As China rises and acts aggressively on our Northern borders laying claim to the whole of state of Arunachal Pradesh, establishing contact and strengthening our ancient ties with South East Asia is a strategic necessity. South East Asia is China’s soft underbelly. Our North East is a bridge to South East Asia to further our economic, cultural and strategic ties with that region. However despite all this obvious logic, we have been generous with words and short on action.
Every time there is a military crisis on the India China border, for a brief period Indian national attention focuses on the other wise forgotten North East. The only other instance is when a violent incident involving some insurgent outfit takes place. Many years ago a politician from the region mentioned that a low level insurgency is ‘good’ for the region as otherwise Delhi tends to forget and neglect the North East! The media blackout of the region is scandalous, intended or otherwise. We seem to be unable to rise above the tyranny of geography. While it is true that we indeed have some problems in the North East, the recent Chinese media boast about creating ‘independent states’ in the North East is a typical empty rhetoric. The formidable geography of the area makes it very difficult for China to bring to bear its military power across the Himalayas or the Myanmar jungles. As to the Chinese acceptance to the devout Christian North East, there are huge question marks! But who can stop the Chinese from daydreaming?
The obvious solution to the geographic isolation is development of means of communication, the road, rail, waterways and air links. Progress on these has been tardy. One reason for this was that the North East, with small number of seats in the parliament, was politically unimportant. Even when the Central Govt. recognized the need to move speedily, the diarchy government of Monmohan Singh did not have the authority or cohesion to implement even agreed policies. This malaise has been cured since 2014 and we have a focused government with a decisive leader. The obstacles now are in in the shape of environmental activists and its allied judiciary. There is no doubt about the need to preserve environment but the NGOs are wedded to ‘Environmental Fundamentalism’ with their own dogma. The Judiciary that has no expertise in the area but is nevertheless hyper active and practices judicial absolutism. There has been some softening of this opposition but it still remains a major irritant. It is time to take legislative measures to free strategic projects from the tyranny of environmental constraints by making these immune to judicial interventions if passed as such by parliament.
But even if the above given two factors are taken care of, there remains the formidable challenge of lack of trust between the Indian union and the local communities. It is true that insurgency is more or less ended but there remains acute xenophobia in the states of Nagaland and Manipur and some extent even in Mizoram. As small communities the fear of being swamped is natural but lack of people to people contacts and insufficient integration with national mainstream will remain a major obstacle to development of communications. One often hears complaints from the people of North East being mistaken for Chinese! A major push for national integration is needed to get the infrastructure plan support of the locals. While India has been quick to use its ‘hard’ power in the North East, we have for long neglected our formidable ‘soft power’ to win over the population of the North East.
Sports is one of the most effective means to get people together. Major sports events like the cricket Premier League ought to have a North East team. There is no reason why matches cannot be played in Guwahati, Imphal, Kohima, Aizwal and Shillong. Similarly the football and Kabbadi league should be encouraged to have a North Eastern presence. To remove bias, electronic media could be mandated to cover the region at least once a week. The public broadcasters must take a lead in this regard. In addition, government must encourage electronic media to have anchors from North East. For many years student organisations like the ABVP have been arranging students from North East to stay with families in rest of India. A plan has to be made now to start a reverse flow as well by taking student from other part of the country to tour North Eastern states. Before looking at ‘export’ of our soft power outside our borders, we must first focus on areas within the country. Sports, culture and arts are strong factors to being this about. There should be a two way flow of cultural exchanges.
The North East must have a stake in the process of establishing links with SE Asia or ASEAN. One way to win over people is to carry out infrastructural projects in selected cities. Imphal valley rail link with national network may take time but in the meanwhile an independent standalone valley rail network, like in Kashmir will do wonders to local economy. Similarly, hilly cities like Kohima, Aizwal and Shillong should have monorail urban transport projects. It is time to give up ‘Bania’ approach and look at the result of such efforts holistically. If as a result of these projects peace is established, the resultant savings in security expenditure will more than justify the investments. All strategic projects need not be evaluated purely on commercial criterion, as has been the case of Kashmir rail link.
We have to think of ‘out of box’ solutions for the lingering problems like the what to do with the armed cadres of the various militant groups. Today with the cease fire for over a decade, the issue is not so much of security but of sheer problem of ‘unemployment’ for these cadres. A powerful India must take bold steps to integrate these people in border management force. This will kill two birds in one stone, we will employ the trained cadre in situ and cut down on the defence spending by creating some sort of ‘militia’ ( a halfway house between a full-fledged soldierand a civilian). It needs a larger debate, but we ought to make a start with giving concessions to states in terms of symbols like state flag etc. While the ‘substance’ of sovereignty remains unchanged, there is no harm in giving a symbolic recognition to the states ‘independence’. Let us not forget that the oldest recorded in history war, the Great Mahabharat war, was fought between two coalitions!
None of the above is rocket science and the advantage is that even a partial success of these measures will be a plus point. The best part is that even if these should fail, they can do no harm to the cause. The central government has to be proactive on this front and no leave it to the market forces alone.