Ranjan Daimary has spent at least two decades fighting for his dream of independent Bodoland, but now as a ‘guest’ of the government he is talking about statehood and administration.
BY UDIT KULSHRESTHA
It was in 2012, during the ethnic riots between Bodo tribals and Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam that I first visited Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) to understand and unravel the Bodoland conflict.
At this time I established contact with an outsider-yet-an-insider in the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). We kept in touch. After three years, I met my source on my visit during the 2014-15 violence against adivasis, attributed to the Songbijit faction of the NDFB. I requested him to arrange an interview with Ranjan Daimary, founder-president of the NDFB, to get some perspective on the armed struggle.
On January 12, 2015, my source confirmed the interview. I was to pick him and his associates up from Guwahati. They were taking gifts for Ranjan Daimary, and would bring back fresh paddy from the recent harvest.
Anxious and excited, on January 14, 2015, I told my frequent collaborator and journalist friend about the impending rendezvous. I also gave him my parents’ numbers, and asked him to call them if I did not check in with him during the course of the day.
From Udalgadi, where pro-NDFB slogans had been scrawled on water tanks along the state highway, we drove four hours through narrow roads, passing foothills and farms, until we reached the designated camp where Daimary was under house arrest. He had been extradited from Bangladesh, arrested and let out on bail to be confined within this camp.
The picturesque view—the hills that cross over into Bhutan were just a few kilometres away—was punctuated by security checkpoints, sandbag barriers and barricades. NDFB cadres equipped with automatic weapons and dressed in army fatigues lined a two-kilometre stretch. Some of them appeared to be exercising—marching, stretching, perhaps firing practice rounds, from the gunshots we could hear at infrequent intervals from the ranges.
The camp had once housed Daimary’s ancestral home. The villagers funded its renovation, and it could now house over 40 cadres. There was a general meeting room with around 100 chairs, barracks and a canteen.
This was where I met Ranjan Daimary. After formal introductions, we were ushered into the canteen for a quick lunch of rice, chicken and fish served in traditional Bodo style. Dressed in a blue formal suit, he devoured the fish and picked at the rest, while I struggled with the chicken, trying to make small talk about Bodo food. We washed our hands and were taken to a meeting room.
“Simple, huh?” he said.
“Very simple,” I replied, as I set up my camera and voice recorder before settling into the couch next to the man who had spent more than 27 years underground.
You have been associated with the Bodoland movement for a very long time.
How did you first get involved in the movement?
I was born in a Khasi village, a very small and sleepy village, brought up as a Bodo in a traditional way and, of course, I must say, also a Christian way of life because my father was a reverend and both of my parents were dedicated Christians. Until I completed matriculation and went for higher studies in Shillong I was not involved in any politics. I had no affiliations with any student organisations, even.
Then in 1978, my brother took me to Shillong and admitted me into St. Antony’s College. There I learnt English and my education helped me to understand the socio-economic and political… situation of Bodo people. In those days, of course, I had many Naga friends, mutual friends and friends from Arunachal, Khasi-Garo friends, who were proud of their own identity, their district, their traditions and they had their own state, their own government, which backed them, whereas for a Bodo boy it was difficult to study. In those days there was the campaign by the All Assam Students Union (started in 1979) against foreigners.
Curfews and bandhs were all too common, so much so that returning from Shillong was difficult. After the holidays it was difficult to go back to Shillong to study but the Nagas, Mizos and others had their state government bring their own people to drop them at college.
All this made me realise that we don’t have our own state. How long can a community live in oblivion and danger of extinction? Over time my idea of nation matured into something radical.
Why radical? What triggered it?
In those days the People’s Liberation Army was very active in Manipur under Bisheshwar Singh. Almost every day the newspapers published reports of their activities and their struggle. Then the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was very strong in those days.
All this ferment influenced our ideas. In 1983 we formed the Young Bodo Nationalist Association to reform Bodo society. When I was in Shillong, I was also an active member of the Bodo student union. I lived in Shillong from 1978 to 1983.
Did your radicalisation happen in Shillong?
Yeah. In those days Sunday magazine published by the Ananda Bazaar group in Calcutta was an important resource. It helped us understand politics in the days of the Cold War and influenced us.
Do you think Maoism also influenced you?
