Sarma says the Bihar poll results will have a positive impact for BJP in both West Bengal and Assam, argues that his problem is not with Assamese Muslims but the ‘threat’ to composite Assamese culture, remains hopeful of Naga peace talks, and claims he has ‘no personal ambition left’. The session was moderated by Associate Editor Liz Mathew.
LIZ MATHEW: Do you think that the Bihar Assembly election result will influence the polls in Assam next year?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: We should not see the Bihar Assembly election result in isolation. It should be seen along with the bypolls in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Manipur. If you look at the country’s map, from east to west and south to north, people have reiterated the Lok Sabha verdict once again. This reiteration is more vocal. The Bihar result is a continuation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha victory. Although one state election doesn’t have a direct impact on the other, people’s faith in PM Modi will have a huge impact in Assam and Bengal elections. The results have led to a positive psychological effect on the karyakartas in both Bengal and Assam.
LIZ MATHEW: In the Bihar polls, the AIMIM spoke about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Do you think this issue holds appeal in the Assam Assembly elections given that the state has a large Muslim population?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: The Assamese Muslim community will vote for us. But so far as Muslims who have migrated from Bangladesh at different stages of time (are concerned), they are not going to vote for the BJP. So, what they think and do is an activity to be noticed by the Congress and All India United Democratic Front. We are continuing our development work because the government is for all.
LIZ MATHEW: So, does this mean that in the coming days the BJP will try to consolidate Hindu votes in Assam?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: It is not a Hindu-Muslim (matter). It is a fight between two cultures. The so-called migrants — Bangladeshi Muslims — have started a new concept in Assam. They call it Miya culture, Miya poetry… Miya language… We have to protect the composite Indian culture and more particularly Assamese culture… And Assamese Muslims are firmly by our side.
LIZ MATHEW: Assam witnessed widespread protests against the NRC and CAA. How will this affect the polls?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: There were protests against the NRC and CAA. But after that, many things have changed in the landscape of Assam. There is currently not too much talk about the NRC and CAA. These issues are no longer a part of the main political discourse of Assam. But if somebody from Delhi comes and asks someone about which side of the NRC and CAA they are on, then people have to tell something. But in the political landscape or the build-up to the election, nobody is talking about these issues. I don’t think these will be a political issue. Of course, some (political) parties (or leaders) may mention it in their speeches. I think things have already taken a different turn — a conflict between cultures, the development work done by our government.
ABHISHEK SAHA: At least two new political formations (the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and the Assam Jatiya Parishad) have made the CAA and NRC their main planks.
Himanta Biswa Sarma: These two formations had declared their intention to form a political party about five to six years back. In the context of Assam, I don’t think somebody can think of getting any seat or percentage of votes talking about the CAA and NRC. A lot of rumours were spread during the CAA agitation. People were told that a lot of Bangladeshis would come. They were also told that 500 trucks were lining up at the Bangladesh border. But people have seen that all these things have not happened in the last one year. I think if somebody tries to raise this issue, it will boomerang on them. I meet many people. Nobody is talking about the NRC or CAA. So these two political formations will also eventually dedicate only two minutes for these issues. Then they will attack the BJP on other fronts.
TORA AGARWALA: The representatives of the Miya community say that they are not asserting an independent or a separate culture, but that they are part of the greater Assamese culture. What is your opinion on that?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: In Assam, many people have come in the last 1,000 years. Seven hundred years ago, my forefathers themselves migrated here… So, everybody has assimilated into the bigger cultural landscape. Nobody has tried to assert an independent culture. They (Miya Muslims) say that we want respect and space within the greater Assamese culture. In Assam, the practice since 500 years ago, which was started by Mahaprabhu Sankardev, is that you assimilate into a broader Assamese culture and we will pick up your positive elements. But here is a community which has distorted Assamese language and created a language called Miya… It is not an independent culture, they distorted Assamese poetry and started Miya poetry… So it is aggression. They tell people that they want to assert their identity. What is the need to assert identity? That means you want to aggressively counter Assamese culture by encroaching on land of our monasteries… We will not accept this type of assertion. This is not acceptable to us.
