On the other hand, the North East region, historically, has more affinity to both North East Asia and South East Asia than the Indian sub-continent in terms of ethnicity, culture, social traditions and practices. In fact, politics of the region was largely shaped and determined by the relationships between the Burmese empire, Ahom kingdom, Manipuri kingdom and the kingdom of Tipperah (Tripura). Speaking genealogically, the Ahoms of Assam are believed to have been migrated from the Shan state of Myanmar whereas a large number of Chins from Myanmar made their settlements in Manipur and Mizoram. Again, the language spoken by the Shans is quite identical to that spoken in Laos and Thailand.
These ancient sovereign kingdoms were annihilated with the expansion of British imperialism. It was the British imperialists who sowed seeds of the region’s present socio-political predicament. Right from the heydays of British imperialism, British rulers conceptualised the region as a frontier region with respect to their vast colony spanning over the whole Indian sub-continent. This left a lasting legacy extending up to the present day with New Delhi adopting the same policy of treating the entire region as a buffer zone. With the region kept and treated as a buffer zone between India and South East and North East Asia, the socio-economic and political ties that existed between the North East region with its neighbours before the arrival of the British and cut off thereafter were never restored even after New Delhi took over suzerainty over the region from the British Crown.
It is often argued, particularly by Indian policy makers and political leaders, that one fundamental impediment to economic development of the region is its disadvantageous geographical location and landlockedness. This argument is rather interesting. Merits and demerits of a region’s location are relative terms which cannot be defined in any absolute parameters. Again, geopolitics pursued by the particular country and corresponding geopolitics devised by its neighbours are major determining factors for merits and demerits of a region’s location. This debate revolving around geographical location, geopolitics and economic development or backwardness can be contextualised in the North East region and its surrounding countries. Yes, the region is remote from all directions but in terms of distance, the region is comparatively quite near to Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan and even China and Thailand than most other main Indian cities with the exception of Kolkata. Just as much as the region occupies the extreme periphery in the politico-economic set up of India, the region has been virtually sealed off from all its foreign neighbours. Cut off from all directions, and its way only open to surrogate mother India through the Chicken Neck, the North East region is at a highly disadvantageous position. The so called disadvantageous position, however, is not natural. It was created and imposed by British geopolitics pursued in the region with the sole aim of securing their empire. Earlier, before the British conquest, the region had several routes to all directions where trade and commerce was carried on with different countries without any hassles.
Before the (British) colonial period, the region was connected by a road which extended from Peshawar to Parvatipur (now in Bangladesh) till Assam. This was cut off after partition of British India and creation of erstwhile East Pakistan. Again, the ancient land route linking Brahmaputra valley to South East Asia and Yunan province of China was never restored after the route was closed by the British to safeguard the interest of steam navigation companies owned by British subjects who operated in the rivers of Burma. The Imphal-Tamu road was also lying almost defunct until it was officially opened as late as on April 12, 1995. However, with cross-border trade at Moreh and Tamu limited to very few items coupled with inefficient customs administration and negligible infrastructure, the cross-border trade is yet to take off in its real sense.
Here, we cannot side-step the much hyped Look East Policy. Though the Look East Policy (LEP) can be traced to the period of economic liberalisation initiated during the Prime Ministership of Narasimha Rao, it was also a policy response of the Government of India to the post-Cold War geopolitical configurations. As much as it is an economic policy aimed at integrating the liberalised economy of India with the thriving economies of the ASEAN countries and beyond, the LEP is a composite politico-military strategy propelled by changing geo-political considerations. This is understandable if one takes into account the ever rising Chinese influence among ASEAN countries and the decades old insurgency movement in North East region, the basic goal of which is restoration of sovereignty to the erstwhile independent kingdoms. Under such scenario, India cannot afford any strain bilateral relations with Bangladesh, Myanmar or any of its little neighbours. New Delhi’s generous investment in road and power projects in Myanmar and the recent red carpet welcome extended to Myanmarese junta leader Gen Than Shwe was a clear indication of India’s shifting geo-strategic concerns. The unexpected week-long state visit to New Delhi by the junta leader starting from July 27, 2010 is pregnant with implications for the North East region in general and Manipur in particular. Notwithstanding the fact that the United States, New Delhi’s mentor as far as rivalry with China is concerned, is always critical of the military junta like many other nations, India can no longer shun the military junta in the name of democracy. Call it realpolitik or hypocrisy, India played host to the Gen Than Shwe while at the same time giving asylum to thousands of pro-democracy Myanmarese dissidents within its territory.
What is central to the geopolitics of India towards its eastern neighbours is the strategic importance of its North East region. The Look East Policy envisaged and conceptualised through the region is a testimony of its strategic importance both in military and economic terms. Strategic importance of the region in military sense was confirmed during the World War II when Japanese and British forces fought long drawn bloody battles at Imphal and Kohima to wrest control of the region. The significance and decisiveness of the Battle of Imphal in the outcome of the great war can be discerned from the words of General Mutaguchi who commanded the Japanese Army.
This operation will engage the attention of the world and is eagerly awaited by 100,000,000 of our country men. By its very decisive nature, its success will have profound effect on the course of the war and may even lead to its conclusion and we must expend every energy and talent in the achievement of our goal (Imphal : a flower of lofty heights ; by (Sir) Geoffrey Evans and Anthony Brett-James,1962, 111).
The geopolitical significance of Manipur has not diminished a bit in the post Cold War period, rather it is assuming greater proportions. As for the people of Manipur, this is no reason to cheer about. Already, the tiny State has been heavily militarised. This is more on account of the strategic location of the North East region than the insurgency movement. Tight restrictions on cross-border movement of people for commercial purposes and otherwise are a by-product of the region’s strategic importance which is hardened by New Delhi’s nagging suspicion of its eastern neighbours. Here, the Look East Policy sound likes a paradox. Any keen observer cannot miss the contradictions thrown up by the LEP and the policy of isolation being pursued by New Delhi vis-a-vis the North East region. This policy of isolation which originated during the period of British imperialism is driven by the geo-strategic location of the region. The tragedy is, the Chicken Neck cannot connect the region to the economy of mainland India when, on the other hand, the region is closed to all its neighbours. The predicament is felt more profoundly in Manipur, located in the extreme corner of the periphery and connected to other parts of India with the most sub-standard highways which are again often choked by prolonged blockades. Look East Policy or not, we would certainly like to look East and open up this tiny State to the whole world. Time will tell us how the LEP is comprehended in the geopolitics of India and we are more than certain India will never compromise its chosen geopolitics for the sake of LEP. This is the predicament being endured by the region since the heydays of imperialism.
This article was posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, August 29, 2010