: - India's creation this month of an autonomous council for the Bodo tribals is expected go a long way toward meeting their aspirations and bringing peace to a fertile, trouble-torn area sandwiched by the Bhutanese border and the Brahmaputra river in north-eastern Assam.

The establishment of the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) comes after a tripartite memorandum of settlement - signed by the central government, the Assam state government and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) chairman Hagrama Basumatary - that aims to end the 15 years of armed struggle for a separate Bodo homeland and bring development to the long-neglected region. Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, who also holds the key home portfolio, said the memorandum of settlement would enable the central government to directly intervene in the economic development of the Bodoland council, which comprises the four Assam districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baska and Udalguri.

The settlement includes official recognition for the Bodo language, the withdrawal of cases against militants, a Rs. 5 billion aid package, and the establishment of a Central Institute of Technology.
The agreement is designed to accommodate the economic, educational and linguistic aspirations of the Bodos, who form a distinct ethnic group under threat from massive immigration from adjoining Indian states and from neighboring Bangladesh. To this end, of the 46 seats in the BTC, 30 would be reserved for tribals, five for non-tribal residents and five would be open, said R C A Jain, secretary in the interior ministry. Six seats would be reserved for nominations from among unrepresented groups while there are additional safeguards to ensure the protection of the rights of non-tribals in the area, Jain said, answering questions from journalists soon after the signing ceremony.

The Bodo stir, marked by violent ethnic riots, has left in its wake refugee camps set up for riot victims in Kokrajhar, the capital of the BTC and in Bongaigaon, best known for its petrochemical complex set up to process crude oil from the oil-rich region. Jain said the central government would soon table an amendment to the Constitution in Parliament to give the BTC constitutional status and allow the holding of elections to the council. As part of the settlement, cases pending against militants and their leaders are to be withdrawn, the Bodo language given recognition and the area given a $100 million aid package. Also thrown in is a centrally funded Central Institute of Technology planned to be set up in Kokrajhar that would impart technological and vocational education and eventually upgraded to the status of a state university.

Saturday's memorandum is the fruit of 10 years of negotiations between New Delhi and the powerful All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), which resulted in the Bodo insurgent groups announcing a unilateral suspension of armed hostilities against security forces in July 1999. The Indian government responded by the announcement in March 2000 of suspension of operations against Bodo insurgents and deferment of a proposed ban on the BLT, the most powerful of the insurgent groups, under anti-terrorist laws. The group is expected to disarm as part of the settlement.

Opposition to the BTC has come from the banned United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which circulated pamphlets declaring that the arrangement would "only create more political chaos," and divide its goal of an independent Assam of which Bodoland would only be a part. "Once the BTC is formed, we will not only lose our political identity but will be driven out by the Bodos, who have already been systematically attacking non-Bodos to clear the proposed BTC area," the pamphlet said. ULFA and another Bodo militant outfit, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, have in the past shared bases and logistics in the jungles of southern Bhutan, whose government recently pledged to flush out sanctuaries for anti-India insurgents.

The Assam state government has also been accused of going slow on the creation of the BTC, which would whittle down its authority in the area, by Urkhao Gwra Brahma, one of the leaders of the Bodo movement and currently a member of the Rajya Sabha or upper house of Parliament. Brahma said the success of the dialogue between the government and the Bodo Liberation Tigers was owing to the fact that the insurgent group readily came to the negotiating table with no preconditions and enjoyed broad support from a people fed up with violence.