Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is a key strategist of the Bharatiya Janata Party for the northeast and beyond. He was a star campaigner of the party in the Gujarat and Karnataka Assembly elections. In an exclusive interview with The Hindu, he opened up about the conflict in Manipur, Opposition unity against the BJP, and why he thinks the Citizenship Amendment Act will bring lasting communal harmony in Assam and the country.
You have completed two years as Chief Minister. What would you count as your achievements and do you have any regrets?
In two years in Assam, we could establish near complete peace. I will not say 100%, because there are still certain elements disturbing peace, [but] Assam is free of violence, free of any agitation. So, after many years in Assam’s history, we are now peaceful. At this moment looking back, I think that that is my biggest achievement. As you know, Assam is a multi-ethnic State… with multiple religious and tribal communities. For the first time you will see that people are living together in absolute peace and harmony. Threat militancy has ended, there is bhai chara (fraternity) among all.
The second point is Assam’s economy, we are growing fast; the last five years at an average of 13%. Last year, we have grown 19%.
Finally, in the last two years, we are showing outstanding performance in all central schemes.
I have no regrets, except perhaps that I should have done more! But if I compare these two years with any other two years of our history, I think this is the best two years.
Assam was so volatile that even the visit of a foreign dignitary [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] had to be cancelled in 2019. What happened to the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act? Assamese sub-nationalism?
I work with the youth. I have always talked to them in a very free and frank manner. I tell them that when Assamese sub-nationalism is put in a negative way, to keep a distance from mainland India, you will not be successful. But if you use it in a positive way, it creates energy.
So in the last two years, we have done so much 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 the Bihu [an Assamese cultural festival] in a spectacular manner to the world. 42 lakh youths have written essays on Lachit Borphukan which we have put on the internet.
So Assamese identity is now about aspiration, constructive competition with other States. So we tell people — pride is one thing, grievance and frustration is quite another. I am trying to transform frustration into pride, and it is working.
You were also pretty tough with your policing. You demolished madrasas… You even defended encounter killings…
I will tell you, 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 demolish some themselves when government discovered anti-national activities in them. Yes, we are very, very tough when such anti-national activities come to our notice. But there is no discrimination in Assam based on religion.
You look at government recruitment… government services. We are building Assam’s biggest medical college in the heart of minority areas. So, we are winning hearts, we are taking all the programmes started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the last mile, and Muslims are big beneficiaries. So, today if you talk to average Muslim, they will say their lives are being transformed — with better roads, healthcare and education. We are bringing Muslim girls to schools, Muslim women are getting due respect. I keep on meeting Muslim delegations, and listen to them. I can say proudly that even in comparison with many south Indian States, which are known for communal harmony, Assam presents a better picture.
You had written to Chief Ministers to include Lachit Borphukan in the teaching of history. Have you got any response?
Many are writing us to know more about Lachit Borphukan. So it is going good, let’s see when they make the next textbooks.
You are an open supporter of CAA, which was not very popular in Assam. How big is CAA an issue in Assam now?
I told them [the opponents of CAA] that I am for CAA and you are against CAA. Now, let’s wait patiently for the Supreme Court to give a judgement. Let’s agree to whatever the SC says — whether it says it is valid or it is bad legislation. So in a democracy, we agree to disagree, or build consensus.
The BJP could win a second term, after the CAA protest.. It appears that the concerns around Bengali speakers have now mellowed?
There is a feeling that Bengali Hindus were not taken care of by the mainstream Assamese people with due respect. Now, I’m not going to generalise that all Assamese people are against Bengali-speaking people. But there was a part of our history when we had a bitter fight — at the intellectual level and at the street level.
Having said that, now the situation is such that Assamese people are also appreciating the concerns of Bengalis. Yes, they have the right to run their educational institutes, they have the right to practice their culture. Gradually we are developing into a multilingual State from a monolingual State. Now, Bengali is accepted, tribal languages are getting respect. So, from the core Assamese language-based society, we are now transforming ourselves to a multilingual State with Assamese as a lingua franca. Everybody accepts Assamese as the State language and nobody is opposing it. But also where [there] is acceptance that every community has a right to speak in their mother tongue, right? So Assam presents the most perfect scenario of Hindu-Muslim unity, Assam presents the perfect scenario of inter-ethnic bonding.
How do you then see the violence in Manipur?
There are certain basic issues which we need to discuss. The distribution of population is such that 70% of people are in 30% landmass. Kukis and Nagas can come to the Valley but Meiteis cannot go to the hills. It is the same thing in Assam also with regard to Bodoland. Assam is a big State and we have accepted that, okay, it is better than a separate State. I think in Manipur also, the inter-ethnic dialogue has to be in a more mature manner, leading to more authentic cooperation. In the last five years, we had created that situation and a dialogue was beginning.
