As Assam Chief Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma cannot remain a silent spectator when ancient Hindu temples and monasteries are captured by Islamists. He has a caveat for fundamentalists that his Government’s compassionate approach shouldn’t be treated as cowardliness. In an exclusive interview with Prafulla Ketkar, Editor Organiser Weekly and Dibya Kamal Bordoloi, Bureau Chief, North East, Dr Sarma is optimistic that greater recognition of North East’s diverse culture will finally bridge the gap between it and the rest of India. Excerpts
Till recently the North East was called the tyranny of distances, but now we see a change in that narrative. What do you think has changed in the last few years that the North East has started finding a place in national media?
In my opinion, the biggest change has come from the activities taken up on the connectivity front. After the Partition of the country, we were connected with mainland India only through the ‘Chicken Neck’. Even the previous Governments of India were conservative; they neglected the region for a long time and didn’t try to bring it closer to mainland India. It was only after 2014 when Narendra Modiji assumed the office of the Prime Minister, that finally, the Government put emphasis on connectivity development in the North East. Today our National Highways have expanded to the remotest locations, bridges and roads are being constructed in the hilly terrain and all the capital cities of the region are also being connected with broad gauge railway lines. Even internet connectivity is being made available to the remotest parts so now people don’t feel cut off from the modern world.
Even if better connectivity comes from physical infrastructure, it, in turn, leads to better emotional integration with the country. The policies by the Union Government, frequent visits by Union Ministers to the region, mentions of the North East in the national narratives, discussions about the region in the Parliament, and other cultural forums have increased in the last 6-7 years. The North East has never enjoyed this kind of privilege previously. So post-2014, the world has changed for the people of the North East.
You have spoken about the infrastructure part, the emotional connectivity and cultural connectivity. But there are still many forces that are trying to break this connection.
When I talk about emotional connectivity, it is related to cultural connectivity also. Greater recognition of our culture will bridge this gap gradually. Now people from other States of India are re-discovering how Lord Krishna’s wife Rukmini was from the North East. Now when I go to Delhi, people discuss these things with me.
The North East region has always been used by our enemy forces from across the border right from the British days. There are forces that have put in the minds of our people that they don’t belong to India. That kind of misconception has been spread across the region for a long period. If you see the write-ups of the militant leaders, it says clearly how they met the top leadership of China at a very early stage. That means, destabilising the North East, and creating a rift between the region and mainland India has been an international design for a long time.
‘Through their writings, they (Left intellectuals) have always tried to project a conflict between North East and mainland India. They would never talk about our cultural bonding. I am of the view that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is exceedingly successful in his North East outreach policy and the people of the region are also completely aligning with it’
Another factor is the Left intellectuals. Through their writings, they have always tried to project a conflict between North East and mainland India. They would never talk about our cultural bonding. I am of the view that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is exceedingly successful in his North East outreach policy and the people of the region are also completely aligning with it. There are surely divisive forces, but I think people of the North East have organically developed the skills to counter them.
You have said that homegrown militancy has almost come to an end in Assam. But what is the threat perception from Islamic terrorism?
Assam has witnessed two types of militancy in the past. Tribal militancy was real, and it was a direct threat at one time. Now the phase of tribal militancy is over. Tribal civil society seriously wants peace. The second kind of militancy is ULFA (I), which is very strong in its demand for sovereignty. These are the organisations that are operating from foreign soil. But there is another emerging threat, from the Islamic fundamentalists. The activity of PFI has increased in the State, their actions are basically to motivate the Muslim youth to take up arms. There are also a few modules present in the State which are directly linked with Islamic terrorist groups of Bangladesh. The threat from Islamic fundamentalists is real, but at the same time, we are also monitoring them closely and are ready to take up any challenges.
Since you took over in May last year, there have been allegations against your Government, especially after a series of eviction drives. Your statement on demographic changes in Assam, and on population control are also being projected as anti-minority.
You can always be pro-minority, there is no problem. But if a Hindu temple which is as old as 4,000 years is captured, if a Satra (Monastery) where Mahapurush Srmanta Shankardev was born, is today encroached, should a democratically elected Government compromise, just in the name of so-called secularism? If a 1,000-year old mosque was encroached, I would have stood up against that also. In Assam not a single mosque has been captured. We are always liberal and compassionate. But our compassion shouldn’t be treated as our cowardliness. We have drawn a ‘Lakshman Rekha’ and tolerate everything, but when the Lakshman Rekha is crossed by somebody, we can’t wait and watch quietly. My government is doing exactly what the Supreme court has directed earlier. I am acting strictly by the law.
