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Bodo women in India writing to rouse consciousness

Sep 16, 2009

Bodo women in Assam, a state in northeast India, have been asserting their ethnic and nationalistic pride by participating in the struggle for political self-determination. They are now penning the grim realities of repression and mindless violence that their community is facing, writes Uddipana Goswami.

Kokrajhar: Incidents of rape by security personnel are not unheard of in Assam, where insurgent violence and ethnic conflicts have been raging for decades. And with the much-hated Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in force in the state, the perpetrators have almost always got away scot-free.

Last year in October, two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were accused of raping a couple of women in Udalguri district, which falls under the Bodoland Autonomous Territorial Districts (BTAD), but they are yet to be brought to book despite being identified by the victims.

This led to various protests and demonstrations, with hundreds of women of the Bodo Women’s Justice Forum, led by its president, Anjali Daimary, initiating a bold political demonstration with ‘Rape Us’ inscribed on their chests and backs.

Indeed, Bodo women have participated in large numbers in the struggle that the community has been engaged in to gain political self-determination and to assert its ethnic and nationalistic pride and identity.

The Bodos, despite being the largest indigenous community in Assam, have long been dominated by the Asamiya-speaking Hindu community at the helm of all cultural, political and socio-economic powers in the state.

Though the resentment against such domination had often found expression through political protests and submissions of memoranda, it was in 1987 that a full-scale mass movement was launched for the attainment of a separate state of Bodoland, with the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) taking the lead.

It started as a peaceful non-violent struggle but soon turned violent in pockets, while the ABSU floated a military wing – the ABSU Volunteer Force.

Women also participated in some measure – though never as direct combatants – in the violent activities that gradually grew in intensity under the subsequent armed militant formations like the Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT).

Only in 2003 was the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) accord signed and the area under the BTC jurisdiction, called the BTAD and which includes four districts – Kokrajhar, Baska, Udalguri and Chirang – was formulated.

But even the BTC control has not been able to put an end to the cycle of violence in the region. In fact, there has been an increase in fratricidal killings, with a handful of the ethnic elite gaining immense power, while the majority lower down in the social and economic chain still lives in deplorable conditions.

Choosing to write

The years of clashes and even the grim problems of today have found a reflection in the writings of some Bodo women, who have chosen to use their pen to describe the realities that their community is facing.

But there aren’t too many of them who have found much recognition. Thus, Renu Bodo, the first Bodo woman postgraduate in Assam, has been endeavouring to create a forum for all Bodo women writers in order to bring them together on a common platform and make their dispersed voices get heard in unison.

Renu has been writing extensively on social and cultural issues and she says that although her literary works are not exclusively on subjects relating to the Bodo community, they do aim at rousing social consciousness and cultural pride among her people. At the same time, Renu hopes that her writings would "inspire us to look within and identify our shortcomings, instead of blaming those around."

Pramila Narzary is another Bodo woman writer who has in her occasional fiction writing criticised the evils under the new dispensation. Pramila was the first writer/ translator to win one of the highest State-sponsored literary awards – the Sahitya Akademi – for translations in the Bodo language in 2005 after the language was granted recognition under the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 2003.

Her short story, NREGA Jagra Hagra, for instance, talks about how political and community leaders have deprived the common people of their dues under state sponsored schemes for rural development, like NREGA, the 100-days job programme, introduced by the Centre. Her story also carries a message of hope when in the end the people rise up against rampant corruption and it also upholds the importance of political protest. But Pramila maintains that subjects like conflict are incidental to her writing.

Women like Pramila and Renu are few. Though the Bodos have been engaged in a nearly two-decade-long (1987-2003) conflict with the State, not many have directly addressed the issues of insurgent violence and the politics of identity, separatism and sovereignty in their works.

“At the request of our leaders, we would write one-act plays or poetry with political messages during the years that the Bodo movement was going on so that they could be performed in rallies and political meetings. They might have been printed in souvenirs or journals, thereafter, but we have not compiled them,” informs Renu.

And this is the sad story of political literature in Assam – it is occasional and undervalued. That is, of course, where it exists at all.

Indeed, consciously political writers - women or men - are a rarity not just among the Bodo, but also in Assam, in general. Very few writers have dealt with contemporary political realities, and even fewer have used poetry – or literature – for protest. In the highly politically charged atmosphere, it is quite surprising that so few writers have used a potent tool like literature to get their political messages across.

Political activist Anjali Daimary, for instance, has led hundreds of women in public protests, but as a translator, who has also won the Sahitya Akademi award for translation in 2007, her literary pursuits are not overtly political.

There are, however, a few writers who have proved to be exceptions. Anju Daimary, a writer who lives in Kokrajhar – the headquarters of the BTAD – claims, “I am not a consciously political writer. My writing is based on my impulses.”

However, she does recall writing a satire in verse on the ‘corpse of democracy’ after witnessing the many irregularities in the first democratic elections to the BTC.

These elections were held in 2006, three years after the signing of the BTC accord and they were characterised by a mad scramble for power, which led to immediate factionalism among the signatories to the accord as well as the creation of various disempowered sections within the community - including women who were not given any representation in the council.

Anju is also one of the very few Bodo writers who have focussed on the human angle of the protracted armed conflict that has perhaps dehumanised many, including members of her community.

One of her short stories, The Test, deals indirectly with insurgent violence. Its protagonist, a trainee militant, debates on questions of mindless killings. Ordered to assassinate an innocent old man, the trainee feels “...sweat on my forehead. When I set my target on birds, cats or dogs, I didn't have to battle with my feelings. Now I felt my hands heavy, as if all the weight of my whole body had gathered in my right arm”. In the end the task is done.

“Dumbly now, I followed the lieutenant across the river. I couldn’t turn my head back. The bright moon was shining as a witness over my head.” Her words create a powerful image of the human response to the conflict and struggle the region has witnessed for decades.

For readers, writers like Anju and Pramila certainly hold forth the hope that there will be others like them who will – whether consciously or inadvertently – speak out against the protracted conflicts plaguing their community.

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