Marxism, yes, very much. We read books printed in Russia, supplied everywhere, these were very cheap. We could purchase very easily, with little sum.
So from founding the Young Bodo Nationalist Association in 1983…
Yeah in 1983, then, after founding the association, during the holidays, especially winter, two months, we would cycle from village to village to mobilise people. We told them that fighting, protesting, demonstrating had brought nothing. Without an armed struggle we couldn’t achieve anything for the Bodos.
When I was in university, the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), I started to canvass my Naga friends to give us help and give us a chance to meet their leaders. In 1984, we wrote a letter to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) chairman, S. S. Khaplang, in Myanmar, informing him that we wanted to start an armed struggle for the Bodo people. In 1986 they invited us to their headquarters for a discussion. So two years after we wrote they invited us to their headquarters for a discussion. We had already made one desperate attempt in 1985, but failed to cross the border.
In 1985 I left Shillong after finishing my studies. I tried to go to Myanmar and meet NSCN leaders in 1986 but we had to come back from the border. Again, in 1987, we tried and this time successfully crossed the border. We reached the NSCN HQ after a long, tedious journey through the hills, a very difficult terrain.
This was in 1987?
Yes, 1987, July. We had several rounds of discussion with NSCN leaders, especially their chairman, and Khaplang, of course.
In those days United Liberation Front of Assam cadres were also there; we talked to them too. After staying for about 45 days we came back with a promise from the NSCN leaders to help us in whatever way they could.
How did you mobilise funds to procure arms and all of that?
After coming back to India, we were expecting a lot of help, mainly military training. We had young recruits but no trainers, so we were expecting training from them. But they had their own problems, this internal split between Khaplang and (late) Isak Chishi Swu and Muivah, so it took time. In 1989 they sent three instructors and trained our boys, 33 of them, in October-November 1989.
Then we started snatching sten guns and revolvers from police and the personal security officers of the VIPs. We didn’t have money; we didn’t have a single penny, single bullet or weapons. So after the training, our Bodoland army started to arm itself by snatching weapons. That way we got some 44 self-loading rifles, three light machine guns and some mortars.
This training was given in Myanmar or here?
Here, in Rangapara, in Sonitpur district near Arunachal-Assam border region.
Was NSCN keen to help you become what you became at that point of time, as an organisation as NDFB/Bodo Security Force (BdSF)?
Of course. We could feel their honesty and sincerity. In 1989 their leaders were meeting in our camp inside Bhutan. Their chairman, their foreign secretary came to stay with us [gunshot]. Some stayed for three months, some for six and some for over a year.
And during that time what were your initial thoughts about Bodoland?
Our ideology was to create a homeland…
At that time you looked at a sovereign land?
Yes. When our democratic movement failed and the government of India didn’t even consider us for a union territory or statehood, we thought it would be better to demand a sovereign state and fight for it.
So first you asked for statehood and UT and when not given you asked for sovereignty.
Actually the Bodo, specially the tribal people in the northern belt above Brahmaputra along the Bhutan border, when the first wave of creation or reorganisation of the northeast was on, formed the Plains Tribal Council of Assam in 1967, knowing Indira Gandhi would reorganise the whole region. They wanted statehood or UT status as Udyanchal. The reorganisation resulted in Mizoram as UT, later as a state, Meghalaya as a state, Nagaland, in 1963 I think, and Arunachal became a UT but the Bodo got nothing. Our voices were not heard by the government of India.
Is that why you thought of armed struggle, to push the government to consider your demands?
Yes… to make our voices loud. If statehood had been declared in 1967 [gunshot], there would have been no BdSF or NDFB, no armed struggle would have ever happened.
How did the National Democratic Front of Bodoland come into being?
On October 3, 1986, around 77 young men and women [gunshot] joined here in a village school. The whole night we discussed, then ultimately resolved to form the Bodo Security Force.
And the objective was…
It was to liberate Bodoland and create a socialist society to promote liberty, equality and fraternity. We struggled on as Bodo Security Force till late 1994. I think on November 24, 1994, we changed it to NDFB.
Why did you change the name?
We wanted our struggle to be more inclusive. BdSF was more exclusive, the name itself. We wanted our struggle to be inclusive.
As NDFB your objectives were?
