The peaceful conclusion of polling in Assam on Monday marks the end of an era of secessionism in the state. The second phase of voting witnessed an impressive turnout of more than 70%. For the first time in recent history, the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was quiescent, neither supporting nor opposing the electoral process.
This is both a matter of satisfaction and is also a challenge. The history of various insurgency hit states—from Jammu and Kashmir to Nagaland—bears little comparison with each other. But each province that has been pacified has had a powerful demonstrator effect on other such states. Mizoram, Punjab, and, to an extent Nagaland, have traced a trajectory of peace one after another. Now, finally, Assam, too, has bid goodbye to separatism. There is no doubt that Paresh Barua, the leader of ULFA’s armed wing remains recalcitrant to the idea of peace; but one person alone matters little: almost the entire leadership of the outfit—from chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa downwards—have been reconciled.
The challenges ahead are, however, of a very different order. Leaving aside the so-called ‘BIMARU’ states, Assam is one of the more poor Indian states. In per capita income terms, it is much behind the national average. So too in terms of human development indicators (life expectancy at birth and infant mortality rates per 1,000 births, to give two examples). Much of the population of the state continues to eke out its existence from agriculture. Industrial development is non-existent.
This cannot be changed overnight. While the Tarun Gogoi government may claim some success for turning the corner on the insurgency problem, that is only a partial success. In fact insurgency was already on its way out: the people of Assam had concluded that separatism doesn’t pay. It is on the development front that Gogoi’s reign has been lacklustre. True, attracting investment in states that have been through insurgency is difficult, the issue is about the serious inadequacy of the government’s efforts. The failure on this count is for all to see. How future governments tackle the development question will determine how fruitful the return of peace has been in Assam.
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