New Delhi: India's youngest Minister of State, Agatha Sangma, who is also one of the few politicians from the North-East at the Centre, talks to NDTV's Sonia Singh about the recent mass exodus of the North-Eastern population following rumours from cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Here's the full transcript of the interview:
In a week where everyone was saddened by the departure of thousands of people of the North-East from different cities around India, joining me tonight is one of the few politicians from the North-East at the Centre, India's youngest Minister of State, Agatha Sangma.
Agatha, as I just said, is one of the few politicians of North-East at the Centre. When you watched what happened in Bangalore how do you think it should be handled?
Agatha Sangma: To be honest it was very, very disappointing to see something of this sort, and the mass, you know, exodus in fact was something that we've never seen before. And I think that it's something which is very difficult to say how should it have been handled, because it eventually happened. And people take precautions in today's world when something happens, you know, we take precautions, so if an SMS comes that is threatening people tend to take precautions and they flee. So in a way I do understand the sentiments that were behind a lot of this sort of a movement that took place, but I think that it is very important for us to build confidence of the people, and to set examples where we can say that, yes, you know we have an effective Government, we have an effective administration and you will be protected. If we set that sort of an example I really don't think that an SMS could really, you know, scare people off to that extent.
NDTV: One sad aspect again is that even it was seen as a fall out of what happened in Assam; that again the threats were given randomly to all people from the North-East and I know that, of course, it was an issue that saddens everybody from the North-East. Even though that we know that there are so many different tribes and different states, everyone from the North-East is blamed for an incident in a part of Assam.
Agatha Sangma: It is very unfortunate and it is something that is very difficult to contain, you know. This is something that is, in a way, it was to someone like me, it felt very inevitable that this situation would not have been contained within Assam itself and it would have repercussions in the rest of the country. In fact this is something that we had been saying from the past, that this is the situation that needs to be looked at more closely, and I would want to say that we must not look at it as an issue which is just a communal issue. It is also an issue of the administration and we must strengthen, you know, the immigration rules and the implementation of it must be looked at, especially in the borders of the North-East.
NDTV: What has the impact been even for you in your state of Meghalaya? Because you know that the Congress government in Assam has been blamed for both, pan politics for looking away because they were winning election after election, and the situation has come to this stage. Currently of course the NCP, the party to which you belong, is an ally of the Congress, what would you say, what would your advice be to the Congress government in Assam?
Agatha Sangma: Today to be honest, the borders in the North-East are extremely poorish and I really feel that it has been overlooked by the Government of India. We concentrate a lot on the India-Pakistan border, but the kind of, you know, man power or the kind of attention that the North-Eastern borders need to be given are not being given. To be honest, my constituency borders with Bangladesh and we feel that a lot of environmental, so called environmental refugees is something that we see in every monsoon season, whenever the rains pour, a lot of the Bangladeshi labourers, you know, tend to come and work in my constituency and eventually it's a situation where you cannot you know, you cannot close your eyes to a situation like that. And, therefore, I think that when you can see that something is arising and it needs to be looked at, one must not turn their heads and say that there is no problem. You must identify that, yes there is a problem, and accept it and then work on it.
NDTV: That's an important point but just let's go across Agatha to some young people from Bangalore. Now we know that it is one of the cities where many young North-Easterners have left. Questions for you, who has questions for you? Let's go across to Bangalore, go ahead with your questions for Agatha Sangma.
Questioner 1: Good Evening Ma'am, this is Salman from Bangalore. We seem to live in a country which is united and secular but when situations like this arise, the indifference clearly shows up and we seem to do nothing for it. How do we end this indifference?
Questioner 2: Good Evening Ma'am, this is Raul Paul. My question at this juncture is, number one what is being done by the state and the central Government for the large number of people who have been rendered homeless? And secondly the break down and disintegration of the social order that we see today, is this the reflection of the breakdown of the political system and our leadership?
NDTV: Do you think one, individually you could have done more perhaps even in Assam, gone as the politician of North-East and as a Central Government representative? Do you think the Central Government should have done more?
