| Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lights the lamp during the platinum jubilee celebrations of the Assam Legislative Assembly at Dispur parade ground in Guwahati on Friday. Picture by UB Photos
Guwahati, April 20: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today said Assam and the rest of the Northeast should play a leading role in the country’s efforts to look east.
Singh stressed on the region’s importance at the platinum jubilee celebration of the Assam Assembly here this afternoon while conveying that there would be no let-up in India’s ongoing engagement with neighbours Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Northeast is central to the Centre’s Look East Policy, which aims to build closer economic ties with its eastern neighbours. But developing such relations is not a “one-shot” thing, he later said during an informal interaction with a select group of journalists at the airport this evening.
“In recent years, we have taken new initiatives to strengthen our relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Last year, I visited Bangladesh. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi accompanied me and we were able to agree on a number of steps that will benefit both our countries,” Singh said.
However, the land-swap deal has been vehemently opposed by several organisations in Assam.
Driving home the advantages of sustained engagement with neighbouring countries, Singh said, “Next month, I am scheduled to visit Myanmar. I will discuss with the leadership of Myanmar how we can increase opportunities for expansion of trade, economic cooperation and connectivity to the larger ASEAN region. Assam and the other states of the Northeast can and should play leading roles in our efforts to look eastwards.”
In a fitting tribute to the event he was attending and in an oblique reference to Myanmar, Singh reminded the gathering that while celebrating the platinum jubilee, “we should not forget that there are many nations in the world which are just waking up to the light of democracy. As the world’s largest democracy, we in India warmly welcome all those who seek a world of freedom and constitutional government.” Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi recently got elected as an MP in junta-ruled Myanmar, which is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and shares its border with Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.
Singh said “democratic” India had been criticised for having ties with “dictatorial” Myanmar but now everybody was hailing the recent elections. “These things take time. Democracy is not something that can be implanted overnight. Our engagement is yielding results,” he said, adding that once connectivity was established with Bangladesh and Myanmar things could only improve for the Northeast and the country.
Stressing on infrastructure as the key to development in the Northeast, Singh said, “We need better educational and services infrastructure. We need better transport connectivity. As connectivity improves and capabilities expand, so will commerce and employment opportunities. The rapid improvement in Assam’s human development indicators gives us hope and reason to believe that the progress Assam has recently experienced can be sustained over the long term.”
The Prime Minister was effusive in his praise for former chief minister and friend late Hiteswar Saikia and incumbent chief minister Tarun Gogoi for their contributions in taking Assam forward.
A Rajya Sabha MP from Assam, Singh was equally effusive and nostalgic about his association with the state.
“I remain deeply indebted to the people of Assam. I was born in a distant and dusty village in a part of this sub-continent that is no longer in India. At a tender age I became homeless and a migrant. It is in Assam that I have finally found a home that has given me a sense of belonging. The friendship, the affection and the warmth that each one of you have so readily extended to me is something I cannot and will not ever forget,” he said.
Singh did not make any big bang announcements but indirectly endorsed the long-pending demand for a bicameral legislature in Assam and all possible help for the development of the state and the region. “I am happy that the state government has decided to build a new complex at Dispur to house both the Assam Legislative Assembly and the proposed Assam Legislative Council. I am told that the project is expected to be complete by 2014. It is my fondest hope and wish that the new complex will enable the representatives of the people of Assam to serve their people and their cause and aspirations,” he said.
Singh expressed regret for not being able to attend the function on April 7, as scheduled earlier, as Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was visiting the country. The first sitting of the Assam Legislative Assembly was held on April 7, 1937 in Shillong. It continued to be Assam’s capital till 1972, when the state government decided to make Dispur the new capital.
Speaking at the platinum jubilee function, Assam governor J.B. Patnaik invoked Vaishnavite saints Sankardev and Madhavdev to drive home a message about Indianness. “Today we talk about Indianness which Assam has been practising for 500 years.”
The Paresh Barua faction of Ulfa had called a 12-hour bandh to protest against the Prime Minister’s visit but it passed off smoothly.