‘Himanta Out, Hagrama In’: Bodoland’s ‘Chief’ Has a Single Mission

The seats in Bodoland have become a clash of two towering personalities - Hagrama Mohilary and Himanta Biswa Sarma. 

Updated
Assam
7 min read
In the Assam elections, the Bodoland region seats have become a prestige battle between Hagrama Mohilary and Himanta Biswa Sarma. 
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"Wait and see, this election will bring down Himanta Biswa Sarma's arrogance and the man who will do it is Hagrama Mohilary," says Gopal Dey, a resident of Kokrajhar town in Assam's Bodoland Territorial Region.

Dey knows Mohilary since the latter was a child, four years junior to him in school. He is rooting for Mohilary to win a sizable number of seats in the Assembly elections and later take back control of the Bodoland Territorial Council from the UPPL-BJP alliance.

"This is a direct fight between Himanta and Hagrama," Dey says.

Dey is right. The battle for the Bodoland region, bulk of which will vote in the final phase of polling on 6 April, is becoming a clash between these two towering personalities – Bodoland People's Front chairman Hagrama Mohilary and incumbent finance minister and BJP's 'chanakya' in Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma.

This battle has become particularly intense in the last few days. Even on the night of 4 April, the police is said to have raised the house of senior BPF leader and Kokrajhar East candidate Pramila Rani Brahma. Hagrama called it the handiwork of a “frustrated BJP”

Himanta vs Hagrama: The Latest Round

Sarma drew first blood by winning over the BPF candidate from Tamulpur in Baksa district Ramdas Basumatary to the BJP even after the last date for withdrawal of nominations was over.

The second round went to Mohilary after the Election Commission gave Sarma a 48 hour ban from campaigning in connection with his remark threatening to send NIA after Mohilary.

The EC reduced the ban to 24 hours after Sarma offered an “unconditional apology” and said that he wasn’t referring to Mohilary.

Thought the reduced ban came as a disappointment, many BPF supporters see Sarma's apology and backtracking as a victory.

"He was threatening to send NIA after Hagrama Mohilary and now he's saying sorry and that it wasn't a threat at all. If someone takes him on properly, his threats and power will come to nothing," said Sunil Narzary, a BPF supporter based in Kokrajhar.

Assam  Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. 
Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. 
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Himanta Biswa Sarma)

However, many in BPF say that this isn’t just an "ego clash between two individuals".

“ Forget Himanta's differences with the Chief (as Hagrama Mohilary is popularly called). Have you heard him (Sarma) speak? Is this how a finance minister of a state should be behaving? Why does he target Muslims?” says Gajendra Daimary, a BPF functionary in Kokrajhar.

Gopal Dey concurs, saying "Himanta made a statement calling women as child-producing machines while attacking (Badruddin) Ajmal. This was shameful."

Accord and Discord

Hagrama Mohilary used to be an ally of the Congress when Tarun Gogoi was the chief minister but switched to the BJP in the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections, barely a little after Himanta himself joined the party and became its key face in the Northeast.

The trouble between Hagrama and the BJP is said to have begun with the Third Bodo Accord signed between the Centre and Bodo organisations such as All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), the United Bodo People’s Organisation (UBPO) and all the four factions of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

The Accord aimed at reducing the dependence of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) on the State government for funds and providing scope for expansion of the territory, and empowering the BTC to have a say in the appointment of Deputy Commissioners and Superintendents of Police.

Image of Amit Shah and other signatories to the 2020 Bodo Accord used for representational purposes.
Image of Amit Shah and other signatories to the 2020 Bodo Accord used for representational purposes.
(Photo: Altered by Arnica Kala / The Quint)

Though Mohilary is also a signatory to the Accord, he criticised the All Bodo Students Union for conceding on the statehood demand.

What also irked Mohilary, then Chief Executive of the Bodoland Territorial Council, was the Centre’s promotion of his political rivals in the Bodoland Region, especially the then ABSU president Pramod Boro and former MP and UPPL leader Urkhao Gwra Brahma, who is said to have played a key role in drafting the Accord.

It is important to remember that Mohilary was a Bodo Liberation Tigers militant commander who signed the second Bodo Accord in 2003 and took control of the BTC in the 2005 elections. So naturally he understood the consequences of new players being promoted through the third Bodo Accord.

The government's plan to prop up the UPPL as a counter to Hagrama became evident with a number of surrendered NDFB militants joining the party and ABSU's Pramod Boro also announcing his plan to "strengthen UPPL".

In the BTC elections later that year, the BJP helped end Hagrama Mohilary’s 15 year rule in Bodoland by forming a coalition with the UPPL and Gana Suraksha Party. This despite BPF being an ally in the state and having won 17 out of 40 seats in the BTC elections.

Such a decision to prop up new players after the Third Bodo Accord may not have happened without the Centre's blessings but Hagrama and his supporters lay the blame squarely on Himanta.

On the other hand, both the BPF chief and the party rank and file have gone soft on incumbent CM Sarbananda Sonowal.

