Hiteswar Saikia, the most powerful leader that Northeast India ever had was a person who lived his life in his own terms. Often termed as the best Chief Minister of the worst times, not many people knew that under the hood of a Machiavellian politician lay a man with a heart of gold. He was the chief minister of Assam for two terms, first from February 28, 1983 to December 23, 1985 and then from June 30, 1991 to April 22, 1996.
Born on October 3, 1934 at Bogabagh Tea Estate in Sivasagar district of Assam, Hiteswar Saikia’s father Haladhar Saikia (1896–1988), was a man of profound patriotism, great perspicuity, admirable diligence and excellent presence of mind. He worked as the tea garden's Head Clerk; the estate was owned by the Assam Tea Company and run by a British Board of shareholders.
From his childhood, Hiteswar Saikia was drawn towards the non-cooperative movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. To join the movement he even gave up going to school. At that time he was studying in IXth Standard. His father influenced his career at almost all the turning points of his early life. It was his father who made him go to Lucknow for postgraduate studies where he earned an M.A. in History.
Although Hiteswar Saikia was not in the front rank of the leadership when Assam had been swept by the tides of two big political movements—namely The Oil Refinery movement of 1958 and The State Language movement, by dint of his organizing capacity he could caught the attention of discerning eyes. He joined the ‘All India Congress Committee’ on August 15, 1964 and was given the responsibility of leading the party’s youth wing. Very soon, because of his amiable disposition and hardworking nature, Saikia became a very popular figure and was nominated to contest the state Assembly election from his home constituency ‘Nazira’, a sleepy township in Sivasagar district.
Upon his victory, he was included in the newly formed Sarat Chandra Sinha Ministry and was made a Junior Minister (Minister of State) with three portfolios (Home, Education and Public relations) in 1972. However, within a couple of years, Chief Minister Sarat Chandra Sinha upgraded him to a full scale Cabinet Minister with the all-important Home portfolio in 1974. This was a turning point in Hiteswar Saikia’s career.
However, Saikia parted ways with Sarat Chandra Sinha in 1980 just before imposition of President’s Rule in Assam and because of his political maturity and organizing ability; very soon he could catch the attention of Indira Gandhi.
During his first tenure (February 28, 1983 to December 23, 1985) as the Chief Minister, the famous Anti Foreigners Movement took place in Assam. The movement demanded the expulsion of all foreigners—whose number had been estimated to be several lakhs. Assam was having a political climate which appeared to be different from that of the heart land of India. At that time, Indira Gandhi observed that only hope lay in bringing the AASU leadership to the negotiating table. She felt that Saikia was the man who could fulfill the task at any cost. Saikia drew up a blue print to control the law and order situation which had been on the fringe of anarchy, to contain the communal and ethnic violence, to provide immediate relief and succor to the victims of senseless violence, to maneuver the AASU leaders back to the negotiating table, and also to inspire confidence among the sections of people keeping themselves at a distance of the agitating leaders.
The measure of Saikia’s success in the matter may be obtained from the spontaneous words of appreciation in the speech of Prime Minister herself. Unfortunately, India Gandhi was assassinated before the matter could be formally solved and closed. Subsequently, her successor, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came forward to fulfill the half-finished work of his mother. Turning his attention to the problems relating to the Assam movement, he tried bringing the AASU leaders to the negotiating table. Hiteswar Saikia did everything that he could do to support Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative to solve the problem. Finally, Rajiv Gandhi could persuade the agitating student leaders to come forward for ending the impasse and the Assam Accord was signed at midnight on the eve of 15 August 1985. It drew the final curtain over the last scene of the long six years Assam movement.
At the advice of Rajiv Gandhi, Saikia at that moment stepped down as the Chief Minister of Assam and paved way for election to form a new government. The Congress lost that election and it was time for Saikia to stay away from the Assam politics for a while.
Enthused with the success of Assam Accord, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi turned his attention to Mizoram which had similar problems to that of Assam both in dimension and in nature. Government of India had been tired of facing violence in that Union Territory as unleashed by Laldenga, the leader of the Mizo National Front (MNF) for quite a number of years. Rajiv Gandhi aimed to sign a similar Mizo Accord and Saikia was appointed the Lt. Governor of Mizoram.
Saikia tried to bring peace to the troubled region. He tried to fulfill the dreams of Mizo people to get full statehood. He was eventually successful in both his attempts. Mizoram became peaceful. It no longer had to remain with a frightening description for itself as the exotic land of mountain and militants. Saikia was the man who discovered the actual grievances of the Mizo's.
Once the proper wavelength was found out the communication became easy and the solution too. Finally, Prime Minister himself came to Aizawl on 19 February and declared Statehood being granted to Mizoram. As a token of appreciation, Saikia was elevated to the rank of Governor. The whole of Mizoram went in great merriment. After the long stay at Mizoram, Saikia acquired a new virtue of his character. When his resigning letter was accepted, people of Mizoram bid him a hearty farewell.
