Sections within the Home Ministry and the UPA feel that the Tarun Gogoi government should not be guided by short-term gains.
ON July 31, in his last press conference as the Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram addressed issues relating to the recent conflict in Assam with the studied poise of a mature politician. He emphasised repeatedly that the conflict should not be seen as the reflection of a larger trend in the State and that violence had actually come down significantly over the past few years. He pointed out that across the country the plural nature of society was manifest more and more prominently and all communities and groups would have to come to terms with this. In Assam, he said, this meant that Bodos and non-Bodos must learn to live together in accordance with the Bodo Accord formulated 10 years ago by the various communities in the State.
Chidambaram went on to add that the arrangements under the Bodo Accord could be given a fresh look if the parties concerned so desired, but underscored that this was not the time to do it. At the moment our tasks are three, relief, rehabilitation and providing security, and both the Union and State governments are focussing on this. He also pointedly denied any difference between the Centre and the State government on the modalities of handling the conflict. The question on differences had arisen essentially on account of Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogois reported complaint about the delayed arrival of Central forces. Chidambaram recalled that the Chief Minister himself had clarified that he had made no such statement.
There are, however, voices within the government and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that point out that the State government and the Centre are not completely agreed on how the situation should be handled. Starting from the handling of the conflict to larger issues such as the chauvinistic assertion of Bodo groups, the tabulation of illegal immigrants and the high inflow of weapons, the State and the Centre have pronounced differences. The approach, at least during Chidambarams tenure, was that these would have to be addressed to evolve concrete medium- and long-term mechanisms that offer long-standing solutions, a senior Home Ministry official said .
It is more or less uniformly accepted that the delay in deploying the Army in Assam embarrassed the Centre, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was compelled to seek a report. The feedback received by his office was reportedly that the delay was caused by confusion over whether the Defence Ministrys Standard Operating Procedure, which is generally not applicable while handling a riot-like situation, should be adopted. The Home Ministrys initial assessments blamed deficient predictive analysis by the State governments intelligence and security agencies for the way the violence spread over a large area. Later assessments found the district administration to be at fault, rather than the States political and administrative leadership. Indeed, the State administration was perceived to have made up for the shortcomings in its initial response. All this seems to have helped to clear the air and ensure more concerted action on the ground.
But, as a senior Congress leader from north-eastern India said, the question of addressing larger issues and evolving concrete medium- and long-term mechanisms remains. He said that the Union Home Ministry felt that Gogois governance was dictated by concerns about immediate political gains. Large sections of the party are of the view that this line will create problems in the long run. They want Gogoi to change it. There are even some who argue that he should be removed as Chief Minister to bring about this change in policy. By all indications, the issue has received careful consideration from Rahul Gandhi, the powerful Congress general secretary.Fragile balance
The leader pointed out that when Gogoi came back to power for the third time in 2011, the assessment was that he had been able, in his second term, to strike a balance in addressing the concerns of the different groups and communities in the multi-religious, multi-ethnic State. Not only were the Bodo tribal councils and the minority welfare schemes functioning well, but he had also crafted several deals and programmes for smaller communities like the Rabhas. All this had given a sense of harmonious and balanced growth and development. According to a number of Assam watchers, both in politics and in bureaucracy, this was a period when television programmes in Bodo-controlled channels had a sizeable Bengali presence. There was no parochial animosity towards Bengalis, the ethnic group to which the majority of the Muslim minority belonged. However, over the past six months, that sense of balance seemed to be going awry, the leader said.
He pointed out, as did several other leaders of the UPA from the region, how the government was unable to control Bodo high-handedness and responded to this with a tendency towards minority appeasement. The Chief Minister would need to take well-thought-out steps to stop this drift, or else he should be compelled by the Centre to do it, he said.
Ripunjoy Bora of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a constituent of the UPA, pointed out that the task was delicate, especially because Hindutva forces sought to brand all Muslim immigrants as illegal. Specific, well-thought-out programmes need to devised and implemented with political sagacity and in a time-bound manner. Otherwise, the area will blow up in major communal conflicts, Bora said. The importance of the warning has been highlighted by the actions of the Hindutva groups and leaders who have reached the conflict region. Veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani has visited the region and blamed large-scale immigration from Bangladesh for the conflict.
Sections in the Union Home Ministry agree with the views expressed by Bora and the senior Congress leader. According to a number of Ministry officials, steps to restore harmony and balance should include regulation of the functioning of the Bodo councils to restrict high-handedness administratively and at the social level, and greater monitoring and control of arms inflow. The National Citizens Register, they said, should be judiciously and impartially prepared so that legal migrants are not provoked, and the functioning of the councils that still retain some powers, despite the Supreme Courts striking down of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, should be streamlined. The officials also pointed out that the Ministry had sought to impel the State government to take these steps in a systematic manner over the past two years, without much success. Chidambaram apparently felt that all these issues should be taken up with the State government. It remains to be seen how far the Ministry will take up these issues under the new Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde.
According to former Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai, who has had considerable experience in the north-eastern States, formulation of concrete plans in the areas of both security and social infrastructure is required to bring about lasting peace in Assam. Peace and trouble-free governance in Assam is central to peace in the whole of the north-eastern region. For it is through Assam that the rest of India reaches out to all the States in the region, he said. Pillai added that while a number of political leaders accepted this in theory, in practice they were bogged down by short-term political gains. The former bureaucrat is of the firm view that unless this disease is eradicated, the region will erupt in flames from time to time.
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