"Himanta wanted to end my political career because I made a statement that Sonowal should be the CM again," Mohilary said in February this year.

Hagrama Mohilary claims that his statement that ‘Sarbananda Sonowal should be CM again’ angered Himanta Biswa Sarma. 
Hagrama Mohilary claims that his statement that ‘Sarbananda Sonowal should be CM again’ angered Himanta Biswa Sarma. 
(Hagrama Mohilary Facebook)

BPF supporters too believe that it was Himanta who sowed discord between Centre and Hagrama.

"There was no problem as such with the Centre. Himanta created the division between the Central government and BPF," says Bugadaola Boro, a BPF functionary in Udalguri.

The decision that the NDA will be contesting without the BPF was announced by Sarma in January this year, indicating his key role in the process.

The 2021 Electoral Battle

"Himanta out, Hagrama in" - this is a catchphrase Mohilary has been using throughout the campaign, making it clear who his main target is in this election.

Mohilary has attacked Sarma in almost every speech he has made during the campaign, not just for BPF candidates in BTR but also for Congress and AIUDF candidates in other parts of Assam.

On the other hand, the BJP’s plan to politically marginalise Hagrama is focused on consolidating non-Bodo, non-Muslim votes in BTR and making inroads among Bodos through the UPPL.

The Bodoland Territorial Region comprises 11 Assembly seat spread across four districts - Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. Another seat - Kalaigaon in Darrang district is also considered as part of the same category.

Kalaigaon and the three seats in Udalguri district have already voted in the second phase of polling on 1 April. Eight seats from the Bodoland Territorial Region will be up for grabs in the last phase of polling on 6 April.

BTR is ethnically a complex region - Bodos form a little over 30 percent of the population but claim that as original inhabitants of the area, their interests and culture should be protected.

Assamese speakers are around 25 percent and Bengalis around 20 percent. A sizable chunk are Koch Rajbongshis, who speak Rangpuri, a Bengali-Assamese language. Muslims - Assamese, Bengali and Hindi-speaking put together - are around 19 percent. Tea tribes form close to 5-6 percent of the population, Hindi speaking migrants another 5 percent and Nepalis around 4 percent.

The BJP has been trying to consolidate the non-Bodo, non-Muslim communities - which together account for 50 percent of the region’s electorate.

In the 2020 BTC election, 6 out BJP's 9 winning candidates are non-Bodo.

This is similar to the BJP's strategy in states like Haryana where it mobilised smaller communities against the dominant caste group and trying to make inroads in that group through an ally.

In the Assembly election, four out of 12 seats will see BJP vs BPF contests and in three of these seats - Bijni, Kalaigaon and Majbat - BJP has put up non-Bodo candidates. In the fourth seat - Panery - the party has fielded BPF turncoat Biswajit Daimary.

Mohilary and Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi campaigning for AIUDF candidate Nijanur Rehman in Gauripur
Mohilary and Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi campaigning for AIUDF candidate Nijanur Rehman in Gauripur
(Gaurav Gogoi/Twitter)

However, this consolidation of non-Bodo votes is easier said than done for the BJP.

Mohilary has a reasonably decent following among non-Bodos. The BPF includes several Bengali Hindu, Muslim, Assamese, North Indian, tea tribe and even Marwari members. This is unlike the UPPL which is much more Bodo dominated and largely dependent on BJP for non-Bodo votes.

Ananta Rai, a Rajbongshi living in Gossaigaon near the border with West Bengal, says that “Hagrama Mohilary helps out everyone without bias. He always took along every community

Dey, a strong BPF supporter, confirms this. "I am a Bengali and I support BPF. Hagrama ran BTC efficiently and got a lot of work done. The present administration led by Pramod Boro is already showing problems".

He is also receiving extremely solid support from Muslims. The polarisation between Bodos and Muslims that existed after the 2012 and 2014 violence is no longer visible.

According to Abdul Latif, a resident of Kokrajhar, “The 2012 violence is a blot in the relations between the two communities (Bodos and Muslims). Since then Hagrama Mohilary has done a lot to mend ties with Muslims. He is always there to help anyone in need”.

This appeal cutting across community lines makes Hagrama Mohilary a major obstacle to the BJP's attempt to come back to power in Assam. The Congress and AIUDF are also backing Mohilary and the alliance is working on the ground without any major hitches.

The BPF had won 12 seats in 2016, it is unlikely to repeat that performance. But even if it wins 7-8 seats, it would prove to be crucial in a closely fought election. On the other hand, if BPF performs poorly and BJP comes back to power with a sizable majority, it could prove to debilitating for the BPF.

Mohilary's main aim of course would be to take back the BTC and the best case scenarios for him would be either an outright UPA victory or a hung Assembly with either side critically dependent on BPF to form the government.

This would make Hagrama the kingmaker in Dispur and king in Bodoland. In either of these two eventualities, Mohilary would have his revenge on Himanta Biswa Sarma.

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