Agatha Sangma: First of all I would like to thank those students, they have given really important questions and secondly, yes, your question is, I mean I think this is definitely a situation where we could have done more. But it is a lesson that one has learnt. It is something that we were completely not prepared for at that point, and no one expected that in a span of three days so many students or people from the North-East would be fleeing, leaving their jobs you know, leaving their lives and heading back to a place where, you know, it's difficult for them to find employment, even if it's home. So it was a tough decision that people made in a matter of a day or two and it would determine their entire life. So I understand that it was a very, very tough time for all the people who fled at that point, and my heart really does go out for that you know. And I do feel that as an individual, and as a politician, I ought to do more and I would you know apologise, I suppose, for the failure that we have done in this particular period of time. But I think that collective efforts need to be made, as politicians we can do and must do our part, but as, you know, regular citizens of this country too, we have responsibilities. This was the situation that I suppose cannot be looked at only from the communal angle, okay, not really be looked at from, you know, North-East versus illegal immigrant angle, because it was a design that was created by people we cannot even identify at this point of time. We don't know who sent those SMSes, you know we don't even have a system where we can distinguish and say that these are the people who have been sending these SMSes and put them behind bars. So we do need to improve on our intelligence of course and I would say in the larger picture because the questions, there are lots of questions that students have asked me, but in the larger picture I would say that it's very important that we have some short term issues in place and we also have some long term issues settled.
NDTV: As a young politician what can you do for young people and especially, specifically I suppose, from the North-East as well, but what can you do for young people?
Agatha Sangma: You know Sonia this is one experience that I have had and this is an experience I had after I became an MP and it has stayed with me for a very long time. And it does make me wonder as to what I can do, or we can do as a community to really be recognised and really recognised for the contribution that we are making. You know this was something I, in fact, have mentioned in an another interview and I would like to mention it again, is when I was in a shopping mall, after becoming an MP, I was shopping and I was just looking around and there was this women who looked at me, and she asked me for a particular size. It was something I had a bag with me and it was clear that I was actually shopping. But the first impression that she had was that she cannot be shopping here she is definitely working here. Now that's the kind of attitude I think is something that is not welcoming. I think that we need to find a way where we can say that, well yes, we work in the retail sector, we work in hospitality, but we can also be working successfully in the media. Look at Sandeep Phukan, look at Mary Kom. These are people who are real good achievers, who have done something amazing and they belong to the North-East and that must be recognised. So I think that attitude will be changed only if we ourselves try and strive to do things that we always wanted to do and excel in certain fields.
NDTV: You make sure the pressure on students and recently of course the tragic incident where a young girl from Meghalaya actually killed herself, and we saw the Chief Minister ask for special laws and there was a huge furore over it. How valid do you think that is also, when you talk about the issue of integration? Do you think that is also, when you talk about the issue of integration, do you think that there needs to be a separate step for the students from North-East? What would your reaction be?
Agatha Sangma: I am not aware of the suggestion that the Chief Minister made about separate laws. I do agree, but there are situations that crop up where it's a case of racial discrimination, but again I would like to say that there are some situations which may not be the cases of racial discrimination and we must not put everything in that light. It's very important for us as a nation to not allow incidences to just divide us for the sake of division. And I think it's important that students get admission into good universities and it's important that institutes don't have some sort of apprehensions admitting students from the North-East, for the fear that there could be some legal action taken against them. So I think we must be very careful when we make certain allegations or we must be very careful in certain situations. I am not talking about any specific situation, but I really think that there is a need to be more trustful as well and if we are always defensive then again there is going to be a problem, so there is a time we need to rise above the situation and not feel victimised all the time. I think that the situation that's happening very often these days where we tend to feel victimised, and I am not saying that you know I happened to be a Minister of State or I happened to be Mr PA Sangma's daughter, like I've been a student as well and I never carried a name plate saying I am PA Sangma's daughter, and yet I made my struggles and I did not always, did not always think that I was being victimised. So I would really appeal to my fellow friends from the North-East, that we must also walk our bit. You know it's very important, it's a midway thing, you cannot expect that everybody will walk towards you, you got to walk midway too.
NDTV: That's really a very interesting perspective and you have mentioned that Pune Incident. Let's just go across to Pune for someone who has a question to ask you
Principal of ILS: Hello Agatha, how are you? You have really made us proud by becoming the youngest Minister of the Indian Parliament. Are you aware that in the Parliament at present there are six students from the ILS? I hope you will form an ILS Alumni Association and will come back to us in a group. I would like to put only one question to you, that the studies you did at ILS, do you find them useful? Are you supported by it when you are working as a Minister in the present government?
