One year back on this day, Himanta Biswa Sarma became the 15th Chief Minister of Assam, replacing Sarbananda Sonawal, who has now moved to New Delhi as a Union Cabinet Minister. In this one year, Sarma has proactively tried to address many legacy issues as well as contemporary ones. Often, comparisons are made with the one-term reign of Sonowal or with the three terms of the Congress-led government under late Tarun Gogoi; under both, Sarma was a minister in the state.
Most comparisons are in terms of governance delivery and bringing in lasting peace. Another area where people draw comparisons is the attention given by the Union government to the state’s welfare. On all counts, steps have been taken, although their outcome will be known only later. A large section of the Assam population seems happy with the Sarma government.
Why Assam Is So Important for Modi Govt
Assam is an important state for the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. As it is a gateway to the northeastern region, the government is keen to see that governance in Assam is handled proactively. Ever since Amit Shah took over as the Union Home Minister two years back, the Union government’s policy for the northeast has been focused on three things:
Maintaining and promoting its dialects, languages, dance, music, food, culture
Ending disputes in the northeast and promoting peace in
Bringing development to the region and trying to bring its GDP contribution level to the pre-independence era.
Much of the recent focus of the Chief Minister has thus been on the above three aspects, besides state-specific welfare schemes. On the issue of preservation of culture, the Chief Minister has given importance to Sattras and visited many of them across the state. Last year in July, the Assam Cabinet decided to create a new department to protect the culture and practices of people belonging to tribal and other indigenous communities.
In March this year, the Chief Minister said that his government is working to promote the faith and culture of anthropologically indigenous and tribal communities as they had ‘ancient wisdom’, and asked them to register their organisations with the state government so that they can be given institutional support, including scholarships.
Already, the government has started organising mega exhibitions showcasing the art, culture and traditions of indigenous and tribal groups.
However, on many occasions, there have been accusations and concerns around some prejudiced measures targeted at minorities. The eviction drives, for example, have been very controversial.
Border Disputes Can Throw a Wrench in Centre's Plans
Coming to the second objective, there have been efforts on the part of the Centre to bring in peace and solve long-standing border disputes. In Assam, the Bodo Peace Accord was signed in January 2020 and the Karbi Anglong Agreement was signed in September 2021. The Karbi Anglong agreement was signed after Sarma assumed office; as many as six armed organisations gave up arms and have committed to working towards the development in the hill districts, for which a package of about Rs 1,000 crore has been sanctioned.
The Union government has exhibited a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards any form of violence. There has been a dip in violence and insurgency-related casualties since 2014. Casualties among security forces have reduced by 75% and amongst civilians by 99%, with the state seeing only three civilian deaths in 2020. Efforts are on to solve the ULFA problem, and hopefully, some progress on this count will happen sooner than later.
'Zero-Tolerance Policy': Brownie Points for Assam Govt?
The Chief Minister’s focus on improving law and order and the working of the Assam Police has been strong. On the day he was sworn in, Sarma attended a presentation given by senior police officials to take stock of the work done in the last few years and sought their opinions on the proposed priorities of the Assam Police. Based on the interaction, he directed top officials to chalk out a working plan to tackle seven key problems in the state – drug addiction, crimes against women and children, cattle smuggling, rhino poaching, encroachment of land, terrorism, and crude oil pilferage.
In the next few months, he provided the Assam police with full support. However, some of the police actions were also unpopular and received wide criticism from civil society.
Crimes in Assam have dropped by 30 per cent this year compared to the same period last year. Between 10 May 2021 to 6 March 2022, as many as 4,117 people were arrested in 2,401 drug-related cases, resulting in the seizure of illegal drugs worth Rs 531 crore. During police operations, 19 drug peddlers were injured, and two were killed. However, the series of encounters in which many so-called criminals have been killed seem to be premised on a common narrative that they tried to escape while in custody or that they tried to attack the police. A more transparent policy on encounters should be undertaken so that the police force is seen to be fair, not authoritarian.
The Assam government has also proactively tried to solve the state’s border disputes. On 29 March, Assam and Meghalaya Chief Ministers signed an agreement to resolve the five-decade-old border dispute in six locations. Earlier in January this year, Assam and Nagaland agreed to settle their differences, and talks are on with the Arunachal Pradesh government to solve the 122 disputed sites. Violent flare-ups were witnessed last year at the Assam-Mizoram border. Today, efforts are being made to strengthen regular engagements to maintain peace and work out a permanent solution.
Investors are Wary of 'Unstable' Regions
The thrust for bringing investments to the region has also grown strong.
One of the key points here that matter for Assam as well as the northeast region as a whole is the perception that the region is disturbed and unstable. As part of its Act East Policy, the Union government has ensured that there are regular visits by Central ministers to the state.
They have also advised various diplomatic missions in New Delhi and Kolkata to engage with Assam. The North East Industrial Development Scheme (NEIDS) is being implemented with state support. The state government is marketing its potential for industries and tourism and has started building capacity around the communication infrastructure.
Apart from these measures, the Sarma government has set up portals for the online registration of unemployed youths with employment exchanges under the Skill, Employment and Entrepreneurship Department; it has started a COVID-19 relief scheme for drivers, conductors and handymen of inter-district buses under the transport department; the state also distributed toolkits to bamboo artisans under the Industries and Commerce Department.
Sarma Is BJP's 'Man of Action' in Assam
There have been efforts to woo successful Assamese in other parts of the country. At an industrial event in Mumbai, organised by the FICCI in February this year, the Chief Minister highlighted investment opportunities in Assam, urging industrialists to consider the state a preferred investment destination and take advantage of the flexible industrial policy. In this regard, the recent setting up of cancer hospitals by the Tata Group is a welcome step. Significant opportunities exist in the health, education, renewable energy, tourism and hospitality sectors, too.
Clearly, this has been a year of growth for Assam. Controversies around his politics aside, the efforts of Himanta Biswa Sarma have borne fruit, seen as he is in the state as a ‘man of action’.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is a commentator on cyber and security issues around northeast India. He can be reached @subimal on Twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)