Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is a key strategist of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the northeast and beyond. He was a star campaigner of the party in the recent Gujarat and Karnataka Assembly elections. He speaks about the conflict in Manipur, Opposition parties uniting against the BJP, and why the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will bring communal harmony in Assam and the country. Edited excerpts:
You have completed two years as Chief Minister. What do you count as your achievements and do you have any regrets?
In two years, we could establish near complete peace in Assam. I think that is my biggest achievement. Threat of militancy has ended, there is bhaichara (fraternity) among all. Secondly, in the past five years, our economy grew at an average of 13%. Last year, we recorded 19% growth. Finally, we have put up an outstanding performance in all Central schemes. I have no regrets. This is the best two years in Assam’s history.
Assam was so volatile that the visit of a foreign dignitary (Japan PM Shinzo Abe) had to be cancelled in 2019. What happened to anti-CAA protests and Assamese sub-nationalism?
I work with the youth and tell them that Assamese subnationalism will not be successful if it is used to keep a distance from mainland India. But if used in a positive way, it will create energy. In the past two years, we have done a lot of work to invoke Assamese identity. We brought Lachit Borphukan (a 17th-century Ahom general who defeated the Mughals) to the centre stage of Indian history. We have presented Bihu (Assam’s cultural festival) in a spectacular manner to the world. So Assamese identity is about aspiration and constructive competition with other States. I am trying to transform frustration into pride, and it is working.
You were pretty tough with policing. You have demolished madrasas and even defended encounter killings?
We are the most peaceful State in terms of Hindu-Muslim unity. When I speak about banning polygamy, I get maximum support from the Assamese Muslim community. We have not demolished madrasas... people themselves demolish them when the government finds them doing anti-national activities. Yes, we act tough when anti-national activities come to our notice. But there is no discrimination based on religion in Assam. You can see that in recruitment for government services. We are building Assam’s biggest medical college in the heart of minority areas. We are winning hearts and taking all the programmes started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the last mile, and Muslims are big beneficiaries. Today, if you talk to the average Muslim, they will say their lives are being transformed, with better roads, healthcare and education. We are bringing Muslim girls to schools and Muslim women are getting due respect. I keep meeting Muslim delegations and listen to them. Even in comparison with south Indian States, known for communal harmony, Assam presents a better picture.
You being an open supporter of the CAA was not very popular in Assam. How big is the issue now?
Let’s wait for the Supreme Court to give its judgment. Let’s agree to whatever the SC says. In a democracy, we agree to disagree, or build consensus.
The BJP was able to win a second term after the CAA protests. Have the concerns around Bengali speakers now mellowed?
There is a feeling that Bengali Hindus were not given due respect by mainstream Assamese people. I’m not generalising that all Assamese people are against Bengali-speaking people. But there was a part in our history when we had a bitter fight — at the intellectual and street level. Now the situation is such that Assamese people are also appreciating the concerns of Bengalis. They have the right to run their educational institutions and practise their culture. Gradually, we are developing into a multilingual State. Now, Bengali is accepted and tribal languages are being respected. So, from an Assamese language-based society, we are now transforming into a multilingual State.
How do you see the violence in Manipur?
There are certain basic issues. The distribution of population is such that 70% people occupy 30% of the land. Kukis and Nagas can come to the Valley, but Meiteis cannot go to the hills. It is the same situation in Assam with regard to Bodoland. Assam is a big State and we have accepted that it is better than being a separate State. I think in Manipur, too, inter-ethnic dialogue has to happen in a mature manner. In the last five years, a dialogue was beginning to take place, but the High Court order (suggesting tribal status for the Meiteis) changed the course of events. Before the State could respond in a political manner, there were protests and violence. In the northeast, if two communities start fighting, it is not easy to end it because all are very emotive. There are many areas where the paramilitary cannot reach.
Do you think a political settlement is still possible?
Union Home Minister Amit Shah ji is trying his best. He is visiting Manipur on May 29 and staying there for three days. Let us hope the situation calms down. The Centre is fiercely neutral while dealing with all communities. I believe with the kind of time and energy Mr. Shah is spending in the northeast, a positive result will emerge. There is never a linear formula in the northeast. Tribal communities are friendly, but when an issue flares up, you can’t resolve it by just sitting across the table over coffee.
You have a role in Tripura also. Do you expect TIPRA Motha to be part of the BJP government soon?
It is important to keep a line of communication open with the TIPRA Motha. After all he [Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma of the erstwhile Tripura royal family who is chairman of the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance] won 14 seats. We have to respect the people’s verdict. We are engaging with him to resolve the issues of tribal people, but we have not made up our mind on making a political adjustment. If you join hands without resolving the bigger issue [of autonomy for tribal regions], people will see it as opportunism. It will not be good for the BJP and the TIPRA Motha.The Union Home Minister and the State government are in touch with the party.
South India still remains a barrier for the BJP. Do you think your Assam strategy will be useful in the south?
We lost Karnataka, but still retained 36% of the vote share. In Bengaluru, we had a spectacular result. Out of the five southern States, we are not that strong electorally only in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We are now ready for a breakthrough in Tamil Nadu. From now on, we will keep on growing in the State. The Prime Minister’s outreach to Tamils is already a success socially. Electorally, it might take a little more time. Kerala is divided into three parts: Christians, Hindus and Muslims. A large number of Hindus are ideologically with the Left. Now, new combinations are emerging. Not only Hindus but also Christians are realising the threat from jihad is imminent. Even Muslims are thinking about the fundamentalist element in Kerala, which is giving the State a negative image.
So, what do you make of all the talks of Opposition unity?
It is not organic, like it happened under Jayaprakash Narayan or V.P. Singh. Today, those who are facing cases [being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation or the Enforcement Directorate] are uniting to save themselves. So, the people of India see that as a desperate plot to protect themselves. A combination of desperate people who are facing corruption investigations can never win people’s hearts. I can clearly see 300-plus seats for Narendra Modi in 2024.
Going back to the CAA question, are you going to wait for the SC verdict? It won’t be implemented before that?
Whenever the Government of India rules are notified, we will implement it.
You are not planning to revise the NRC in Assam?
We should not discuss CAA and NRC [National Register of Citizens] together. CAA is just about giving citizenship to people who fled neighbouring countries because they don’t belong to a particular religion. So, giving citizenship to the minority population of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh has nothing to do with revision of NRC or NPR [National Population Register]. These two issues are fundamentally different and the Government of India is on record denying any move to have a nationwide NRC. We want to include Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains… If they are granted citizenship of this country, then their names will be automatically entered in all documents. The so-called secular people are making this into a battle of prestige. They also know that it is not going to dramatically change anything in India, we are talking about people who are already here. No fresh people will come. Now you say, ‘Give to Muslims also’.
Now, giving citizenship to Muslims means you are inviting people. Yes, suppose tomorrow we identify some Muslim as a foreigner, and Bangladesh says, ‘We are not going to accept them’, how can you push them away? They will be here only, but methodology will be different to deal with that situation. So, I think the Muslim community or the so-called secular people should engage in that discussion, rather than opposing the law. Every day, we see what is happening in Afghanistan, and what happened in Bangladesh. Let’s bring lasting communal harmony. Most of the Muslims are not taking it as a prestige issue, but some are. And this is not a BJP agenda. Even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh advocated for citizenship to Hindu, Sikhs, Christian suffering in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a bipartisan issue. I don’t know how it has become a partisan issue, how it can become a prestigious battle; it should not have.