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Since independence, India has followed, with remarkable success, its ‘(Don’t) Look East’ policy. The basic principles of this policy, as laid down by Nehru in the late 1940s, was to befriend as many states in Southeast Asia as possible so as to create a moral buffer against Chinese aggression and expansionism. Nehru was quite worried about China’s intentions, particularly after its annexation of Tibet in late 1949, and sought to defuse the situation by offering a hand of friendship. However, he also tried to maintain good relations with India’s neighbours, and for a while, although nothing concrete developed (how could it, given that India was hardly a wealthy donor country), India and Nehru were held in good regard in Burma, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian states. As John Foster Dulles, the vociferous critic of non-alignment, recognised, India worked towards its own containment policy, aiming to surround China by a string of buffer states the violation of whose territorial integrity, though possible militarily, would be diplomatically inadvisable.

This loose system, for multiple reasons—coups, mishandling of foreign policy, more favourable alliance systems—fell apart by the end of the 1950s. When China invaded India in 1962, there were a few trite murmurs about peaceful coexistence but no one cared. In 1964, when China detonated its first nuclear device, India’s backyard and non-aligned friends did not do much – some even congratulated China! Sri Lanka and Nepal had always tried to balance Indian power with Chinese with greater or lesser success. By the early 1970s, China had replaced India and the United States as Nepal’s greatest source of aid. For a while, even Bhutan almost got away from Indian hegemony (what else do you call it when a state has over 95% of its trade with one patron state?).

Within India, there were further problems. In the mid-1950s, the Naga problem came to head and the Army had to be deployed.

[DIVERSION 1 – The history of the Naga people is not well-known. Basically, they are a Mongoloid people who were conquered by Raja Ghambir Singh of Assam in 1832. Assam subsequently came under British rule. ‘Original’ Naga culture was eroded by the work of American Baptist Missionaries who forced their views of the world upon the tribes. As, Second World War ended, the Naga Club and the tribal councils that had been formed along its lines had merged and evolved into an organization called the Naga National Council (NNC) which dedicated to reforming Nagaland from the scratch of the war and advocated Independence for Nagaland. It held that the Nagas being fundamentally different from the mass of the Indian people and had lived independently before the British conquest of their territory. Therefore, their inclusion into the Indian Union would be an artificial and forced one. A delegation led by Mr. Z.A. Phizo met with Jawaharlal Nehru to reiterate this stand. The Indian Government maintained that the Naga Hills were an integral part of the British India, and the Naga Hills District was handed over to India with the rest of the British India. When it became evident that Independence would not be allowed, nine members of the NNC signed a Declaration of Independence. This move was ignored by the Indian Government. The NNC then started negotiations with the Governor of Assam, Sir Akbar Hydari. They reached an agreement with him called the ‘Nine Point Agreement’ but it was more of a compromise. The NNC gave more importance to the clause that gave them the right to reconsider their status within India after ten years. The NNC believed that this gave them the option of choosing Independence. For the Indian Government such an option did not even exist. The fundamental difference of opinion between the NNC and the Indian Government led to armed revolt and many years of insurgency that continues to this day. The NNC held a plebiscite in 1950 which resulted in a majority supporting the NNC stand. In 1952 talks between Mr. Z.A. Phizo and Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru ended without any results. In 1955 fighting broke out after NNC leaders were arrested. The NNC went underground and in 1956 proclaimed the Naga Federal Government with a President, Parliament and Ministers under the leadership of Mr. Z.A. Phizo. The first flag of the Naga federal Government was unfurled in 1956 at Phensinyu, a Rengma village. In the following years a virtual undeclared war was fought between the Indian army and the Federal Naga Government. Excesses occurred on both sides, and the exact casualty figures are yet unknown. An organization of Naga leaders called the NPC (Naga People’s Convention) was formed for negotiating a peace settlement. Under this settlement, in 1963 the ‘Naga Hills’ districts of the state of Assam was granted Statehood. The NPC became a political party called the NNO (Naga National Organization) and formed the first Government of Nagaland after winning state elections. The Naga Federal Government refused to settle for anything short of total independence and continued to fight the Indian Army. It also targeted the Nagas who had led the movement of peace and statehood and attempted to assassinate leaders. Negotiations initiated by the Nagaland Baptist Church Council with Reverend Michael Scott as mediator resulted in a cease-fire in 1964 but the basic differences between the NNC and NPC remained irreconcilable. In 1966 negotiations broke down. The cease-fire had brought an end to the war like situation in the state but sporadic encounters between the NNC and Indian Army continued. In 1972 the Indian Government formally terminated the cease-fire. By that time NNC had forged links with China and other insurgency movements in neighbouring Burma where some of them based their camps; but, dissent within the organization had grown and by 1975 a faction of the NNC living within Nagaland signed a Peace treaty known as the Shillong Accord with the Indian Government. Another faction, calling itself National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), condemned the move and continues to fight for independence till date.]

Soon, Assam began to boil over, weakening India’s control in its own north-eastern sector even further.

[DIVERSION 2 – Assam is referred to in Indian mythology, most notably in the Mahabharata. Evidence exists of Palaeolithic man in Assam as well. Historical Assam begins in the 4th century of the Common Era with the establishment of the Varman dynasty. For our purposes, however, I will stick to the post-1947 period. (For a history of Assam, click HERE.) Assam was a state within the Indian union from the beginning, out of whom were later formed Arunachal Pradesh (1948), Nagaland (1963), Meghalaya (1972), Manipur (1972), and Mizoram (1987). Following the India-Pakistan War of 1971, nearly two million Bengali Muslim refugees migrated to Assam. Their illegal settlement and then their electoral support for Indira Gandhi’s Congress government aggravated Assamese fears of Bengali cultural domination and central government ambitions to undermine Assamese regional autonomy. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were persistent disputes between the government and Assamese students and some Assamese political factions over the rights of illegal immigrants to citizenship and suffrage. In 1979, Assam flared into Assam Agitation (or Assam Movement) a popular movement against illegal immigration. The movement, led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), set an agitational program to compel the government to identify and expel illegal immigrants and prevent new immigration. The agitational programs were largely non-violent, but there were incidents of acute violence, like the Nellie massacre. It ended in 1985 following the Assam Accord that was signed by the agitation leaders and the Government of India. The agitation leaders formed a political party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which came to power in the state of Assam in the Assembly elections of 1985. But, internal bickering and charges of corruption, led to the downfall of the AGP Ministry in 1990 although they came back to power later. The 1990s have seen the demand for the independence of Assam from the Indian Government by organizations such as the militarized group, The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The Indian government has responded with widespread use of extra-ordinary force and other measures. There have been many armed encounters between the Army and the insurgents since.]

Thus, India lost not only foreign amity but also provoked domestic discontent in its eastern region. A series of Prime Ministers from Nehru until Manmohan Singh botched the project of reconciliation and economic development with India’s eastern states and India remains only a vaguely familiar name to Southeast Asians. In the meantime, Indian business houses and private citizens have set up shop and even become millionaires in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries.

With the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, and globalisation, India is rapidly becoming an economic powerhouse. And yet, there seems to be no life in the Look East Policy. Today, India has the means to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the states on China’s southern border. Furthermore, it has the economic resources to invest in the Seven Sisters (India’s seven north-eastern states) such that it would benefit the Union as much as the states and simultaneously quell the unrest. Sadly, neither the central government nor the state government is listening. In Assam, the soil erosion caused by the Brahmaputra has made many farmers destitute. Industry is minimal, and the region has hardly gained from India’s booming economy. Construction of sophisticated roads, airports and other facilities through government-private partnerships, which has changed the landscape of many Indian cities, is still unknown to the Seven Sisters. While central, western and southern India have benefited hugely from public-private partnerships (PPPs) ranging from small Rs. 25-crore road projects to those like the Rs. 2,478-crore Hyderabad International Airport, north-eastern states do not have anything to boast about. The Seven do not have even a single public private partnership in infrastructure, according to an online database recently launched by the finance ministry. The irony is that poor infrastructure and unemployment are seen as reasons fostering public discontent and armed violence in these regions and needs adequate attention. While the government can pump in money on welfare measures, development of infrastructure through government-private partnership depends on many other factors too.

For example, to protect tribal interests, policies of minimal interference with the cultural traditions and customs of the tribal people have followed and additional political and administrative mechanisms have been provided for the region. Under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, the concept of Autonomous District Councils has been applied. These Councils are empowered to make laws with respect to: a) Land; b) Forest; c) Water course; d) Shifting cultivation; e) Establishment of village and town and its administration; f) Appointment of, or succession to, chiefs or headmen; g) Inheritance of property; h) Marriage and divorce and matters relating to any other social customs. Restrictions have been imposed on the rights of Indian nationals to acquire landed property in these areas. The regulation of the Inner Line Permit System prohibits entry of outsiders into Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland without a permit, and debars a non-native from acquiring any interest in land or the produce of land. Tribal belts and blocks have been constituted in the plains areas to prevent land alienation from tribals there.

It has to be honestly acknowledged, however, that the development strategy implemented so far, mainly through the Planning Commission and North East Council, has failed to produce the desired results. Moreover, contrary to popular perceptions, the lack of development in the past has not been the consequence of any shortage of funds. In fact, sufficient resources were always provided to the region, but a substantial portion of the funds earmarked for various schemes has not really gone into those schemes. Some scholars have pointed out that the regime of corruption in India, even under normal circumstances, severely limits the actual impact of development expenditure on target groups. In situations of widespread breakdown of law and order, as in the case of many parts of the Northeast, the impact of government sponsored development projects is negligible. The region remains isolated from the rest of the country, it has not been able to attract investors or to produce skilled labour and entrepreneurial resources, and it has failed to transform the primitive agricultural practices of the region into modern commercial agriculture. More importantly, the existing policy framework has also become one of the important factors that has contributed to the emergence and continuance of insurgency in the region.

The need of the hour is to address the problems and reasons identified in a logical, compassionate and systematic manner. Sanitisation of the international border is a must by physical means and the creation of artificial obstacles wherever possible. The Northeast should become a hub for a reinvigorated Look East policy. It should become a gateway for ASEAN countries. Achieving these objectives not only contributes to solving a host of social and economic problems but also adds to the overall GDP of the nation. Furthermore, North East India can reach out to Burma, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, and Vietnam in an economic partnership that could loosen these countries from China’s orbit and strengthen India’s influence in the region. Whether we realise it or not, China has always been India’s strategic foe. This is even more the case today—they rival us militarily, economically, and socially. To India’s shame, China also outdoes India in every department. If India does not wish to remain in China’s shadow, if it wishes some measure of influence in Asia and the world, it needs to start with its Look East policy. By sheer geographic and demographic size, and now by economy, India is bound to be a regional heavyweight (if not an international Big Power). Let it at least be a healthy one.