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HomePolicyIntegrating North-East : Revisiting the Enhanced Look East Policy

Integrating North-East : Revisiting the Enhanced Look East Policy

By Sudarshan R Kattoi

Edited by Anandita Malhotra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

Human rights activist Irom Sharmila’s  release followed by her re-arrest in two days has once again reverted attention back to the North-East, its geopolitics, sensitivities and policies. One of these is the Look East Policy initiated by the Prime Minister, P.V Narasimha Rao in 1991 (Economic and Political Weekly, November 27,2010). In recent times, the Look East Policy has acquired more importance due to the increasing number of bilateral and multilateral mediations (Chand 2014). At the same time, there are possible repercussions of this policy that have been overlooked by the popular discourse.

North-East: Land of ‘Untapped opportunities’

The North-East stands out as a remote geographical entity due to its topography and the relative lack of interconnection with other parts of India. Although domestic tourism has rich potential security concerns coupled with poor connectivity in terms of railheads and airports make this region relatively difficult to access for the rest of India.

Given its strategic location bordering China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is expected that security issues would be pivotal questions in this region. Internal security continues to be a persistent issue in most of these states due to separatist movements, ethnic clashes, illegal infiltration of Bangladeshis, drug trafficking, smuggling, inter-state border disputes and other issues. These problems tend to generate a moral panic resulting in the deployment of central armed forces with exceptional powers in these ‘disturbed’ areas. The Government of India continues to resort to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFPSA, 1958) to contain militancy even after allegations of human rights violations by international bodies including the UN (Dhar 2012).

Look East Policy and National Self Interest

The Look East policy focus was earlier limited to trade and economic issues (Editorial, Economic and Political Weekly, November 27, 2010).More recently, however, the Government of India is actively pursuing projects   intended to push forward people-to-people contacts between the North East and the South East Asian neighbouring countries.

These include the Mekong-India Economic Corridor (MIEC) and the Trilateral Highway connecting India with Myanmar and Thailand. While the major focus of the MIEC is to connect the automotive industry in Bangkok with those in Chennai, the Trilateral Highway seeks to develop the north-east region of India which is lagging behind the rest of the country by connecting it to South-east Asian nations (Rana and Chia 2013).As per the plan, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is expected to be extended to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

India opened its second integrated check post in Akhaura, Tripura to push the momentum of engagement with Bangladesh even though Bangladesh infiltration is still a burning issue. Imphal airport has become an international one that connects with Myanmar. At the same time, Imphal is not connected to even other states in the north-east region via air as most of these states do not have airports. Additionally, opening up of the Imphal-Mandalay highway is underway to bring about road connectivity. India is also contemplating an ASEAN-India Transit Transport Agreement by 2015.

Intra connectivity or  interconnectivity ? Issue of concern

The connectivities that the Government of India is meditating upon are all inter-connectivities which are presumed to be pivotal in unlocking economic vitality of India’s north-eastern states, by connecting them with neighbouring countries (viz. China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar). Yet, intra-connectivity within the north-east and between north-east states and the rest of India is very minimal. Further, the north-east states are not a sought-after destination for investors or tourists alike due to militancy issues.

Historically, the Government of India had sidelined this region in terms of infrastructure development viz., rail, road and air connectivity. Lack of sensitivity to the multi ethnicity of the region and aggressive homogenization has a long history and can be traced to the policies of state reorganization in 1956, when the extensively diverse North East was clubbed into a single state with Assamese as the official state language, despite the existence of many tribal groups inhabiting the region (Haokip 2012). Such homogenization is also reflected in contemporary discourse on the ‘North-East’ as a unitary category. This reduction of the diversity of states to a single regional category only indicates the lack of familiarity with the region. Such perceptions also generate a concomitant feeling of alienation and isolation in the minds of citizens living in this part of the country. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear people travelling from the North-East to Kolkata or Mumbai say that they are “going to India”. Others  openly express their resentment about being  part of India, which  reflects their strong sense of alienation.

These issues of alienation need to be addressed not only by stabilizing the internal unrest in the region, but also through enhancing emotional closeness of the people from this region with their motherland. No amount of effort to connect North East with the neighbouring countries can address this psychological alienation.

The killing of Nido Taniam, a 19 year old student from Arunachal Pradesh in Delhi in January 2014 and other similar incidents have sparked public outrage about the discrimination faced by those from the North-East. The Bezbaruah committee which was set up to look into the issue found that 86 percent of North-East migrants in Delhi face discrimination ( Polanki 2014).  Lack of connectivity clearly acts as a stumbling block to integrate the diversified ethnic and cultural groups of the North East with the rest of India. Rather than focusing on opening India’s borders for people-to-people contacts, the Government of India should address the ‘cultural distance’ (Morosini et.al. 1998) between the north-east and the rest of India. Due to cultural distance, relationships become conflicted, resulting in extreme stereotypes, perceived dissimilarities and inaccurate attributions. Therefore, mere focus on the economic development of the North-East region is insufficient to deal with the social and cultural issues of alienation and cultural distance.

Integrating the North-East

Several initiatives can be taken up by the Government of India to improve cohesion between the North-East and the rest of India. The policies can draw from social psychological theories about attitudes, prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes to bring about social change. People to people contacts and wider opening of the borders can begin only when internal issues in the North-East are first addressed.

Social psychologists have posited the intergroup contact theory which holds that longstanding interpersonal contact helps considerably in reducing prejudice between conflicting diverse groups of people (Allport 1954; Henry and Hardin 2006). Exposure to different cultures thus reduces the cultural distance leading to integration.

Central Government institutions, such as central universities and educational institutions can act as a platform for national integration by allowing direct interaction between people from diverse regions. Special tourist trains for the North East region along the lines of “Buddhist Circuit” can also be piloted by the Indian Railways.

Along with fostering connectivity, sensitization efforts are also required. Special initiatives to spread awareness across India about North-East and its people can be achieved with the help of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. At the same time, discriminatory practices need to be punished stringently so as to avert untoward incidents.

In conclusion, it is suggested that the outcome of Look East Policy should be reviewed to assess its long term effects. As the North-East states are not yet integrated with the rest of India, opening up borders with South East Asian nations might create cultural issues, even while such a policy is presumed to have economic benefits. Given the existing burning issues of social alienation and racial discrimination in the North East, it becomes important to strengthen the people-to-people contacts between North East and the rest of India before turning to transnational contacts. In a nutshell, integration of North-East is of paramount importance compared to integration of North-East with South-East Asia. Pushing the sensitivities of North-East under the carpet will only aggravate  the volatile political situation in the region.

****The author acknowledges Dr. Shubha Ranganathan, Assistant Professor, Department of Liberal Arts, IIT Hyderabad for her valuable comments and support in writing this commentary.


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