But unfortunately, the High Court order [on tribal status for the Meiteis] changed the course of events. Before the State could respond in political manner, there were protests against the High Court order and violence, and then counter-violence. In the northeast, if two communities start fighting, it is not easy to douse it. Because all are very, very emotive, very, very sentimental. I have seen these conflicts. I have seen conflict between our people and people from Mizoram. I have seen conflict between Assam and Nagaland. It is not very easy. There are many areas where the paramilitary cannot reach.
Do you think a political settlement is still possible?
Home Minister Amit Shah-ji is trying his best. He is going to Manipur on [[May 29]. He is going to stay there for three days. Let us hope and pray things calm down. The Central government is being fiercely neutral while dealing with all the communities. I believe that that kind of time, kind of energy Mr. Amit Shah is spending in the northeast, I am sure that a positive result will emerge. But it is never a linear formula in the northeast. Tribal communities are very friendly, but when something flares up, you can’t resolve it by just sitting across the table over a coffee.
You have a role in Tripura also. Do you expect the Tipra Motha Party (TMP) to be part of the BJP government in the State at some point soon?
It is important to keep a line of communication open with Tipra Motha. After all, he [Pradyot Bikram, erstwhile royalty from the tribal region, and founder of the TMP) won 14 seats and we have to respect the people’s verdict. So, we are engaging him for resolution of the tribal issues in Tripura, but we have not made up our mind so far regarding any political adjustment. Because if, without resolving the bigger issue [of autonomy for tribal regions], if you just join hands, people will see it as opportunism. It will not be good for the BJP and the TMP. So, we are handling it in a mature manner. The Home Minister is in touch with the TMP, the State government is in touch with him.
You had an big event to distribute appointment letters, attended by Mr. Shah. Are you trying to link your political fortunes to employment creation?
If you make an announcement during the election campaign and don’t deliver on it later, it is bad everywhere, and in Assam it can be more so. When I was Finance Minister, I could count that we have 50,000 to 60,000 vacancies. And if we created 40,000 new posts — we need more people in health education — we could promise one lakh jobs, which is what we did.
The Home Minister had asked me whether it was possible. I said, ‘Sir, according to me it is possible, but within how much time, I don’t know.’ After a lot of deliberation, we decided to include the promise. It was weighing on my mind ever since. If we deliver on that promise, people would begin to trust politicians again. It is a very big, issue — because we are a moderate revenue-generating state and how can you generate one lakh jobs? But by the grace of Almighty we managed to create 87,000 jobs. Had it not been COVID, I would have done it one year ahead. Another 22,000 will be created before the Parliamentary election.
Turning to national politics, you said that the Karnataka outcome was not surprising. Why?
In the 2018 election, we had won some 105 seats. In the last one year, because my son studied in Bangalore, I kept visiting the State. Somehow, I being a politician, got the indication that although people are saying that in Lok Sabha, we are going to vote Narendra Modi, at the State-level, there was a desire for change. We took certain very, very important decisions, such as changes in reservation policy, including the discontinuation of Muslim reservation. But these happened too close to the elections and we could not communicate these decisions properly.
The southern part of India still remains a bit of a barrier for the BJP. You think your Assam strategy has any use in the south for the BJP?
You see, we lost Karnataka, but we could retain 36% vote share. We could not gain further, but we did not lose what we had in terms of vote share. In Bangalore, we had a spectacular result. Out of the five southern States, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are the only two places where you can say that electorally, we are not that strong. But in Tamil Nadu now, we are ready for that breakthrough. You will see from here onwards, in Tamil Nadu, we will keep on growing. Prime Minister Modi’s outreach to Tamil Nadu is already a success socially, though electorally it might take a little more time. Hindu-Muslim unity has happened socially in Assam, and it might take little more time for us to gain electorally from that.
The Prime Minister has created a solid social bonding with Tamil Nadu and improved the relationship between North and South. In Kerala, as you know, the State is divided into three parts, where there are three communities: Christians, Hindus and Muslims. A large number of Hindu people there are with the left ideologically. But now, in Kerala also new combinations are emerging. People are realising the threat from jihadi elements is not only for Hindus, it is equally for the Christians and even the nationalists. Muslims are also thinking now about the fundamentalist element of Kerala which is giving a negative image of the State.
Will Karnataka have any impact on 2024?
Even in Karnataka, people were clear that they would vote for Narendra Modi again in 2024. I can see clearly 300 plus seats for Narendra Modi in 2024. Assam will have one or two more [seats], the northeast will give three or four more, but we are at saturation there.
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.
Going back to the CAA question; are you going to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision? 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?
CAA and NRC we should not discuss 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. So 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. These people are suffering. Every day, we see what is happening in Afghanistan, we have seen 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 also all along 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.