As I sit down to write this piece, the Assam Assembly is in session. Many important and transformational pieces of legislation are being passed. Some are regulatory, but most of them relate to the developmental agenda of the State, to take Assam among the top five states of the country in the next five years.
I have completed more than three decades in public life. I have been blessed with multiple opportunities to work for the people of the North-east — Assam in particular — in various capacities. Many milestones have been achieved. Many challenges remain — some very critical, given the unique geography of the region. However, I am convinced that most of our disabilities emanate from historical and legacy factors which have hindered our growth.
The last seven years of the National Democratic Alliance regime have been truly transformational for us in the region. Today, the stage seems set, for a higher growth trajectory, for the entire north-east region.
Before we proceed further, a peep into the history of our geography — North-east India — looks relevant.
History of neglect
From the Mahabharata, till the beginning of the Islamic rule, the entire North-east had close cultural and economic linkages with the rest of Bharat Varsha. This relationship took a hostile turn around seven centuries ago when Islamic invaders began to seize control of Delhi. For the next 500 years, our ancestors continued to fight multiple battles, including the legendary battles of Saraighat and Itakhuli, to keep the Islamist invaders out of the North-east. Assam’s cultural and religious monuments were destroyed by the invaders. Unfortunately, Assam’s heroic struggle against these barbaric attacks found no mention in history books. The then undivided Assam was one of the most ardent participants against the colonial struggle, but the narratives of Assam, particularly events such as Phulaguri Dhawa, Patharughator Ran, and the immense contributions of Rani Gaidinliu, Tirat Singh, Kushal Konwar, Kanaklata Barua and many more find no resonance.
Colonial rule saw an exploitative administration that was solely focused on the economic exploitation of tea and rubber. Demarcation of inner lines was based on revenue capability and not on the basis of ethnic and cultural considerations. On the other hand, since the 1935 Act, the British launched a cultural project to ‘civilize’ various tribes of the North-east. Nonetheless, beginning from the Phulaguri Dhawa to the Garo-Jaintia rebellion to the Quit India Movement, the brave people fought valiantly. British rule sowed the seeds for inter-regional disputes and communal politics. This unfair trend was taken further by the Congress party in the decades ahead.
Congress’s neglect of core issues
India’s North-east, or the then undivided Assam, is a classic case how a vibrant, regionally connected region with high rate of economic growth of 4% above the national growth rate could be turns into a peripheral, landlocked zone by a process of neglect and policy paralysis by then successive ruling Congress dispensations. Disruption of traditional routes of trade, commerce and connectivity ; Nehru’s insensitivity towards Assam, a calibrated and disadvantageous model of Partition in the eastern sector , the great earthquake, non-cognisance of Assam’s claim over economic resources, top down planning and development model, continuous neglect of Assam’s immigration and identity issue made the North-east region a peripheral zone both in terms of development framework and national imagination. In all critical issues such as Centre-State federal relations, refugee crisis, control over resources such as oil, tea and timber, illegal immigration issues and crucial internal and external security issues, the region faced a situation of ‘internal colonialism’ from its own government sitting in Delhi.
The neglect from Delhi is epitomised on multiple occasions. The year is 1962. I am referring to Nehru’s insensitive attitude towards Assam when he bade farewell to Assam on the eve of the Chinese attack.
I can say that the history of the North-east will never be kind to the Congress party and its leaders. I myself was a part of the Congress party for several years but I realised that successive leadership of the party had a clear interest to keep the region under-developed, neglected, and divided. Until 2014, Delhi harboured a strange theory that rapid creation of infrastructure in the border areas could provoke our neighbours, hence many villages were purposefully kept outside power and road grids for several decades even after Independence.
Ushering in peace
The entire development philosophy of the region changed after the coming of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and later subsequently under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For the first time, under Mr. Vajpayee, North-east India began to get a transparent deal, of development and progress. This was the time when the central government created a separate, dedicated Department of Development of North-Eastern Region (DoNER) to ensure all-round development. This was also the time when the East-West connectivity corridor was launched.
The biggest priority of the BJP has been to bring the curtain down on long drawn conflict which have jeopardised our past, burdened our present and threatened our future. Inspite of having a Prime Minister from Assam, Assam was deprived of its due in oil royalty which was rectified by the BJP government. Manipur’s longest economic blockade came to an end after the installation of the first BJP government in the State. The formation of NEDA, which I am closely associated with, was a significant step to help resolve several of these disputes and give greater voice to the various stakeholders of the North-east.
The Bodo Accord, the LBA with Bangladesh, the NLFT agreement and the Bru-Reang Agreement are cases to point. Since 2014, insurgency-related incidents have reduced by 80%, civilian deaths have reduced by 99% and over 3,000 militants have surrendered since.
These anti-insurgency operations have not happened in isolation. They have been accompanied by improved governance on the ground, choking the smuggling route through better policing and a genuine political will to bring peace and demonstrated intention to devolve power to the people via Autonomous Councils.
All this is happening under the guidance of Home Minister, Amit Shah. Mr. Shah has handheld each one of us in the region — it is a touch of healing, and importantly, of support.
I will briefly touch on the border issues. These disputes emerged after States such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram were carved out of undivided Assam without delineating the border — the issue was kept open for the posterity to resolve. Given that all North-eastern States are now ruled by non-Congress governments, we now have a sincere chance to put the past behind us.
Future growth engines
The region has been witnessing a massive infrastructural innovation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been personally monitoring the implementation of these projects. The BJP firmly believes that politics in democracy is a tool, an opportunity to serve the people and the nation. It was this vision with which the BJP fought the Assembly polls in Tripura and dismantled the Left Front government of 25 years. The NDA Government restored people’s faith and launched a series of development projects in the region.
The North-east is now experiencing freedom in the true sense. Not recently, cities across the North-east would shut down after sunset, power supply would be erratic and roads were notoriously horrible. Cities are now seeing a vibrant nightlife due to the remarkable improvement in law and order. For the first time, every North-east State will be connected by rail. Air connectivity has improved tremendously. The Prime Minister has ensured that the North-east becomes the fulcrum of India’s Act East Policy. The Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, Rhi-Tiddim Road Project, and several other projects will strengthen our Act East Policy. In Assam, we have made tremendous progress in health and education parameters. From being a remote region riddled with insurgency, the North-east is entering in a phase of rapid growth and stability.
I am very confident about the future of the North East. I foresee a growing contribution of the North-eastern States to National GDP and we will collectively work to ensure India becomes a $5 trillion economy. We are celebrating our 75th Independence Day with a strong belief that freedom is set to become more meaningful for our five crore fellow citizens who live in our eight sister States [Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim]. It is important we recollect the past and ensure that we do not repeat any of the historical mistakes in the present or the future.
Himanta Biswa Sarma is the Chief Minister of Assam