Same objectives. To continue our struggle.
You were accused of being part of certain acts of terror by the government of India and that’s when this split happened between the original NDFB and others. How did the split happen?
In 2004 we declared a ceasefire to talk, to find ways to resolve the political issues. Our party entered into discussions in 2005 with the government. We submitted our proposal in 2008 to start negotiations. After a short meeting, I think after one week, there was a meeting of the joint military council in Manipur. The secretary in the ministry of development of north east region, Naveen Verma, told our general secretary that we must amend our proposition.
What were you proposing?
We were proposing setting up the state we had been fighting for and independence and freedom. This was so that the government would recognise the natural rights of the Bodo. We didn’t, of course, mention liberation, didn’t mention freedom or sovereignty. Still, I think it was not acceptable to them. So instead of telling us at the table that we can’t talk on this or that, they forced us to revise it, amend it, write a new memorandum.
And did they come back to you with new terms?
During that time I was in Bangladesh. I thought they wouldn’t come, there was some intimidation—unless you revise and amend there will be no talks, there will be no extension of ceasefire. Our negotiators thought, where will we go, we can’t break the ceasefire. So immediately they revised and amended the proposal and submitted it again.
Were all the parties and armed groups and unarmed group involved in these negotiations, or just NDFB?
NDFB alone was there, we were initiating the process.
Wasn’t the Bodo Liberation Tigers Force part of it?
BLTF had surrendered in 2003 and formed the Bodoland Tribal Council.
Tell us about Operation All Clear.
It was in 2003.
Is that when NDFB decided to go for a ceasefire?
It was in 2003 and we declared the ceasefire in 2004, yeah, you can say it.
How did your arrest happen? Why did you go to Bangladesh?
It was in 1993 that I first went to the country. In 1989-93 I was in Bhutan, in jungles, in the camps. And in 1993 I reached Bangladesh sometime in June. After that I divided my time between Bangladesh and Bhutan.
You would trek all these geographies for days together?
How much time did it take?
It took us a lot of time but we had friends…
How old were you then?
I was around 33.
And you were arrested in Bangladesh?
Yeah, in 2010, April 30.
How did you get arrested?
I was travelling in a rickshaw, they blocked my rickshaw.
They must have had intelligence or did somebody betray you?
Could be both. In Bangladesh, in Dhaka we are quite distinct. Anyone can recognise us. Others [the Muslims] are backward and we are completely different. So I think that made it easier for them to arrest us.
And you were held two years in a Bangladesh jail, 2012 is when you were extradited to India?
No, same night I was extradited to India. Only few hours they kept me there.
Where were you taken?
I was taken through the Dawki border. The first time I crossed through Dawki border was the other way, in 1993, to Bangladesh. They took me to the BSF post; early in the morning we reached it. There Indian security forces received us.
Since then you have been in and out…
Yeah, I was interrogated and then produced in court and then again interrogated for more than two months.
Over time NDFB has split many ways; you are a co-founder, you had a vision, ideology, but somewhere that changed. With the differences, the splits happened, why?
The revised and amended memorandum…
Which you didn’t accept?
I didn’t accept, I didn’t sign it and they submitted it. This started the differences.
Some of your team didn’t identify with you as leader, so there was a division of cadres with each faction?
In 2007 we had a meeting, a national council meeting in Bangladesh. All Bodo leaders went to it; ultimately we decided that we were never given the opportunity to draft the revised proposal. It was I who drafted it, sent it to them, the Council accepted it and submitted it. Later on, without my consent, without my signature they submitted it to the government of India.
We have our own constitution, our own manifesto and many have died, sacrificed for the ideology.
How many men have you lost till now?
More than 2,500 men. We have lost…the best, we have to count them also, their sacrifices. In 2004 we decided to declare a ceasefire. The government named P. C. Haldar as interlocutor. So he would come to the jail and talk to us. For almost a year he came, visited us, talked to us. More than 11 times we talked in jail. Ultimately they released me on bail to come out so that I could carry on the process. In the meantime, there were other factions, so how and why it went… of course we can hypothetically analyse it but it may not be correct…
This Songbijit, he was our army chief in 2009, he was there. Incidentally, he was also in the Khaplang camp.
What do you think of Songbijit? What’s his ideology? You would have interacted with him.