NDTV: As a politician are you frustrated at what's going on? We had a young boy talk about the lack of leadership in this government, it is seeming directionless. Are you frustrated by what's currently going on?
Agatha Sangma: But it is really sad that we don't see the functioning that we used to. And growing up as a politician's daughter I would watch my father come in late, work for late. As a Speaker I saw him work sometimes till 12 midnight, running the House. And that really was one of the reasons why I wanted to be in politics. But today the kind of non-functioning that you see is not just disappointing, but it is also frustrating, because there is so much more that we would want to do. And I suppose that I cannot just complain because I am really part of that problem myself, isn't it? I am part of that system and I think that we need to do more.
NDTV: Let me just, you talked about how your constituency; I have some questions from your constituents, let's go on to the people.
Questioner: Other than being on record to have entered the Parliament for the first time wearing garro, traditional dress, as you have claimed, what really significant things have you done for the people of region? Your father has represented Garro Hills for over three decades but till now we don't even have basic amenities like decent roads, drinking water and electricity and the list goes on, do you think you can do what your father could not?
Agatha Sangma: A lot of the problems the gentleman was talking about like roads, water and you know electricity are all state subjects, and as a Parliamentarian we act as a catalyst in ensuring those amenities reach the general public. And I think in my tenure I have been voicing that and have been working towards that, but it is something eventually that State governments do need to implement, and I can't say that I am completely happy with the way it has happened. But you know there is a system that is followed and we work for that system and we are trying our best to ensure that the amenities reach to the people. The vision I have for my constituency is that I want to see it as more sustainably developed constituency, very mineral rich constituency, we are rich in coal, we are rich in lime, in uranium. But it has become a state where the minerals and the richness for it are actually becoming a curse to my constituency because a lot of illegal mining is taking place. A lot of environmental degradation is taking place, a lot of health hazards, water is been contaminated and I think it is very, very important that the mining policy be implemented immediately. I have appealed to government several times and I am working towards it, but eventually, like I said, it can be done by the state government. So there is a difficulty here when you become a Member of Parliament, it's not like that you can say there will be light and there comes the light. You do eventually realise that you are human, you have to work in those limitations. I think in my limited capacity, I have been trying to do my best.
NDTV: The Sangmas and your family have dominated Meghalaya politics?
Agatha Sangma: Not dominated but...
NDTV: Who else has dominated?
Agatha Sangma: See, everybody is a Sangma there. Today our Chief Minister is Mukul Sangma, but he is not part of my family but you know so.
NDTV: But PA Sangma and his family have in a sense dominated Meghalaya politics. Two of your brothers are also in politics, how do you; when people say one reason you know, that one reason we don't want the Women's Reservation Bill is because it's only going to be daughters or daughter in-laws of politicians who will actually benefit. Even when you see women in Parliament most of them are related to powerful families. In that sense do you agree with this family rule or hereditary rule which has now become prevalent in politics?
Agatha Sangma: I don't really agree with it. But I mean I cannot even claim to say that it's all bad. This is something where there is always reservation, there is always going to be a pro to it, there is always going to be a con to it. So you cannot criticise something and say it's completely bad. I really feel okay when there is a Women's Reservation Bill coming up and it becomes a law. Yes initially you'll have women who come from families who are politically influential. They may not contribute in Parliament and they may not even contribute as Members of Parliament or as Members of Legislative Assembly, but it is something that I feel, eventually it will increase number of women in the Parliament and in the Assemblies, and eventually it will bring about an improvement of the entire situation, and you will have women who are loud spoken and who are able to voice the concern of the constituencies. And I think in the Parliament today there are a lot of young Parliamentarians. There are a lot of relatives of Parliamentarians who are doing a lot of constructive work as Parliamentarians or as MLAs. And there is criticism of course, it doesn't mean it is all bad.
NDTV: There is a question, your father, as you speak, has launched a new political party. The contradiction some may say, that you are still in the NCP and you are still a Union Minister of State. Yet when your father was campaigning for President you accompanied him on some visit he made, and how can you stay in this government when he's been very clear he doesn't believe in it?