ESHA ROY: The Naga peace talks seem to have hit a roadblock for many months now. There have been reports that the Union government has now agreed to discuss the Constitution and separate flag that the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M) has been demanding. Is it true? If not, how is the government planning to take the talks forward?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: I will not go into the details about the flag and constitution. But I would like to say that the NDA government’s policy is maintaining the integrity of the nation. That is what we saw in Jammu and Kashmir… However, the Naga issue is a very complex issue. These issues need to be resolved for larger peace and stability of our region. Under the supervision of (Union) Home Minister Amit Shah, a team of officers are engaging with Mr Thuingaleng Muivah (the general secretary of the NSCN). The discussions are positive and both sides have realised that they need to accommodate each other. But, at the same time, we should not expect a dramatic outcome. This will take time and will be discussed in a friendly atmosphere. There is no breakdown of the Naga peace talks.
There are some proposals and counter-proposals. The Home Ministry is in touch with the Manipur civil society, and Assam and Arunachal Pradesh governments. We have to ensure that any Naga solution does not create another counter-agitation in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh or Manipur.
ABHISHEK SAHA: How successful has Assam been in managing the Covid-19 crisis?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: Our doctors, paramedics, nurses and the government have done a commendable job in combating Covid-19. We have seen almost 2,10,000 positive cases. In a state like Assam, this is a huge number. Yet, today, our recovery rate is 97.45 per cent. Our mortality rate is just 0.45 per cent. We have completed 5 million tests. Assam has shown the way as to how by testing, tracking and isolating, you can combat Covid-19. In the meantime, we have celebrated Durga Puja. We are also holding political activities for the Bodoland council polls, where thousands of people are attending political rallies. In spite of all this, our positivity rate is just below 1 per cent. So, I think Assam has done a commendable job… From September 1, we have seen a steady decline. At some point in time, our active cases per day were about 36,000. Today, our active cases per day are just 200.
ABHISHEK SAHA: Why is the government opposed to madrasa education?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: In 1955, the Assam government had published an education rule where they made two provisions. They created a set of schools called high madrasa, where a student could appear for general subjects. But they were also allowed to study a subject based on the Quran and can score 200 marks in that. This has created an imbalance as other students are not able to give answers on the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita. An opportunity was given only to a class of citizens to study their holy scripture and then score marks. So, my opposition is because you have to establish parity. Either you allow the Bhagavad Gita or Bible so that other students also score 200 marks, or remove the Quran.
I think introducing the Bible or Bhagavad Gita will not be easy because Assam has a composite culture and there are many small religions. So the best way to establish parity is to remove the subject on the Quran. We are doing that this month. The Cabinet note is already in circulation and in its last stages of approval.
Then, we have another set of madrasas which impart deep religious or theological knowledge. And we give equivalence of Standards 10 and 12 (to them). This is not correct. Many students after completing Standard 10 ask whether they will be able to study medicine or engineering. The decision to send them to the madrasa was taken by their parents. This was not an informed choice of the student. A study conducted by Gauhati University found that 90 per cent of the students want to study medicine and engineering and do not want to study in madrasas. But at that stage, they realise that the doors are already closed. So, we have decided to convert these institutes into seats for general education. Now, 600 madrasas will be closed (down). In these madrasas, we are going to impart modern education. This (is not to) save any finance. We will keep spending Rs 300 crore because we are not going to take anybody out of service… The madrasa education is opposed by the student themselves.
LIZ MATHEW: But the Constitution gives rights to minorities to run educational institutions….
Himanta Biswa Sarma: All private madrasas will continue. We are not touching them. It is a part of their constitutional right. And we respect that right… But these articles (in the Constitution) do not direct the government to run religious education. The minorities have the right to run educational institutions. But they don’t have the right to impose their holy scriptures or literature on the government.
KABIR FIRAQUE: You have spoken about the clash of two civilisations and greater Assamese culture. You said that Assamese Muslims are on your side. So, in your vision of two civilisations, where do you place Assamese Muslims? And in the greater Assamese culture, where do you place Miya Muslims and Bengali Hindus?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: Bengali Hindus are not distorting Assamese poetry… They are not saying that Bengali is an Assamese culture. They are saying we have a distinct culture. We have no issue as long as you are saying that Bengali Hindus follow Bengali literature and culture… But Miya culture is distorting Assamese language… Bengali Hindus are not in confrontation with Assamese culture… So as long as you don’t clash with our civilisation, we have no issue.