Only once I met him in Bangladesh when he came to visit. He is fighting as an Indian (chess) piece.
But wasn’t it your ideology at one point of time, isn’t he fighting for your ideology?
It’s quite different now. I talked to him when he withdrew the ceasefire in August 2012, I said, “Why are you withdrawing the cease-fire, have patience, I’m with you and you must be with me” but he interpreted my words in a different way.
Whenever I argued, he interpreted it in a different way to the cadres and leaders in Myanmar. But no one was enthusiastic so the ceasefire stayed. Then, I think on November 20, 2012, he formed an interim national council for one year, saying once the chairman (Daimary himself) comes out of jail we can have discussion.
What is the solution here?
All we want is to live with dignity and honour, with our own traditions. Once the government [gunshot] creates a homeland, I think the Bodoland issue, the entire issue of the Bodos, would be resolved once and for all.
When you say homeland, you have already given up the idea of sovereignty and you’re talking about statehood. You already have the Bodo Territorial Area District with you, except probably home and finance, you have 15-16 ministries with you, how is statehood a solution? Do you think statehood will resolve the issues Bodo people are fighting for?
BTAD without home and finance is like a man without life. It can never meet our hopes and aspirations. That’s why this Bodoland People’s Front, they are now retreating to statehood. Even the All Bodo Students Union, which was part of the agreement, is calling for Bodoland.
As far as this Bangladesh issue is concerned, everybody talks about this fencing to protect Assam. Nobody is talking about a strong task force. As far as I’m concerned it can never stop illegal migration. Take my case, for 17 years I’ve been crossing the border as I wish. But a strong task force could stop it.
So it’s a porous border?
Yeah… and it’s hilly, on the northeast side. So it can never stop. From the Silchar side, many Bangladeshis cross over in the day to pull rickshaws. In the evening they leave the rickshaw on Indian soil and return. So they can come to India anytime and except in Garo, Meghalaya and Mizoram they have their own people, in Dhubri, in Silchar, and so on. Anytime they feel like it they can visit their own relatives, come and go.
Let’s say you bring in a law which says that Bangladeshis can’t buy land, or Muslims can’t buy land, however you want to put it, or people coming after 1971 can’t buy land but then they get documents proving that they are Indian citizens and can buy land?
At least… besides tough laws, they must have an ID card…
Anybody can get an ID card today.
If it can’t be duplicated easily, if you can’t cheat it, we can stop that. Bhutanese have their own ID card, made in Japan and can’t be easily duplicated. So if we have an ID card, a standard one, I don’t think they can duplicate it.
But now in Assam, a ration card or a birth certificate, anything from the village administration is enough to prove citizenship. If we have those criteria with the card, I think that will serve it. But, of course, we want labour, let them come in the thousands with proper documents, say, for six months, and go back. The Bangladeshi problem is not a problem for Assam or India, they are everywhere, 25 lakh in Saudi Arabia, 15 lakh in Malaysia, but all with the relevant documents.
But in these countries they have to fly to or go by boat, in India they can just walk across.
Still, I think, this international border should be free so that I can go into Bangladesh and do business. They should be able to come legally and when the permit expires they should go back. The northeast is like a caged bird, we don’t have freedom.
If we have freedom we can go to China anytime and get better facilities. Now we see people from here are beaten and murdered in Delhi but if we go to Shanghai or Beijing I don’t think they will kill us because we have some affinity with them. We will get better opportunities in China because it’s growing better than India.
We are in a cage, no freedom. We don’t have a single international airport. Naturally we will be backward and when we are backward we will feel alienated, we will be angry, anger means resolution to fight, so violence is always a likelihood. India has to see us from a different perspective.
Do you think the state government tries to understand the issues?
Certainly, there are some people now who realise it. That’s why I think (former Assam Chief Minister) Tarun Gogoi was in alliance with BPF for many years (2006-14), he didn’t want to form an alliance with AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), with [Badruddin] Ajmal [its leader]. Now they realise but I think it’s too late for them.
Do you think direct central intervention for the Bodos would be a better solution?
Do you think the state is taking your voice to the Centre?
No. I don’t think so. The Centre has to see for itself our problems and resolve.
What do you think of the current conflict between the Adivasis and NDFB (Songbijit), what do you think happened?
