UNLIKE a satire which, with its intent to disturb, becomes a sort of glass wherein beholders generally discover everybodys face but their own, the memorandum of settlement on Assam is intended to be a soothing and reassuring document wherein everyone can see what he wants to see. Indeed, the memorandum of settlement is rather like the Bhagavad Gita a text for all, capable of a variety of interpretations. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is much euphoria over it among supporters and opponents of the agitation, though in the case of the more informed among both sections there appears to be an air of contrivance about the euphoria.
Just as a measure of scepticism was always justified about the prospect of a settlement in Assam satisfactory to all, similarly scepticism would be in order about the solution which, in a matter of hours, has apparently reconciled the irreconcilables and has been welcomed both by the agitation leaders and by their implacable foe, the States Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia. Looking at the settlement another way, a stage had been reached in Assam when every side wanted a solution and was ready to make concessions; and the Prime Minister simply exploited this weariness and with the help of skilful drafters in the Union Home Ministry hammered out a formula to be all things to all men, making the patchwork deal appear like a reasoned settlement.
Some of the contradictions are indeed transparent. Leaving aside the economic concessions which are clearly included to give body and substance to the package and the historically accomplished fact of demographic changes in Assam and their inescapable long-term political consequences, the major concession obtained by the AASU [All Assam Students Union] and the AAGSP [All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad] relating to the disenfranchisement for a period of 10 years from the date of detection of those foreigners who came to Assam illegally between January 1, 1966, and March 24, 1971, is going to create a lot of problems in its implementation. It is not even certain whether this part of the accord, while exacerbating the anxieties and fears of linguistic and religious minorities, can at all still the long-term fears and anxieties of the Assamese people.
The overwhelming majority in this segment is believed to be Bengali Hindus, about one lakh according to official estimates, in contrast to the less than 30,000 illegal Muslim immigrants in this same period. If the elections are going to be held this winter on the basis of the revised 1971 electoral rolls, it is theoretically possible for a foreigner who might be disenfranchised at some future date to be elected to the Assam Assembly.
The most important feature of the memorandum of settlement is, of course, the unstated part, especially that relating to the dissolution of the present Assam Assembly and the nature of the electoral rolls to be used in the next election. The only reference to electoral rolls is in the addendum outside the formal 14-point memorandum of settlement. The political part of the deal is simply presupposed and its implementation the dissolution of the Assembly and the continuance of Saikia as caretaker Chief Minister heading a small Council of Ministers has been done in a manner calculated to raise the hackles of the agitation leaders.
Further, if elections are to be held as expected, in winter, the electoral rolls are bound to be those currently being prepared, on the basis of the 1971 rolls. The agitation leaders tacit acceptance of these rolls, at least for the immediate purpose of the coming elections, has already provoked some controversy among the ranks of agitation supporters. The draft rolls published have roused near-universal criticism. Leaders have apparently secured the Election Commissions promise to rectify various errors and anomalies. But there is a strong lobby within the agitation ranks which would insist that the elections should be held only after disenfranchisement of the 1966-1971 segment of foreigners; which would mean another thorough revision of the electoral rolls.
The agitation leaders dilemma regarding the future course of action, especially on the political front, is going to be acute. If elections were to be put off to provide some time for the agitation leadership to attend to the onerous task of creating a political organisation able to contest elections Statewide, they will have to bear with the intolerable prospect of Saikia as Chief Minister with a caretaker Council of Ministers whose strength is well over 11 per cent of the strength of the State Assembly the limit that was once sought to be imposed on the size of a regular Council of Ministers. Of course, some agitation supporters argue that a thorough revision of the now-revised electoral rolls with the names of the 1966-1971 segment of foreigners also removed is possible in a matter of months.
It is here that once again the tactical ingenuity of Saikia has become apparent. After his dramatic return to Guwahati in the small hours of August 15 just in time to hoist the national flag ceremonially, Saikia said in his Independence Day speech delivered barely minutes after the Prime Ministers speech in Delhi that he would be going to the people very soon to seek their mandate on the accord.
For one who fought to the last against any concessions on the question of a cut-off date earlier than March 24, 1971, the Chief Minister has been remarkably deft in his turnabout and now maintains the settlement is the best news for the people of the State. That in the event it has also meant the dissolution of the Assembly and the transformation of his 37-member Council of Ministers into a 17-member caretaker one is actually being presented as the greatest political victory of Saikia.
Indeed, the Government of Assam has published the memorandum of settlement as an official document of the State government with a preface by the Chief Minister which concluded with these memorable words: We present in the following pages the full text of the historic memorandum of settlement with the hope that the people in general will fully comprehend the spirit of the historic settlement and will extend full cooperation to the government in implementing it.
Indeed, talking to reporters after the flag-hoisting ceremony on the morning of August 15, Saikia blandly denied he would soon become a mere caretaker Chief Minister, arguing that the Constitution did not provide for such an office; that on the contrary, with the dissolution of the Assembly, he would be more powerful than before with a duly constituted Assembly to which he would have been accountable.
Much of this may be political braggadocio facilitated further by the tactical error of the agitation leaders in not immediately returning to Guwahati even if only for a day and clarifying the terms of the settlement. But not all of the self-assurance is unwarranted. For, the supporters of the agitation too have tended to view the settlement as solely the achievement of the Prime Minister, almost an Independence Day gift from him to the people of Assam. Indeed, processions taken out in the wake of the accord were marked by the slogan Rajiv Gandhi zindabad followed by another slogan Hiteswar Saikia murdabad.
The failure to see the inherent unity in the perception of the Assam problem by such an established bourgeois political formation like the Congress party, whatever the valid differences among the partys leadership, perhaps only reflects the political naivete of the slogan-shouters. But in fact it also reflects a deeper dichotomy. For, the Congress as an organisation has deep roots in Assam and the perception that only some bad people (among whom Saikia would rank high) have brought odium on the party is strong. Such a view also suits the Central Congress leadership, enabling it as it does to tackle its own recurrent organisational problems by ditching one and promoting another.
And though Hiteswar Saikia is feeling that his serviceability has not been entirely unappreciated, it is quite possible that a new Congress with a more acceptable new face may yet emerge.
Whatever patchwork deals may be worked out behind the scenes amidst the contrived euphoria over the settlement, in the long run the contradictions in Assam are too real and involve very high stakes for the future political arrangements in the State.