in Bodoland’s Peace Process?

Cadres of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) shout slogan during event to celebrate signing of a peace accord in Kokrajhar, located in the Bodoland Territorial Region of Assam, India, Feb. 7, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

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. 

One such incident was the infamous Bhumka gang rape case. In 1988, personnel of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, barged into the homes of villagers in Bhumka, Kokrajhar, and raped 11 women. Most were young girls; one victim was in her 50s. 

With the assistance of ABSU workers, I was able to connect with some of the survivors, receiving their consent to speak with them. I visited the homes of four of the victims, where I witnessed their appalling living conditions. A woman in the village acted as a translator as I spoke to the women. I learned that the women received a few thousand rupees in installments and a certificate honoring them at a public ceremony held by the former BTC government in 2020. The current BTC government has promised to provide their family members with jobs and housing. Despite these promises, the apathy of the state and BTC government toward these women is evident in their present condition. 

Despite being held on a pedestal as heroes of the Bodoland movement, the survivors have faced stigmatization and silence from the villagers. As has been the case in other conflicts where sexual violence is weaponized, Bhumka “remembers and negotiates its history of rape during the war through the discourse of scorn” toward the surviving women. 

Unfortunately, neither the state government nor the central government provided any counseling to the survivors. The only consolation that they received was in the temporary suspension of the perpetrators. 

However, the Bodo community was dissatisfied with the punishment meted out to the perpetrators. The perpetrators enjoyed the protection of the state whereas the survivors were vulnerable tribal women at the mercy of the state. While decades have passed since the incident, the wounds are still fresh in the minds of the survivors.

The members of the ABWWF were in the forefront for demanding justice for these women. 

The ABWWF is not a registered organization. The members are women with humble backgrounds. Most of them are schoolteachers by profession and have been associated with the ABWWF as volunteers. During the Bodoland movement, many Bodo women in the villages volunteered for the organization. 

However, the zeal with which the organization worked during the Bodoland movement has diminished, some of the older members said. It’s “as if the Bodoland movement has culminated with the signing of an accord,” elderly women members lamented. “Can a movement ever die?” 

As women living in a conflict-torn society, the women of the BTR witnessed the deaths of hundreds of young men, saw villages burn, experienced the hardships of relief camps, and reeled under poverty. Throughout, they exercised their agency in peacebuilding and social reconstruction despite being marginalized by patriarchal forces

For these underprivileged women, peace mean more than the absence of violence; it means mobilizing women and men in the villages to act against perpetrators; helping village women create means of economic livelihood through weaving, dairy farming, or selling vegetables; raising awareness about social evils; emphasizing the need to educate girls and women; and urging different communities in Bodoland to live in harmony. 

Over the past decades, the Bodo society has witnessed periods of intermittent “negative peace,” in Johan Galtung’s terms – that is, the absence of (personal) violence,. However, “positive peace,” that is, the absence of structural violence especially for women, is still a distant reality.

International peace resolutions such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 emphasize women’s roles in preventing, managing, and resolving conflicts. Its sister resolutions such as UNSCR 1820, 1888, and 2467 recognize sexual violence as a weapon of war and highlight the national responsibility of addressing the root causes of sexual violence. In 2005, the Security Council urged all U.N. member states to implement UNSCR 1325 through national action plans (NAPs). 

However, scholars have raised concerns about the implementation of UNSCR 1325. Many nations, including India, after more than two decades, are yet to develop an NAP because India fears the interference of the international community in its matters of sovereignty.

The local, state, and national governments must understand that women at the grassroots level have been building peace for decades. There is a plethora of knowledge that women from Northeast India can bring to the table. The only need is to recognize their contributions, tap into their knowledge, and provide them the space for decision-making. Peace accords solve issues at the “elite” and diplomatic level; for peace within and between communities in villages and towns, women’s roles are and will always be the most significant.