Assam – Whither To

By A. H. Scott Lyngdoh

This piecemeal dismem-berment of Assam from time to time , is not just a matter of historical significance; it’s about the State’s future over the demands for Statehood by several disparate groups which feel alienated because of long standing unattended grievances. The first to depart was the Sylhet District, its people choosing East Pakistan at the time of Partition. Next on the list was the Naga Hills District, about which there is need for some detailed explanation. It begins with Sir Charles Pawsey, the last Deputy Commissioner tendering advice before leaving office. It was actually a warning to the then Chief Minister of Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi to watch out, not to allow Phizo a freehand as there was mischief in the air. “Not to worry” responds a good natured Bordoloi, ” We were in prison together during British rule, he is my friend, there will be no trouble.” Whether it was Pawsey’s annoyance at Phizo aiding the INA during the Second World War or some other reason, such advice went unheeded. And thus the opportunity was created for Phizo to tour extensively rallying the Nagas to the idea of sovereignty, for out there was an upright leader enchanting the crowds with no attachment to personal gain. Moving on to 1955/56 following the declaration of Naga Independence and the outbreak of violence, the Army was called in with the Indian Frontier Administrative Service taking over the administration. Central control meant Assam’s loss of its strategic eastern flank, paving the way for the District’s elevation to Statehood on 1st December 1963. Perhaps the only person with far- sightedness was Sayyid Sir Fazl Ali’s contribution to bring the Nagas into the mainstream. This nobleman of high standing headed the States Reorganisation Commission and was Governor of Assam stationed in Shillong from 1956 to 1959. The college he established in Mokokchung known as Sir Fazl Ali College of Arts celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010.

The next to go were the Mizo Hills, Khasi and Jaintia and Garo Hills Districts for entirely different reasons. The former was a case of utter neglect as narrated by the events of ‘ mautam ‘ breaking out in 1959/60 when the bamboo flowered causing an explosion of the rat population. Their numbers increased so rapidly that they soon ran short of wild food and turned upon cultivated crops such as paddy, millet and maize. Time Magazine described the phenomenon as ‘”The flowers of evil.” Famine stocked the land when this writer was the SDO Churachandpur in Manipur, adjoining the Mizo Hills District. Steps were taken immediately on our side of the border in setting up food grain godowns and relief work for the population. It was a novel experiment avoiding cash transactions – on one side the work order, on the reverse a progress report to collect 1 km of grain, if 1 km of road were completed. Neighbouring Mizo Hills District under Assam failed to deliver causing mass starvation; people revolted leading to an insurgency which lasted 17 long years. Little did the writer realise at that time, that he was later to take over as Chief Secretary Mizoram during which time the revolt was suppressed and brought to an end. Here again, it was central intervention, elevation to Union Territory status and finally Statehood. Assam had lost another border territory.

It was the turn of the Khasi and Jaintia and Garo Hills Districts when Bishnuram Medhi was Chief Minister of Assam. A haughty and impolite man, he was to undo the goodwill of his worthy predecessors. Trouble started when the Khasi and Jaintia Autonomous District Council Bill at the draft stage contained a provision to nominate a large number through the back door, to give Government control over the affairs of the Council. Youth leaders mostly from Jaiaw and Mawkhar areas led by Hoover Hynniewta stridently opposed such a move, decided on a protest march which required the Chief Minister’s permission. The delegation including the writer were aghast at Medhi’s rude behaviour, as he thumped the table, raised his hands that such a procession will not be allowed under any circumstances. In defiance, a huge crowd gathered including Hopingstone Lyngdoh, Gilbert Shullai and others. The marchers were blocked at Mawkhar by the police who used tear gas and lathis, blood flowed, many sustained injuries and ultimately the able bodied landed up in the Shillong Police lockup. The Government relented after the huge crowd surrounded the police station chanting slogans. It was the beginning of the Hill State movement culminating in a mass upsurge over the language issue and consequently Statehood for Meghalaya. Assam had lost out again. At this juncture, it is pertinent to point out that though NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) was constitutionally part of Assam, the administration was conducted independently by the Governor of Assam.

The heart of the problem of three strategic areas going out of Assam is connected in a way with British policy to keep the tribals away from the mainstream. British officers mainly from the ICS did a commendable job in governing the districts, some like Dr. Hutton choosing to stay on as Deputy Commissioner Naga Hills District for 18 long years (1917 to 1935). But the administrative arrang-ements were such that at the time of Independence, a big vacuum was created due to the dearth of senior and middle level Assam cadre officers who could not effectively deal with the emerging new situation.

Mr. Gogoi, a long serving Chief Minister has a large following with the backing of the Centre. He now faces the biggest challenge to stir the Government to its highest level as would avoid any further loss of territory. Upgradation to territorial status, special financial awards, and more autonomy at the District level (viewed against poor governance within the Councils) has not won the trust of the alienated groups. How far short of Statehood is the Assam Government willing to go to fill in the gaps? A separate Kamtapur State comprising some parts of West Bengal will need careful handling. Strikes and blockades crippling movement of traffic along important highways especially the strategic highway stretch between Siliguri and Guwahati will adversely affect the economy of most of the North Eastern States which are heavily dependent on goods and services from the mainland.

A distorted relationship has developed with each state directly dealing with the centre, while the components have lost touch with one another creating a big void. A dramatic change is necessary to strengthen the relationship between the North Eastern States, in a combined effort to ward off separatism as a way to peace and prosperity. Krishnan Srinivasan’s article (former Foreign Secretary of India) appearing in the Telegraph of 12th August, 2013 has come just in time. The New Delhi Government he says, gives the impression of permanent ambiguity of closer integrity between the North East and adjoining countries. The forum which ideally can bridge the gap is the high powered North Eastern Council consisting of the Governors and Chief Ministers who play a developmental role, but for some mysterious reason the Centre has taken out the security aspect. The Governors who are persons of vast experience and knowledge coupled with the Chief Ministers as elected leaders, assisted by the apparatus of the police and intelligence agencies can do a much better job, if the NEC were elevated as the pivotal agency for Security. Incidentally, if such were to happen, New Delhi is partially freed to concentrate its attention on the strategic Western Sector when the American troops depart from Afghanistan in 2014.

(The writer was formerly the SDO Ukhrul & Churachandpur, D.C Kohima & Chief Secretary Mizoram)