Today, Assamese Muslims are being exploited. They do not have any representative in the Assembly or any parliamentary constituency… Nobody talks about them or their plight… So, the BJP is strongly on the side of the Assamese Muslim community. We have already ordered for their census and announced a Development Council for them. We have allotted Rs 100 crore for their development.
KABIR FIRAQUE: If Miya Muslims agree to live as a separate culture, would the greater Assamese society accept them?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: Where is the question of us accepting or not accepting them? The Constitution of India gives them that right. You are already in the Assembly. You have already said that Bengali is your mother tongue in the Census… But now you are saying that Bengali is not your mother tongue and that you have a Miya language. Is there a language called Miya language in any dictionary? At some point in time, they (Miya Muslims) will say that their poetry is the real Assamese poetry or their culture is the real culture because they are gaining a majority. So, ours is a defensive mechanism. We are not on the offensive. We apprehend that at some point in time the Miya language will become the official language of Assam… So, the problem is the aggressive attitude. If they want to stick to their own culture, who is going to oppose them?… Do not try to mainstream your culture and impose it as the real Assamese culture.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: When the Assam NRC panel submitted its report, the government contested it, amidst rumours that it had excluded more Hindu than Muslim names. What was the reason for rejecting it? What will be different in a new NRC?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: We are not opposing or questioning the NRC. We are questioning certain processes adopted by (NRC) coordinator Prateek Hajela. He adopted certain procedures and misled the Supreme Court. First, the NRC did not delete more Hindu names then Muslim. It put 5,56,000 Hindus and almost 11 lakh Muslims in the doubtful list. But that is not our concern. Our concern is that in the bordering districts of Assam there is a tremendous growth in population, which is disproportionate to any other Muslim- or Hindu-dominated district in the state. So, we had requested Mr Hajela to recheck 20 per cent of sample data from the officer of a neighbouring district. But he rejected the re-verification. We had produced documentary evidence before him. We also informed the Central government and brought to their notice that many fake documents were annexed along with the NRC applications… So, we just requested 20 per cent re-verification in six border districts and 10 per cent re-verification in other districts. If the re-verification presents the same picture, we are going to accept the NRC….
TORA AGARWALA: Every time the CAA issue comes to the fore, Assam erupts. Now with Covid-19, the issue has taken a back seat. But when the CAA comes into focus again, how do you plan to prevent violence?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: You saw (anti) CAA protests on December 29 (2019). But after that, you saw BJP rallies in support of the CAA. And you also saw the kind of people who came out and supported the Home Minister’s move on the amendment of the CAA. Of course, on the issue of the CAA, there will be a set of people who will keep on opposing and there will be another set who will say that the CAA is important for Assam. Having said that, I do not think that in Assam people are currently discussing the CAA. We have been able to largely convince the people that the CAA is not anti-Assamese and that it will not harm Assamese culture. I do not know whether there will be protests or not.
TORA AGARWALA: The Baghjan Oil Field was on fire for months. This has adversely affected the environment even in the neighbouring areas. There is a lot of discontent regarding it on the ground….
Himanta Biswa Sarma: I am of the view that it should have been contained much earlier. If you cannot control the blowout on time, then people will resist new drilling. So, economically and environmentally, we have to search for technology and alternative mechanisms so that blowouts are contained immediately. We are in touch with the local people in Baghjan. We have started various development activities. And I think that public anger is softening because they saw that Oil India Limited worked day and night to contain the blowout. But the impact on the environmental is there. We need to ensure that this does not happen again.
ANANT GOENKA: What is your view on social media platforms having the power to control content?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: First, as a country, we cannot oppose the free flow of information. But this should not become a source of misinformation. I am not in a position to suggest a way but the government or an independent authority must see to it that social media is not misused for supplying misinformation. I think gradually we can think of an independent mechanism, out of the government’s control, to see that social media contents are not harming society, individual reputation or national interest.
LIZ MATHEW: With the Assam Assembly elections approaching, are we going to see you in the top position?
Himanta Biswa Sarma: I have been in the Assembly from 2001. So, I have already requested the party that I do not want to contest this election. I have done a lot for my state in the last 20 years. So, now I am at the party’s disposal. Whatever they decide, I will be fine with it… I don’t have any personal ambition left. I have got enough love and affection from the people. It might have been an ambition 10 years back. But now, it is no longer an ambition. I am in a flow. Let’s see what happens.