AS prime ministerial visits go, H.D. Deve Gowdas sojourn to the North-east last week was unprecedented for more than one reason. First, no Prime Minister in recent times has turned his attention to the regions chronic problems so soon after assuming office. And second, no one, not even the itinerant Rajiv Gandhi, attempted to tour all the seven states of the North-east in one go. But Gowda, determined to acquaint himself with the region, travelled to all the seven states on a whistle-stop tour of six days starting October 22.
By his own admission, Gowdas primary task was to "educate" himself about the North-east. With this modest aim and an open mind, he went round the states. The result: Gowda announced an economic package for the entire region and a decision to set up a separate monitoring cell for the North-east under the Prime Ministers Office (PMO) on the lines of the Jammu and Kashmir committee.
More importantly, however, the Prime Minister gave an open offer to various militant groups to come for negotiations "without pre-conditions." Union Home Secretary K. Padmanabhaiah, who was a member of the Prime Ministers entourage, explained that Gowdas offer was different from earlier such endeavours. "The Prime Minister is not saying that formal negotiations should begin right away. What he wants is to get the militants to place their grievances before him and then proceed from there. This is the basic difference."
The Prime Minister also promised to examine the issue of lifting the ban on the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the most potent insurgent group in the region. Clearly, Gowdas advisers had done their homework well. Any breakthrough with the dreaded group would automatically force the other smaller militant outfits to hold their fire since the NSCN is known to act as a mentor to the rest.
In Assam, Gowda took care to touch upon all the issues the Asom Gana Pari-shad (AGP) government is agitated about. He announced that the Centre is "actively considering" the repeal of the controversial Illegal Migrants (determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. The All-Assam Students Union (AASU) and allied organisations have been demanding the scrapping of this Act. They say it is "discriminatory" since it is applicable only in Assam and puts the onus of detecting a foreign national on the complainant. Under the Foreigners Act, 1946, applicable in the rest of the country, it is the other way round. Gowdas announcement should please both the AASU and the AGP.
Besides the new North-east cell, Gowda announced that a minister would now look after the regions welfare and that each Central ministry will now hand out separate allocations to the states. Says Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla, a critic of the Centres policies vis-a-vis the North-east: "The Prime Minister appears to be genuinely concerned about the region."
The Prime Ministers tour was not without its share of troubles. In Manipur, the powerful All-Manipur Students Union (AMSU) called for a public curfew in the capital Imphaleven the local media boycotted the Prime Minister. The AMSU, which organised a rally to protest against the states merger with India in 1949, was unhappy because its representatives were not allowed to meet Gowda. In Assam, the All-Bodo Students Union, spearheading an agitation for a Bodo state, felt "let down" by Gowda for not giving any commitment on the issue.
But despite Gowdas sincere wish to bring the "region at par with the rest of country," doubts about the Centres ability to carry through the promises persist. Says the BJPs K.L. Sharma: "Ad hoc measures will not solve the regions problems." Some political analysts say Gowda chose to visit the North-east only after most of the regions chief ministers criticised the Centre during the inter-state council meeting at New Delhi on October 15. Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir accused the Centre of going back on its promise that the External Affairs Ministry would look after Nagaland as envisaged under the 1960 agreement between Naga and Central leaders. "The Nagas have paid dearly for the Centres decision," he said.
Even Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, member of the UF Steering Committee, pointed at the Centres flaws: "The North-east has not received the desired attention and feels neglected and isolated." The Prime Minister believes in keeping everyone happy. Whether his maiden trip to the North-east meets the expectations depends on his ability to remove the bureaucratese that has often thwarted such attempts in the past.