New Delhi: During the 68th plenary session of the North Eastern Council (NEC) on Sunday in Guwahati, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, among notable issues related to trade, investment, tourism and connectivity, proposed the establishment of a presidential retreat in one of the eight states of the region. The NEC, which is the nodal agency for the economic and social development of the Northeast, has received its highest budgetary allotment of Rs 1,476 crore for the financial year 2019-20.
“One presidential retreat in the Northeast will give the people of the region a greater sense of pride,” Sonowal said, suggesting that the NEC may take the lead in this matter.
A presidential retreat is a guesthouse where the president of the country spends two weeks or more a year. Presently, there are two retreats – one in Hyderabad and another in Shimla.
“The location of ‘The Retreat Building’ in Shimla and the ‘Rashtrapati Nilayam’ in Hyderabad are indicative of the integrative role of the Office of the President of India in our country. These locations, one in north and another in south, symbolise unity of our country and unity of our diverse cultures and people,” reads the President of India website.
However, according to the response to a Right to Information (RTI) Act plea filed in 2011, the President visited the Shimla retreat just once and the one in Hyderabad five times between 2006 and 2011. This information, a BBC report says, is related to four years under the-then president Pratibha Patil and a year under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
The 2011 RTI response revealed that at Shimla alone, the annual wages of the 13 gardeners and members of the caretaker staff totaled around Rs 30 lakh in that time. Besides, at the Rashtrapati Nilayam in Hyderabad, as many as 35 contractual and three regular workers were employed. All this is in addition to the number of police personnel deployed at the retreats.
Despite the state head’s not-so-regular visits to these guesthouses, the government maintains the properties in Shimla and Hyderabad to match the standards of the Rashtrapati Bhavan – the office and home of the President of India.
Strategic ‘retreat’ from NRC heat?
Sonowal’s request to home minister Amit Shah, who also heads the NEC, and Jitendra Singh, minister of state for development of the north-eastern region, for the presidential retreat comes close on the heels of the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The exercise, which identified 19 lakh people as non-citizens, has left the region simmering with Manipur announcing that it will follow the example.
“We and many of the states in the Northeast need NRC. The Manipur government has already taken a decision in the cabinet to have NRC,” Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh told reporters on the sidelines of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) conclave in Guwahati on Monday.
Adding to anxieties is the BJP’s commitment to re-introduce the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. During the NEDA conclave, the chief ministers of Nagaland and Meghalaya expressed apprehensions regarding the legislation. Detractors fear the Bill could alter the demography of the Northeast.
At a time like this, rival parties don’t appear too keen on the idea of a presidential retreat for the region. The Congress’s Debabrata Saikia, opposition leader in the Assam assembly, has slammed the BJP-led state government for the proposal. He correlated the existence of the retreats with a colonial mindset and the high-handedness of tea garden owners.
“During the British era, the owners of big tea gardens in Assam lived in England. They were administrating the tea gardens from far away instead of living among the workers. But all garden owners had big lavish bungalows in the state. Today, in the age of global connectivity, why does the President need a retreat elsewhere? Are we going back in time?” he said.
Former cabinet secretary BK Chaturvedi reminded that the move is very “notional”. It is meant to say that the government cares for you, he said.
“This move should have been done in the early 1980s and 1990s. Now what the region wants is development of roads, projects and connectivity. My experience in the government has taught me that such moves don’t lead to growth,” he added.
Chaturvedi noted that this current thinking of the state governments in the Northeast, after requests like the retreat, only goes so far. “The priority should be development,” he said.
Revving up the growth engine
Home minister Amit Shah said in Guwahati that the NEDA was not a “political aspiration” but a platform to unite the “geo-cultural entities” of the north-eastern states. Speaking at the conclave, he reminded the chief ministers and governors of the eight states that the BJP “considers the Northeast the new engine of Indian growth”.
“For us, the region is not a political destination but a development destination,” he said. However, against the backdrop of recent political and social developments in the region, the pitch for a retreat may be a strategic move.
Assam’s request for establishing India’s third presidential retreat in the Northeast is not the first. In June, Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma had also urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to establish a retreat in Shillong.
The retreat “will ensure that the President visits the region every year for two weeks”, giving out “a strong message of inclusiveness and important of the region”, he said.
However, in a sharp critique, Saikia told News18 that the Congress is “not bothered with a presidential retreat,” and seeks development instead.
“The Centre should consider giving funds for roads, irrigation and drinking water, instead of wasting public money on building grand homes. The region is in need of practical, field-level fund allocation,” he said.
Sangma’s request for a retreat in Shillong is significant considering his demands for the Centre to invite all stakeholders to discuss and arrive at a consensus on the Citizenship Bill issue. “We are under the sixth schedule. So will the CAB overlook local laws?” he asked the home minister at the conclave.
Prashenjit Biswas, an academic based in Assam, told News18 that the request for the presidential retreat is of “symbolic character for the region” given the many political underpinnings, and has “no impact on the ground realities of NE”.
“Having a retreat in NE may connect itself to President’s Rule, it may connect itself to some ordinance-based rule in the region. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is extended by an ordinance,” he said, referring to the many meanings this move may have.
Biswas added that the retreat may not give the region any additional advantage because India does not follow a presidential style of governance. “This idea of presidential retreat doesn’t fit with our Constitution. It is precisely extra-constitutional,” he argued.
Biswas said the region can rather propose the establishment of a parliamentary session in the north-eastern region. “Under colonial rule, the viceroy’s retreat was in Shimla,” he pointed out. “The concept of presidential retreat is a colonial and military one. We have moved out of it in 1947. Why is the state government planning to return to it when we have a parliament now?”