Is Modi's new peace pact another push for a Hindu nation?

Hundreds of Bodo Christians joined a massive rally addressed by India's PM, but skepticism remains.
Is Modi's new peace pact another push for a Hindu nation?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) waves to the public during a public rally to celebrate the tripartite Bodo Peace Accord in Kokrajhar of the northeastern state of Assam on Feb. 7. (Photo: Kulendu Kalita/AFP)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Assam state last week to celebrate his government signing a peace agreement with Bodo tribal people, who have been fighting for a separate homeland for over four decades.

A chief achievement of the new tripartite peace pact was that the powerful Christian-dominated National Democratic Front of Bodoland had come forward to sign the pact with the state and the federal government.

However, the Feb. 7 program in Kokrajhar town, the hub of Bodo tribal people, echoed Hindu vigilantism with pro-Modi sloganeering.

Christian Bodo youths were enthusiastic about the peace deal, hoping to get jobs and live in peace in the violence-hit four districts that they regard as their homeland. But skepticism remains.

Undoubtedly, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has focused on winning over new communities and expanding its geographical base. The base building, the BJP knows, cannot move ahead without co-opting tribal people in the tribal-dominated seven northeastern states.

Nevertheless, that is not what the party would say publicly. The BJP presents the new peace pact as a new "model of development" that can be replicated for peace in the region, where several tribal groups clamour for self-determination.

Hundreds of Bodo Christians joined the massive rally that Modi addressed. Some Christians billed it a thanks-giving meet. But there were some worrying factors for religious minorities, including Christians.

“We are not worried that the BJP is set to gain political legitimacy and a foothold in this region. This is expected in politics. However, the worry is how the BJP woos and attract Christians,” said a Christian leader requesting anonymity.

He said the use of the development model has become a pattern to promote soft Hindutva and to create hurdles for Christian missionaries and other religious groups like Muslims. No one can criticize the move toward development and peace.

The region has witnessed sporadic violence since Indian independence in 1947 as several ethnic groups took up arms demanding separate homelands.

More than 200 ethnic and tribal groups live in the region, which is cut off from the rest of the mainland except for the 20-kilometer-long Siliguri Corridor, also known as the Chicken's Neck. Some of these groups, such as the Naga tribe, have a considerable Christian presence. That makes some people accuse missionaries working among them of supporting the insurgency.

“Christians have been attacked in Bodo areas as well ... Call it a communal clash or Hindu sectarianism. Some of this violence is viewed as the legitimate embodiment of majoritarian rule pursued by the BJP,” said another Christian leader on condition of anonymity.

Bodo people, Assam’s most significant tribal group, number about 1.5 million. This single tribe forms an estimated 40 percent of the 3.3 million tribal people in the state. Hardly 10 percent of Bodo people are Christians, the majority of them following the Baptist faith.

Bodo people originally had their ethnic religion called Bathouism, but officially 90 percent of them are now listed as Hindus, with Hinduism claiming the tribal religion as part of folk Hinduism. That step was completed more than a decade ago, long before Modi came to power in 2014.

The religion-based split is nothing new among Bodos. Conflicts between the Christian-dominated National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Hindu-dominated Bodo Liberation Tiger Force had polarized the Bodoland movement a few years back.

The Tiger Force surrendered in 2003 after the government agreed on a Bodoland Territorial Council, which was a step up from the Bodo Autonomous Council that gave certain administrative freedom in Bodo-dominated areas.

In December 2014, Bengali-speaking Muslims were attacked by Bodo militants. The Bodo tribals, including Christians, have been fighting Bengali Muslims since the 1950s. Bodos claim the influx of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh has reduced them to a minority in their own region. The Bodo population in Assam was reduced to 4.4 percent in 2011 from 4.86 percent in 2001, they claim.

The Bodo region has witnessed immense violence in the last three decades. At least 4,000 people have lost their lives in bomb blasts and other violent incidents.

“But, now with the peace deal, the BJP will gain more legitimacy and influence. The Hindutva forces at grassroots level will get the support of the government apparatus. They will make things miserable for Christians and Muslims,” said a local trader. 

The development narrative

The new Bodo peace pact acknowledges and virtually creates a Bodo homeland but without separating it from Assam. This model may be tried among other tribal groups seeking greater autonomy in the region, with a promise for development and peace.

Modi’s use of "development" as a syntax for political advancement has become more noticeable now. It helps to accuse the grand old Congress party of inaction, keeping it away from the political mainstream. The BJP widening its reach will also help checkmate the spread of Christianity.

Unlike Western democracies, Indian politics has always been guided by the official recognition of voters’ identity based on religion, caste and even languages. Emotion is the key to Indian politics more than law or reason. Here comes the significance of the BJP pushing its pro-Hindu agenda with emotive issues. 

The party under Modi has successfully made a synthesis of emotions with economic and social issues. While retaining its hold on the hardcore Hindu support base, the party has made deeper penetration into geographical areas and also won over new communities.

In the land of Bodo people, the BJP is making inroads, enlisting even Christian with its peace-lover card. But Christian leaders and missionaries say the threat of the BJP creating hurdles for Christian faith is real. 

Several Bodo Christians, particularly Baptists, point to the "hesitation" of the federal government in granting visas to visiting Christian missionaries and issuing licenses to Christian groups for receiving foreign funding.

Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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