Agatha Sangma: Firstly I would like to clarify some facts. I didn't campaign with my father. You know he's my father, and I campaign and if I am seen with him because he's my father, one cannot call that as campaigning. It was a very difficult situation and I didn't see a point of justifying myself and I cannot obviously not be seen with my father, he's my father and if he's campaigning and if he went to meet political parties. There was a point where, as a tribal MP, I did go and that time there was no UPA candidate so there was no question of me campaigning against UPA candidate and campaigning for somebody who is not acknowledged by UPA. Because at that point it was not even a candidature, a particular person's candidature that we were campaigning for. We were only meeting political party leaders and we were asking for people from political parties, we were asking from leaders to acknowledge that yes, we have never had a tribal as a President of this country, and probably it's time. Now if in that group I am part of it as a tribal, I don't really see there is anything contradictory in being a MoS and doing something of that sort, because really it was on the matter of principles.
As soon as it became an official election and an official campaign, I didn't campaign. I was extremely careful and I knew that I have a certain role to play and I did that really responsibly. So I really don't see that as a contradiction. And today, yes he's launching a new party and that is his call. You know we all have a call in our life and his call is his life in politics and he continues to do so, and I continue to do so, and I think we can co-exist you know. And we can understand our responsibilities and we can co-exist and there needn't be any clash because we belong to two different political parties. India has seen various political families and it will continue to see that.
NDTV: But will your political party, will the NCP be mature enough to accept that? Because there are reports if they were upset you may be dropped from the Cabinet.
Agatha Sangma: Well I think they were all probably rumours, or they were probably being incited by certain segments who found interest in that. But I really think that if my party chief had something against me, by now he would have taken some action against me. And I would say I respect him dearly for all the good treatment he has given me. I respect him and I respect my political party. And I have been doing my job to the best of my ability, and sometimes you know, something appears to look like they are in stress, but I really think it's more of a speculation than anything else.
NDTV: You are not worried about your post as a Minister of State?
Agatha Sangma: Not really.
NDTV: You don't want to join your father's party?
Agatha Sangma: No I am completely content with where I am right now and I believe I have taken up a responsibility and it is my duty to fulfill it till it's taken away from me, you know at the end of the term.
We actually have MC Mary Kom on the phone now live, to ask you questions. So Mary, hi, this is Sonia Singh, go ahead and say what you would like to, to Agatha Sangma.
Mary Kom: Now in the North-East we have got an Olympic medal and most of the sportspersons are inspired from me, so if we give attention mainly in sports, all the facilities, that will be very grateful to all the sports promotion.
Agatha Sangma: Thank you Mary, I am a big fan of hers. In fact you know, I read a story in Tehelka about Mary, and she spoke about how the first time she discovered how she was good at boxing was when she was in her village in Churachandpur, and she was going in a rickshaw and the rickshaw driver tried to act smart with her you know, and she boxed him and that's when she realised she's actually good at this stuff. So I think it's an amazing story of somebody who finds opportunities in times of trouble, and you know in times of hardships. That's something which is really inspiring to me and I would say that North-East is very, very talented when it comes to sports and when it comes to music. It is something which is in our blood, you know it's in our nature, it's literally who we are. So I would really do my best to ensure that we can do something more, you know, to ensure that sort of talent is nurtured in the North-East.
NDTV: Well we are almost at the end of the show and we had Mary Kom and we also have a young sportsman from the North-East, Baichung Bhutia to ask you this question.
Baichung Bhutia: I know at this age you have been given a big responsibility, so do you have time to hang out with your friends and go out clubbing, and hang out with friends and also just wanted to know when are you getting married, or you have found somebody, a good Meghalaya boy for yourself?
NDTV: That's the sweet question.
Agatha Sangma: Of course I do have dinners with my friends and it's not as bad to be honest, and I do get a lot of time for myself without really being seen as MoS. And I can really get away with a pair of jeans and T-shirt and no one can really tell it is me, so it's great.
NDTV: You are not answering the second part of his question.
Agatha Sangma: That's really not happening at the moment.
NDTV: Hopefully that will happen soon Agatha, all the best. It's wonderful to speak to an articulate young Minister. I wish you would speak more often because it is really interesting talking to you. Thank you so much for coming in.