Bodos, in Assam, have had their way. Well, some part of their way.
They had a movement - an armed uprising, guerrilla cadre, guns, the works... Now, they have their own autonomous district, south of the Brahmaputra, to be governed by the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC).
Forgive me, if I don't see much to crow about.
While in Assam, I asked the same question in village after village - what is the biggest problem here? And in village after village, the response was the same - unemployment.... the swelling ranks of the educated unemployed. Most local estimates peg unemployment figures at 50 percent.
That's half your jantaa.
Half of the able-bodied, educated, young men of the populace don't have a livelihood. A large majority sit at home, depending on their parents for survival.
The Bodos (and the Assamese in general) have a strong history of education, I hear. The state has a better literacy average than the rest of India and the Bodos have 90 percent literacy.
They have always sent their kids to school; many of the village schools date back to the pre-independence era, having been set up by the village committee, managed perhaps by the elders of the tribe.
What compounds the problem is the annual floods, and extensive soil erosion. The size of land holdings has been getting smaller and smaller. There is too little to support everyone, in current generations.
Another problem is that the Bodos do not have, what locals call, 'the Haaziri culture'.
Haaziri refers to day-labour jobs. The Bodos have never been inclined to work as labourers, for a daily wage. They do not take to it easily and prefer to sit at home, waiting for a decent opportunity that does not involve a lot of hard manual labour.
It is rather antithetical that they shouldn't mind working on their own land, with their own hands. The women do make handicrafts in bamboo and weave cloth. But the Bodos seem to think it is undignified to work as a labourer on another man's land, or to pick leaves on a tea estate, or to lift bricks on a construction site.
So, some get government jobs.
Others prefer to teach free at a local school (as a volunteer), in the hope that they will eventually be confirmed as government employees. Some set up schools (called venture schools), in the hope that the government will recognize it, take over and begin funding the venture. Some become bus conductors or auto-rickshaw drivers, or cabbies, or join NGOs.
A few turn into loan sharks.
The rest twiddle their thumbs, and, when it gets too much for them, take up arms.
Having spoken to a few surrendered militants of the BLT, and to other activists, it seems clear that unemployment was the primary cause of unrest. There were thousands of young men, sitting at home, frustrated with being jobless, dependent on their ageing parents.
Offered a cause and a gun, they reached for a revolutionary hope.
They're waiting, right now.
All the young, unemployed people are waiting for jobs; waiting for change.
Those who surrendered (2,641 men) benefitted to the extent that they receive an allowance from the government. But what about the others? The thousands and tens of thousands who are growing up, studing in schools, clearing exams, and looking forward to a job that passes for white-collar.
ABSU (The All Bodo Students' Union) who should be bringing about change - they being the political face of the underground movement, and also the most vocal and most powerful lobby at the village levels - is totally clueless.
Gopinath Brahmo, the secretary of ABSU's Rowmari unit, isn't even aware that a mid-day meal scheme has been announced by the government and that it is compulsory to serve it. He shurgs it off saying, "We are not handling mid-day meals... we only deal with teachers, if the parents complain. We do not directly interfere with schools. If the rice doesn't reach the schools, we discuss it with intellectuals."
Discuss it with intellectuals? What about liasing with the government?
He says, "We don't interfere directly. We try to help the poor and deserving - we try to connect them to government officials. We have no objection to others setting up industries on a big/small scale. But being a student body, what can we do? What is our role?"
This, coming from the ABSU, which was at the forefront of an armed movement!
The union that led agitations and stood for Bodo identitiy, is now busy helping organise cartoon contests.
Others in the union claim that their role is limited to ferreting out corruption. Of course, it is also a well-known fact that in this region, almost everyone pays a 'cut' or 'commission' to the ABSU, whenever any public works project is undertaken.
Brahmo adds, "Nobody knew of Bodos ten years ago. Our culture, our language.... ABSU is politically active. We speak for agriculture, for literature. We have a multi-role."
Pradip Brahmo, the education secretary of ABSU, has learnt to use big words. "ABSU has to deal with making the education system congenial."
I see. And how does one make the system 'congenial'?
Pradip Brahmo settles comfortably into his chair. "That's a long-term thing... how long? Well, ma'am, it's really long-term. It will take a long time."
So, as of now, ABSU is not working on a new model of education.
It is not setting up vocational institutes.
It is not generating jobs, or encouraging small entrepreneurs.
It is not even brainstorming about the problem, or giving any thought to the fact that the educated youth of their region are likely to lapse back into despair, and ultimately, armed revolt.
The union, you see, is thinking long-term.
(C) Annie Zaidi, Feb 2005