When Saikia came back from Mizoram to play his role in Assam politics, he was picked up as the President of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee by Rajiv Gandhi. The 1991 general election was the greatest challenge for Saikia’s life. Rajiv Gandhi was fully convinced with the strategies of Saikia and gave him all the responsibility of electioneering in the entire State.
Saikia undertook extensive tour of the villages rather than towns and nearer cities. The Congress won that election with thumping majority. Hiteswar Saikia was elected from his home constituency for the fifth consecutive term. But before the new government could take full control of the situation, the outlawed ULFA kidnapped fourteen top ranking government officials as hostages and demanded release of certain number of their comrades-at-arms who had been arrested under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act rules during the earlier Army operation known as ‘Operation Bajrang’. Chief Minister Saikia took an off the track decision to declare giving effect to the idea of granting general amnesty unilaterally expecting the same to be reciprocated by the ULFA with immediate release of the hostages. He also went on air on July 8, 1991, offering the proposal of holding a meaningful talk with the militant organisation towards a permanent solution of the problem within the framework of the Indian constitution.
AT this juncture, Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao threw his weight behind Saikia, and he fully endorsed the policy of Saikia. The ULFA reciprocated the liberal gesture of the government by releasing most of the hostages.
Considering the deteriorating law and order situation CM Saikia had been compelled to look for appropriate measures. He called for assistance of the Army for the restoration of peace and order in the State. Operation Rhino was thus started that succeeded exactly where the earlier operation Bajrang had failed. It destroyed many training camps, captured many militants and also unearthed great many warehouse of arms and ammunitions.
By the middle of January, 1992, there had been a change of climate in the civic life of Assam. The ULFA came forward with its expressed desire of sitting for discussions towards finding a permanent solution of its grievances within the framework of the Indian constitution. Chief Minister Saikia welcomed the change of mood and responded to it richly. At the same time he assured giving appropriate living avenues to those militants who would be coming forward to surrender themselves with the arms and ammunitions in their possession.
Everyone felt to the bones that peace and security had returned to the State. Everyone acknowledged the spirit of tolerance and forgiveness displayed by Chief Minister Saikia in bringing most of the ULFA militants to the path of sanity. Saikia was a nationalist and an opponent of militancy in any situation. He is often criticized for crashing the militancy mercilessly in Assam.
Assam’s economy is dependent on keeping the three resource oriented industries on the even keel. These three industries are always referred to in terms of gold, that is green gold (tea), liquid gold (petroleum) and black gold (coal). Saikia took steps towards getting the business in the form of auction market opened at Guwahati. The fourth Oil Refinery in Assam that was in Numaligarh which was taken up by Saikia. He invited the Prime Minister to lay the foundation stone of the Numaligarh refinery on July 3, 1992. Chief Minister Saikia offering the argument of the necessity of opening up of two Universities simultaneously at Tezpur and Silchar, went to Delhi and returned with the approval and necessary sanction for starting both the universities.
Hiteswar Saikia loved Assam and always worked towards the state’s development. But he was always misunderstood by people because of conspiracy by his opponent political forces. He is perhaps the most criticized politician in Assam. But nothing could stop him to be with the people and he continued to work for the state’s progress.
It is pertinent to mention here that During the Ministry of Keshab Gogoi, Saikia was in charge of the Education portfolio. At that time also, he introduced far reaching changes in Assam’s field of education. First he created a separate 'Directorate for Elementary Education'. Secondly, he introduced the idea of what is termed ‘provincialization of high schools’. In the wake of provincialisation, about 2,500 privately run government-aided high schools came under the direct administration of the government, benefitting both students and teachers financially. He made liberal grants available towards the appointment of many teachers in language subjects.
He also made far-reaching changes towards raising the status of police officers and of ordinary constables. He revamped the department, ridding it of the hangovers of the British regime, transforming it into a battalion of uniformed persons who are sentinels of law. He established the Forensic Laboratory at Guwahati, the capital of Assam and set up the ‘single digit fingerprint bureau’. He turned his attention toward bifurcating the Criminal Intelligence Department and creating a Special Branch of it to be run independently. He then improved the functioning of the ‘Assam Police Radio Organization’ by modernizing its equipment. Finally, he established a separate training center for the armed police.
Saikia went on facing all the problems for the solution of which he had to depend on his own resources of intelligence during his tenure as Chief Minister. All his labour brought forth certain recognition on the national level. In an editorial of the Times of India (15.7.83), Saikia was highly appreciated. There were many others who echoed the feeling about his achievements.
As his transplanted kidney is failing fast, his recurrent fever refused to go and he was finding more difficulty in breathing. Doctors insisted to take rest but Saikia refused and continuing on his post-political career until his untimely demise on April 22, 1996, at the age of 61 years.
Awards conferred upon Karmashree Hiteswar Saikia
- Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award
- National Citizen’s Award presented by Hon’ble Vice President of India Late K. R. Narayanan on March 8, 1994 at New Delhi