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India Must Look Northeast Before Looking East

For India, the long road to Southeast Asia goes through its own northeast.


India’s ‘Look East’ policy mainly focussed on maritime trade when the country sought to turn to East and Southeast Asia for trade and commerce in the 1990s. In particular, after Myanmar joined ASEAN, India began to make an effort to situate its ‘troubled northeast at the heart of what eventually evolved into its so-called “Look East” policy’. India has funded many infrastructure projects in Bangladesh (to connect the Indian mainland to its north-eastern states) and in Myanmar (to facilitate its relationships with the rest of Southeast Asia).

This has led Indian policymakers and analysts to revise their attitudes about the country’s troubled northeast. Some say this new strategic vision could be a game-changer for Asia. It has the potential to bring China, India and Southeast Asia closer in terms of economic integration and turn South Asia into one of the world’s economic hotspots. Regional initiatives such as the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) are important steps.

Northeast India’s great potential to connect the Indian mainland to East and Southeast Asia — somewhat similar to the function Yunnan serves for China — has been undermined by the failure of the Indian government to resolve ethnic insurgencies that have discouraged investment.

After two decades of negotiations with separatist Naga rebels, India is yet to find a sustainable solution. The Naga rebels, an armed insurrection group backed by Pakistan and China, were the first to challenge India’s post-colonial nation-building process. Mizo, Manipuri and Assamese rebels followed suit, along with rebels from groups like the Bodos, Dimasas, Karbis and the Khasis.

The proliferation of ethnic insurgencies forced India to deploy formations of army and paramilitary forces and led to the imposition of draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that undermined human rights and increased alienation. India has brought an end to some of these insurrections by negotiating settlements with rebel groups and by introducing ballot box democracy in the region.

The Modi government signed a ‘framework agreement’ with the Naga rebels in 2015. But a final settlement has eluded Delhi. India appears to be willing to grant considerable autonomy to Nagaland by accepting the concept of ‘shared sovereignty’. But it is not willing to accept the Naga rebel demand of integrating the Naga-inhabited territories of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam with Nagaland to create a ‘Greater Naga state’.

Major population groups in these states are strongly opposed to any redrawing of state boundaries. The Indian government is unwilling to risk a fresh conflagration while trying to resolve an old problem. India has sought to curb these insurgencies through successful military diplomacy. Bhutan and Bangladesh have used their security forces to drive away rebels who had established clandestine bases in those countries from India’s Northeast. India has engaged Myanmar’s military, which has initiated operations against several northeast Indian rebel groups based in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing province.

India has continued to keep the main Naga rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, at the negotiating table and neutralised its other factions. But other rebel groups in Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh remain active and continue large scale extortions that dampen investor confidence and drive away business.

Northeast India is rich in resources with large deposits of oil, natural gas, coal and uranium and a series of thriving tea and rubber plantations. But large scale investment from both domestic and foreign capital has not been forthcoming due to a lack of investor confidence.

Some investment has been attracted in pharmaceutical and agro-processing industries. But the northeast is far from developed as a manufacturing, trading or connectivity hub in the same way that Yunnan has emerged for China’s ‘southward push’. Indeed, India appears unsure about pushing forward with its ‘Look East’ policy due to fears that trade with China or ASEAN countries may become one-sided.

Indian politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have said that development holds the key to neutralising the festering ethnic insurgencies in the region. Modi has lent some urgency to the ‘Look East’ policy by rebranding it ‘Act East’. This is more than a change of semantics as critics allege — it is to lend a sense of priority to the policy.

As India turns to a market-driven economy, it has become difficult to attract private sector investment into regions marred by conflict, extortion and abductions. Even the government’s efforts to create critical infrastructure like roads, bridges and rail depend on prevailing law and order conditions. Work on the Silchar–Imphal railway, key to placing Manipur state on the country’s railway map, is delayed because of extortion by multiple rebel groups. By contrast, Tripura’s rail network is fast expanding all the way to Bangladesh after the state sorted out its insurgency problems.

Former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi pioneered a technology mission to modernise India’s decrepit infrastructure and also managed several accords with rebel groups. He was set to achieve more before he lost the 1989 national elections. Modi has the same kind of comprehensive mandate that Gandhi enjoyed. But without a negotiated political closure to these festering insurgencies, the region will not emerge as India’s ‘land bridge’ to East and Southeast Asia.

This article is republished from East Asia Forum. Read the original copy here.

Subir Bhaumik is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD) India and a former BBC correspondent.

Featured image: A view of Champai, Mizoram | Wikimedia Commons

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