North-East and India’s Act East Policy

northeastmapWhile over the past two decades, there has been a focus on strengthening ties with South East Asia, and the current government led by Narendra Modi along with members of his cabinet is sending out an unequivocal message that it is keen to not just strengthen connectivity and economic ties with countries in South East Asia, but also to build strong strategic ties.

This includes pro-active engagement with ASEAN countries as well as a greater thrust on connectivity between North-Eastern states, and the neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The government has also been trying to bring the state governments of the region on board. Recently for instance, External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj briefed governors of the North East about the important projects in the context of the Act East Policy. A number of Cabinet ministers have also undertaken visits to the region for reviewing the progress of important projects, especially those pertaining to connectivity with Myanmar.While the PM has on numerous occasions spoken about the relevance of North-Eastern India, in the latter’s Act East Policy, it is important to allay fears of individuals in the seven sisters Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura that the North-East will be bypassed, and other economic hubs will benefit at the behest of the North-East. This sentiment is increasingly visible in the North-East, and the view is expressed not just by academics, journalists and members of civil society, but even political leaders from the region. Neemi Kurian in her book ‘India-China Borderlands: Conversations beyond the centre’ (2014:134) alludes to the point that mere economic activity cannot obliterate tensions between the centre and states.

Key reasons for such a feeling

Apart from the serious differences and a feeling of neglect by the centre, there are a number of reasons for this growing feeling amongst North Eastern states. While it is true, that some organizations like the Youth Forum for Foreign Policy YFFP, are trying to bring to the fore the role of the North-East in the Act East Policy, by organizing track two engagement with countries from South East Asia, very few universities and research centres even in Guwahati, which is often dubbed as the hub of the North East, have gone deep into the potential role of North-Eastern states in India’s ties with countries like Myanmar and Bhutan. Manipur is home to a Centre for Myanmar studies, and some conferences have been held in Shillong, yet there is not enough intellectual debate with regard to the potential role of North East.

Business and Poor Connectivity

While there is a visible increase in the number of business delegations visiting countries including Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as visits by International delegations to the North-East, but even this becomes more tedious since connectivity between North-Eastern states and neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Bhutan is poor. Guwahati has only one flight (Druk Air) for instance with Bhutan and Thailand and none with Myanmar.

Apart from connectivity with countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh, there is also a serious need to enhance connectivity between the North East with countries like Thailand and Japan. Imphal, the capital city of the state of Manipur already receives a number of Japanese tourists, who visit the state to pay homage to their near ones who had lost their lives in the Second World War, but they have to use chartered planes for the same.

It would be pertinent to mention that in May 2015, the Japanese ambassador to India Takeshi Yagi attended the 71st anniversary of battle of Red Hill, in World War II located in Bishnupur district (Manipur), organised at a war site at Maibam Lotpa Ching, which is 17 kilometres from the state capital of Imphal.

Policy towards North-East

In comparison, if one were to look at the instance of China, border provinces have emerged as important gateways.

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province which shares borders with Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam has emerged as an important economic hub not just by building strong infrastructure as well as enhancing connectivity with neighbouring countries, but also by having annual expos and fair. Universities and think-tanks from Yunnan have also sought to enhance track two interactions with important neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and India, for giving a fillip to the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar BCIM Corridor.

New Delhi too needs to focus more on the role of the North-East, and apart from enhancing connectivity with the mainland, it needs to dispel the notion that the mainland will benefit at the cost of the North East, which will be relegated to the sidelines. Some of the important steps which can be taken are not making policies for the North-East as a mere gateway to South East Asia, but addressing its political concerns and realising that a few development projects cannot obliterate the distrust which exists between New Delhi and the region. It is also important, to make policies which ensure that North-Eastern states emerge as important manufacturing hubs, and not just providers of raw materials to neighbouring countries and other parts of India.

The most important change required off course is a change in mindset, and to stop looking at the region as a periphery as has been the case for very long.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Senior Research Associate with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat