North East India has been in the news during the month of June. Firstly, it was due to the massacre of 18 Indian soldiers of the Dogra Regiment by militants of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Kapalang) Group at Chandel in Manipur on June 4, which was responded to by India on June 9 when a contingent of para commandoes conducted a raid on two camps along the India Myanmar border and inflicted heavy casualties.
North Eastern India also figured prominently when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh and witnessed the inking of a historic agreement to exchange enclaves, a decision pending for decades between the two countries.
Bangladesh also agreed to give its approval for commencement of bus services from West Bengal to Assam and Tripura, which would reduce travel time by days.
On June 11, the Minister for North East, Jitendra Singh, visited Manipur and said the development of the region continues to be an item of high priority for the Government of India. Earlier, Prime Minister Modi had visited the north east and promised economic development.
It is timely therefore, that Pentagon Publishers have published this book, which contains papers submitted at a conference on the north east held in October 2013 organised by the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies in collaboration with the International Relations Department of the Sikkhim University at Gangtok.
As pointed in the contribution by Srishti Pukhren, the partition of India in 1947 transformed the geo-economic profile of the North-Eastern region. It isolated the region, sealed both land and sea routes from commerce and trade, and severed access to traditional markets and the gateway to the East and South-East Asia.
The Partition also distanced the approach to the rest of India by confining connectivity to the narrow 27 kilometre-wide Siliguri corridor, making it a ‘remote’ land and constrained in the movement of both goods and people. The isolation also resulted in economic under development of the region.
The Chinese attack on India in 1962 virtually closed the north east from Tibet. Nathu La, which was the pass through which trade was conducted with Tibet for centuries, was closed, and as pointed out by Subhadeep Bhattacharya, it became ‘the Pass of Apprehensions’. It was reopened in 2006, and one has to watch whether it would regain its status fully as a point on the Silk Route.
North East became a victim of insurgencies, which received encouragement from hostile forces in neighbouring countries. The insurgent forces were partly put down in Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Assam, but the process has retarded development of the seven north eastern states and even Sikkim.
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, who felt that economic development was important to counter the forces of insurgency, formulated the Look East Policy. India came closer to the ASEAN and efforts were made to revive the Asian Highway connecting North East India and Myanmar, and connect Bangladesh and North-Eastern India.
As pointed out by Sristi Pukhren in his paper, while tactical deployment of security forces along the highway could counter much of the insurgency related activities, the coming of the Asian Highway to the north east region in India and Myanmar in south East Asia is expected to facilitate clearing out Indian insurgent groups taking refuge in Myanmar
The Look East Policy has also encouraged trade with Myanmar.
S. S. Mazumdar, in his paper, has pointed out, that the volume of trade at the Moreh Tamu Border point which was Rs 95.48 million in 2001-11 and increased to Rs 298 million in 2009-10, an average increase of 39 percent per annum. The border trade between India and Myanmar had a quantum jump during the year 2012-13 touching USD 36.2 million from USD 15.4 million.
Garima Sarkar in her paper has pointed out that efforts should be made to loosen the border trade in the Tamu-Moreh corridor on the Manipur-Myanmar border. Moreh, it is pointed out, is an international venue and different ethnic groups like Tamils, Punjabi, Marwari, Jain, Meeteis, Kukis, Muslim and Mizos inhabit the town It has been pointed out that there is a lot of potential for expansion of trade between India and Myanmar through adoption of normal trading procedures.
It has also been pointed out that the north eastern region has enormous potential to emerge as a prospective regional energy trading hub. The paper by Arnab Dasgupta gives details of the potential of energy resources of the north eastern region, as also of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Many suggestion have been made in the lectures published in the book which deserve consideration by the Central and State governments in the region. North-East India consists of around 250 ethnic groups.
For a long period of history, these various ethnic groups had lived in harmony with each other, shared the same land as their homeland, maintained traditional cultural and social protocols towards each other and even celebrated life together. Why are they becoming hostile now?
As pointed out by Maitrayee Guha, undocumented migration has given rise to conflicts and violence in the region. One of the first tasks of governments, both at the centre and in the states, he points out, should be to stop all violent activities between people, be they migrants or non-migrants.
Recent developments in the north-east have given a focus to the problems faced in the north eastern region of the country and the suggestions contained in the book deserve serious attention.
Book Review: Political Economy of India’s North East Border, edited by Sreeradha Dutta and S.S. Mazumdar Pentagon Publishers; pages 200.
By I. Ramamohan Rao