Samudra Gupta Kashyap
The North-eastern Region of the country has undergone certain never-before experiences in the past five years or so since India had attained Independence. Very few across the country know exactly what kind of losses the North-east had suffered because of the Partition. While direct road, waterways and railway links between the region and the rest of the country were cut off at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, it took a couple of years for a new railway and road link to be established through the 22-km Siliguri Corridor – “the chicken’s neck” – and smooth surface communication to be restored.
Assam, as the region was largely known as, barring the princely states of Manipur and Tripura which merged with the Indian Union within less than two years of Independence, is not only where petroleum was first discovered, but had also seen the establishment of the world’s largest tea industry, as well as becoming the plywood manufacturing hub of the subcontinent. No wonder the per capita income of Assam was much higher than most states of the country in the first few years of Independence. While a sudden geographical isolation hit the all-round development of the region, natural calamities like earthquakes, floods and river-bank erosion added to the woes. And as if that was not enough, the region also saw the influx of large number of people from East Pakistan, thus suddenly turning Assam in particular into a densely populated state. Finally, it was prolonged neglect by successive regimes at the Centre which pushed Assam from a state of prosperity and self-sufficiency into over-all backwardness. The people, for instance, did not see a broad-gauge railway for more than fifty years after Independence. Highways mostly remained single-lane. The mighty Brahmaputra had only one bridge for four decades and got just two more in the next two decades. A handful of infrastructure projects which had been launched on the other hand were either lying in limbo or progressed at a snail’s pace. With very little investments coming in, and the benefits of welfare schemes not reaching the communities, armed insurgency was all that frustrated youth had before them to choose.
One must admit that though there had been a few half-hearted attempts to solve some of the issues, it was only in the past five years or so that Assam and the North-east has been experiencing some significant positive developments. Looking back, one finds that it was during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time that Assam and the region had for the first time seen what highways actually mean. Taking off from where things had virtually slipped into sleep-mode, a slew of measures that Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated upon taking over in 2014 have actually brought about significant changes in the region. While he described the region as ‘asta-lakshmi’ or eight goddesses of wealth and prosperity, redefining the erstwhile Look East Policy to Act East Policy, declaring the region as the country’s organic hub, and laying priority in completion of long-pending infrastructure projects have all contributed towards change in the people’s perception of what development had so longer meant, if at all. The finest example is the speedy completion of the 4.94-km Bogibeel rail-cum-road bridge over the Brahmaputra, which had been sanctioned way back in 1997. Other major projects that have received a major boost include expediting railway links to all state capitals, and putting more destinations of the region on the air connectivity map of the country.
On the insurgency front, the Naga issue – which is as old as India attaining Independence – saw the signing of the historic Framework Agreement between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) in 2015, leaving only the final step to a long-lasting solution.
In Assam on the other hand, signing of the third Bodo Accord on January 27, 2020, has been seen as a very significant step towards pulling the final curtains down on armed insurgencies in the state. The first Bodo Accord of 1993 had already proved to be a chapter almost all chose to wipe out of memory because of its hurriedly-drawn nature. The third Bodo Accord, built upon the foundations of the second one signed during the Vajpayee regime in 2003, has for the first time not only brought all factions of the once-dreaded National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) on one platform to sign it, but ensured participation of Bodo civil society groups like the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) and United Bodo People’s Organisation (UBPO) in it.
First and foremost, armed insurgency among the youth of the Bodo community – the largest indigenous tribal group of Assam – has been consigned into pages of history. Assuring Rs 250 crore per annum each by the Centre and the Assam government for the next three years holds promise for accelerating socio-economic development of the Bodo areas; the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) comprising Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baska and Udalguri have been rechristened as Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR).
The Accord also provides remapping the BTR with exchange of Bodo-inhabited villages for non-Bodo villages, which in turn should, to certain extent allay apprehensions of the non-Bodo indigenous communities living there since time immemorial. (The Koch-Rajbangshi community, which once had at least three thriving kingdoms extending from northern Assam to present-day Coochbehar in North Bengal, and has a large presence in the BTR, meanwhile is awaiting fulfilment of its demand for declaration as a Scheduled Tribe, an election promise of the present government.) A Commission headed by a retired High Court judge will look at the details. A number of educational institutions are on the cards as provisions of the Accord, which will definitely provide more opportunities to the upcoming generations to acquire quality higher education, in which western and northern Assam have been lagging behind since decades.
Bringing armed dissentions to an end in the Bodo areas on the other hand will have a ripple effect on some other insurgent groups which have been either waiting for working out final settlements, or have so long refused to respond positively to the signals repeatedly sent out by the government in the past five years. Most significant among them is the Paresh Barua faction of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), to whom the government has recently sent out fresh signals to come out and work out a peaceful solution for the greater interest of Assam the North-east. The pro-talk faction of the ULFA headed by its Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and general secretary Anup Chetia has been holding discussions with the government for the past few years. But then, a lasting solution can come only when all factions come together, as has happened to the Bodo groups. Such a development has already moved significantly forward in case of the long-pending Naga issue. The next step that should naturally follow is a similar initiative for Manipur, especially given the fact that civil society groups are very influential there.
Finally, the Bodo Accord is also bound to provide a major boost to trans-border and bilateral trade, commerce and people-to-people relationship between the North-eastern Region and Bhutan. The Himalayan Kingdom shares 699 km international boundary with India, of which the borders with Assam (267 km), Arunachal Pradesh (217 km) and Sikkim (32 km) are very important for both neighbours. Bhutan, which has, for the first time in 50 years, announced entry fee for Indian tourists, has however decided to continue with the free-entry system to all districts that it shares boundary with the Northeast.
(The author is a veteran Guwahati-based journalist who had reported from the North-east close to four decades. He can be reached at [email protected]