These Adivasis are also a problem, not only in Bodoland, also in upper Assam, Nagaland border, where they occupy land, and they are also trying to create Adivasi land and they are better organised than the militant or armed organisations. There are many known (Adivasi) organisations like ANLA, APA, COBRA, Santhal Tiger Force, and Biswakarma is there too. These are known organisations.
All these groups have guns?
Yeah… they are supposed to have, they are using.
You have some intelligence?
Yes, in 2011 they all surrendered and joined the peace process but still they are going village to village with arms. They do train themselves.
I want your opinion on the current situation (the NDFB Songbijit attack on Adivsasis in 2014), how it happened and what’s the solution?
In Kokrajhar, Ultapani (incidents of December 2014-January 2015) there was huge reserve forest occupied by the Bodo as well as Santhal or Adivasi community. It’s like a competition now between Bodos and Adivasis, who can clear the forest, destroy it and occupy it. Recently, 2- 3 boys from NDFB (Songbijit) were killed and according to them Adivasi were leading the operation. I think as revenge they started killing Adivasis.
It’s said that National Investigation Agency people were camping in Kokrajhar. They were surprised to see so many Adivasis and wondered how they were occupying the reserve forest area. I have witnessed them clearing the forest, hunting every single living being [gunshot] especially this February-March. They would gather 400-500 people and hunt [gunshot]. If they see snail, they would take, if they see snake they would take. They would take any living thing. So naturally there is what we call land dispute.
Was Songbijit group right in doing what they did?
No, no… Killing can’t be accepted, whatever the reason. In Sonitpur district, our people told the Adivasis not to cross the Namara river and enter the forest. But they crossed and started settling two villages where this incident took place.
With Adivasis taking up land near the foothills, whether Biswanath Chairali or Lungsung forest, Saralpara area, do you think it will lead to roads and other infrastructure, which will make it difficult for the Songbijit group to remain hidden?
I don’t think so. It may take another 15 years to get roads in that region unless it’s a revenue village. But Bodos and Adivasis are living together everywhere, even in my village, for many, many years. From childhood we have been living together. There was no killing then, no killing now. I think they were taken forcibly by the army and people saw that some Adivasis were coming.
Then there are some murmurs that the Songbijit group had started asking for more money, especially from the Nepalese and other villagers, whether it was Lungsung or Ultapani or Biswanath Chairali. I have heard that they were asked to give money every month plus an annual fee?
Of course, they have been collecting annually… from people living in the border areas. It’s not only Nepalis or Adivasis, they collected from Bodo people also.
Have they increased the amount?
I don’t know.
Do you think Bodos are moving out due to these kinds of situations?
Of course, a few young Bodos are moving out.
When you say moving out, migrating to Arunachal or Meghalaya, Manipur, that side, out of Kokrajhar and BTAD?
It’s not only because of conflict. Bodo people have long gone to Meghalaya and the coal mines. Before we started there were, I think, more than 50,000 Bodo labourers in Meghalaya. Now it is down to maybe 20-22,000. But now they are migrating to cities like Mumbai and Delhi.
Yeah and they are doing their own business, they are making their own fortunes.
Does NDFB have any political affiliation as of now?
No, of course not.
Would you support a party in the coming Bodoland Territorial Council elections?
It’s yet to be decided of course. People will come and ask us would you support or should you support. [BPF went on to win the 2015 BTC elections and allied with BJP for the state elections next year.]
Since you come from an ideology of Bodoland rights and societal welfare for Bodoland, do you think you would want to continue your struggle by joining politics?
We are yet to decide on it, our people will decide. Now my priority is to talk and resolve the political issue of the Bodo people.
After we wrapped up the interview, I was felicitated with my first orange coloured Arunai (a traditional hand woven scarf with Bodo motifs given to warriors, in Bodo culture), which I quickly took out and put around his neck. We were about to bid goodbye, when Ranjan Daimary invited me to witness what he is up to these days. He led me to his own tea garden inside the camp. “I am a farmer now. We cultivate tea here. Have you seen tea being grown in the foothills ever?” he asked in his soft low voice, and then suggested, “We will make your pictures here.”
(Udit Kulshrestha is an independent photographer who lives in Gurgaon.)
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