To ‘act east,’ India must look in its own backyard

Published on September 23, 2016

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Shayani Sarkar

Nikkei Asian Review – September 23, 2016

India’s “Act East” policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been hailed by some as among India’s most significant foreign policy initiatives in the last two decades.

Using the policy as a framework, India not only strives to engage with members of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations but also more broadly with the Asia-Pacific region. Modi’s visit to Japan in 2014 could be seen as a positive step in that direction.

While the AEP covers the broader East Asia region, engaging Southeast Asian nations remains its central focus. Since its inception, the AEP has mainly centered on trade and economic issues by enhancing or attempting to expand India’s markets, and strengthening security and strategic cooperation, including counter-terrorism activities.

The Modi government allocated $1 billion for promoting connectivity at the India-ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur last November. New Delhi is also keen to attract Buddhism-related tourism to bring people to the place where Gautama Buddha was said to have obtained enlightenment.

While some tangible progress has been made toward fulfilling the basic aims of the AEP, more needs to be done to achieve its full potential. The role of northeast India is one vital component that needs close attention. The poor northeast region links India with its eastern neighbors.

While Myanmar serves as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, the northeast region that connects mainland India with Myanmar is equally important. Given its strategic location and diverse ethnic groups and cultures, the majority of whom are racially closer to the peoples of Southeast Asia, the Indian government should focus more closely on development of this region.

India and Myanmar are home to millions of people from the same ethnic communities, separated as the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947 and 1948, respectively. Examples include the Kachin, the Kuki, the Naga and the Shan, all of whom live side by side along the India-Myanmar border. The two countries also share a 1,624km boundary in four northeast Indian states — Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.

India’s fundamental challenge in the northeast is the existence of several dozen armed ethnic groups with varying demands of the central government — ranging from greater autonomy to secession from the Indian union.

While dealing with insurgency problems and/or with a view to maintaining law and order in the region, the Indian government introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1958, which grants security forces the power to search properties without a warrant, arrest people, and use deadly force if there is reasonable suspicion that a person is acting against the state.

The AFSPA is still enforced in some northeastern states — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland. The excessive use of power by Indian security forces under the pretext of insurgency problems has created misery within the civilian population.

One important way to bring peace and stability to the northeast region would be through the creation of jobs and opportunities for hundreds of thousands of unemployed youths. Greater employment opportunities in this region of more than 45 million people (amounting to 3.7% of India’s population) could also help dissuade many frustrated youths from turning to violence.

Another area would be enforcing the strictest possible penalty for corrupt officials within the state machinery, by allowing agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country’s leading investigative police agency, to conduct probes.

In the current budget, nearly $5bn have been earmarked for the region. The Modi government is focusing on two key projects — Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer. and Numaligarh Refinery, a wax plant.

Another vital ingredient in the AEP’s success would be improving interstate connectivity in the northeast. Currently, there are several areas across the region where an all-weather road is not feasible. Moreover, the capitals of these states lack adequate rail services. The Kolkata-Guwahati roadway is the only major link connecting the entire northeast region with mainland India.

To gain full support from the people and to boost prospects for the AEP strategy, policy makers in Delhi must involve people from the northeastern states who best understand the local realities — including challenges and needs.

The status quo is that the AEP seems to be largely controlled and directed by people within the central government based in New Delhi. Engaging local people would allow them to take ownership of the grand policy of India’s engagement with the broader East.

For the AEP to succeed, it should generate local employment and attract visitors. It should also aim to develop sound business and infrastructure that will benefit its people in the long run.

After all, India must recognize that the holistic success of the AEP will be determined not only by economic and security cooperation with other nations, but also by its contribution to security and economic development in its own backyard.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University; and Shayani Sarkar is a postgraduate student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

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