There has been no major change in the military architecture in India’s Northeast region since 1962. In a strategic sense, India has remained more in a defensive posture all along the sensitive borders. The Northeast region has more than one persona. Traditionally, it has been associated with ethnic insurgency that has been aided and abetted by inimical forces operating from sanctuaries in India’s neighborhood. A bulk of India’s security and other strategic assets are heavily deployed to address twin threats to national security. Time is therefore opportune for national defence planners to consider bifurcation of the existing arrangements in this region into new sectoral responsibilities especially with a view to the future.
Northeast India has an extraordinarily important international strategic dimension and is a vital part of the nation’s defence architecture…
Northeast India has an extraordinarily important international strategic dimension and is a vital part of the nation’s defence architecture. It is not only India’s land bridge to Myanmar but also a gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond. The Northeast region is endowed with human and a variety of natural resources such as uranium, coal, hydro-power, forests, oil and gas. Gifted with highly fertile land, the Northeast region is the world’s largest producer of tea as well. It sits right in the hub of a geographical space which is home to nearly a billion people comprising the population of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Southwestern China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The strategic location and natural resources makes it a potential powerhouse of India for development and progress as also being a vibrant source of energy, oil, natural gas and limestone supplemented by the perennial water systems of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The fertile Brahmaputra Valley has huge potential for export of a variety of agro products – while its flora and fauna, natural scenic beauty, varied cuisine and remarkable local handicrafts and performing arts can act as a magnet for promotion of international tourism for neighboring as well the Western countries. Its proximity to international markets to both Southwestern China and Southeast Asia, makes this region a potentially important base for foreign and domestic investors and in tandem with the ‘Look East Policy’, can give the region the ability to tap into markets of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Regional groupings such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technology and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the ASEAN can all act as catalysts for promoting wide-ranging economic cooperation for both bilateral and multilateral trade and commerce. This can be buttressed by free movement of goods along the India-Myanmar border. Building up of the necessary infrastructure to connect the ports of Chittagong, Sittwe and Haldia with the region, can provide a big boost to the entire region. This will enable the landlocked Northeast region access to the Bay of Bengal. There is also the growing network of airlines that will give fresh impetus to cross-border travel but also another form of regional integration in addition to existing arrangements.
A considerable deal of current ethnic turmoil in the Northeast region can be attributed to the anxiety to preserve ethnic identities…
The factors mentioned above are capable of releasing growth impulses of large magnitudes more than sufficient to enable this region to play a major role in the economic development and progress of our important Eastern neighbors and impress upon them the need to look at India as an economic partner than a threat and capable of engineering mutually beneficial prosperity and progress. It is within the gift of this region to become a great game changer and convert fortunes manifold times.
National Security Imperatives
Viewed from a national perspective, there is need for a major effort to convert the inherent strength of this region into a powerful tool for our economic progress and socio-political interaction. It is a powerful tool that links itself to India’s national security objectives and interests. This, therefore, underlines the creation of a cogent policy to bring the Northeast region under the national security architecture and not merely allow it to continue as an attached office of the Home Ministry.
The National Security Council (NSC), which is at the forefront of efforts to evolve security policies in all its dimensions to be in tune with the ever-changing international security environment, would do well to focus attention specifically to this region which has been neglected so far, hold periodic interaction in this region with the cross-section of the population for real-time assessments and solutions. This would equally apply to the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). An informal visit by the then Chairman, JIC, to Shillong in 1994, was most useful to help draw up a comprehensive assessment of the security situation in the region especially when there were tensions on a large-scale brewing in Manipur and sporadic increase in activities of the ethnic insurgents.
Growth and prosperity are far better remedies for insurgency in the Northeast…
Synergies of several ministries dealing with the military, trade and commerce, transport and communications, tourism and culture, finance and planning must constitute the advisory arm so as to ensure that plans and programs are geared to being result oriented and buttress the activities of central agencies such as the North Eastern Council (NEC) and others. The time has come for recognizing the need for specific attention to this region in order to formulate policies and programs which can bring about a sharp upward inflexion in the growth curve and prospects for the rapid multi-dimensional advancement of this entire region, away from the daily concerns of insurgency and unrest. Growth and prosperity are far better remedies for insurgency as there will be a manifold increase in job creation than ever before in the Northeast region.
Proactive Approach to Ensure Peace
The ‘Look East Policy’ has also to rely on the domestic players of the constituent states of the Northeast region. They have an equal, if not more important, stake and role in this kind of a comprehensive endeavor. The political leadership of this region must be integrated with efforts to define, promote and participate in related activities. During high level interactions between India and Myanmar or Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, South Korea and Japan, the involvement of two to three regional Chief Ministers is important. They would be the best ‘Ambassadors’, whose presence in government delegations will be a powerful force multiplier. This could also apply to other ‘agents of change’ such as Universities, Chambers of Commerce and Industries, think-tanks and possibly others.
There is currently comparative peace and calm in the Northeast region. This does not however convey the sense of the situation being under complete control from the point of view of national security. What is worrying is the lack of progress on converting existing fragile ceasefire agreements with major ethnic groups, into viable and long term political agreements with firm commitment from all concerned to observe the elements of the agreement in letter and spirit. Mizoram is a good example where there are visible ‘peace dividends in all fields’. The peace discussion with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) has dragged on over several years without any solution is sight. Likewise is the case with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The delay is being seen as political necessity for the parties in power for their narrow tactical ends.
There are other groups that are keen on ceasefire but progress is limited. Even the post-ceasefire and agreement arrangements are lacking in purpose and direction. The insurgency situation in this region is not conducive to rapid economic progress and as long as it remains unbridled, it will remain a major stumbling block to development. The situation in Manipur is an example of this drift. With Myanmar and Bangladesh cooperating with India on this subject, the existing insurgency has taken the form of an internal movement which necessitates a ‘carrot and stick policy’.