‘There is another emerging threat, from the Islamic fundamentalists. The activity of PFI has increased in the State, their actions are basically to motivate the Muslim youth to take up arms. There are also a few modules present in the State which are directly linked with Islamic terrorist groups of Bangladesh. The threat from Islamic fundamentalists is real, but at the same time, we are also monitoring them closely and are ready to take up any challenges’
You also have some plans to utilise the evicted land for employment generation for the youth.
The so-called seculars are saying that we have evicted harshly in the Dhalpur, Gorukhti area. But if 1,000 families encroach on 9,000 acres of land, how can the Government meet the demands for employment generation in the State. According to the Ceiling Act, no one can possess such a huge amount of land even if it is his or her land. But here these people have illegally occupied the land, so will not the Ceiling Act be applicable to them? Now we have created an agriculture firm in the evicted land and employed thousands of youth. And the good thing is, after seeing the success of the Gorukhuti Agri project, so many youths in the State are encouraged to take up farming. Our Government has taken care of the evicted people also. I have told them if you are a genuine Indian citizen, we will ensure that you get a piece of land as per the law.
You said that your Government will employ 1 lakh youth. Which are the sectors being looked at?
We are not creating any additional posts. Somehow due to the slow pace of Government recruitment, these posts were lying vacant in various departments. Government vacancies are around 60,000, there are some emergency manpower requirements in the police force and the health department. We studied it very scientifically and found that the Government of Assam needs to recruit in these 1 lakh vacant and newly-created posts. Another good thing is that our economy is not contracting. Today also I have reviewed the data, Assam’s GDP growth this year will be 12 to 13 per cent. Assam has seen a continuous growth trajectory of 8 to 9 per cent in the last 3-4 years. By 2026,
Assam will be an eight lakh crore economy and this is my prediction.
Recently, you made a comment in Telangana and the Delhi media quoted it as controversial. You said that like Baburs and Nizams, the Owaisis will no longer be a part of our history. Why do you feel that?
When I reached Hyderabad, one of the fellow BJP karyakarta said that the politicians here are not talking about Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who had liberated Hyderabad. But in the history books, they are taught about the Nizam –how rich he was, how many wives he had, etc. But the heroism of Vallabh Bhai Patel is not included in the history books. The Left has always idealised those who had challenged the Indian union. Unfortunately, Nizams and Owaisis are heroes and not legends like Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. But, modern India doesn’t accept the history of Nizams and Owaisis. Here in Assam, we want to learn about Lachit Barphokan, we want to learn about Shivaji, and our great Sikh Gurus. Whether it is Hyderabad or Guwahati, I am echoing the sentiment of new India.
Recently you gave special leaves to Government employees to spend time with parents or in-laws. What was the logic behind it?
I think Government employees can’t perform a hundred per cent until they are compassionate. The Indian family system teaches us those values. You go to your parents and touch their feet and you feel a special kind of energy., and when you see another old person at your office asking for some kind of help, you immediately remember your parents. Every year we will allow Government employees to spend some time with their parents on special leave. I will appeal to the private sector also to do the same, to re-energise the employees.
You have made an interesting journey so far. From a child artist to a young AASU leader to a typical Congress leader to almost like a civilisational voice from the North East talking about the strong Hindutva cause. Is it an ideological transformation or unfolding of a persona called Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Actually what I am trying to do is the same thing for which I had started our journey. When we started the Assam Agitation, we had identified our enemies. 1n 1979, we realised that the Assamese people will soon be a minority and will lose our cultural identity soon. Gradually I realised that our faith is aligned with the place called Bharat, and we are not a separate entity. So gradually one evolved from a regionalist to a nationalist, because one discovered that the ideology is the same and even the enemies are the same. Whatever my evolution might be, the base remains the same.
So having issues with the Congress leadership or Rahul Gandhi’s pet ‘Pidi’ issue was just a coincidence?
See, even when I was in Congress we have solidly resisted Badaruddin Ajmal. But the day I realised that we can’t resist Badaruddin Ajamal from a Congress platform, doing it directly from a nationalist platform of BJP was the only option. Even while I was in Congress, I supported PM Narendra Modiji in 2014 and that is known to everyone in Assam.
So you see the civilisation narratives, which you talk about are unfolding for not only Assam but for the entire North East.
I think not only for the North East but for the entire country. What Assam released in 1979, how we identified our cultural and economic enemies, today the exact same things are happening in various parts of the country. Be it Jammu and Kashmir or Kerala or West Bengal. I think the civilisational fight is not only confined to Assam or Northeast, this is a fight entire India has to fight directly not diplomatically.