Bodo’s, an ethnic group from Assam, in a relief camp. Thousands of them were displaced by recent violence
In 1991, under the Narasimha Rao government, India first adopted the “Look East Policy” in a bid to build strategic depth with nations in East and South-East Asia. This policy focus persists even today and has been significantly augmented under the current leadership of Prime Minister Modi. Within a few months of assuming power, the reigning BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government revamped the Look East Policy by giving it the moniker, “Act East Policy,” thus underscoring the urgency of enhancing diplomatic, economic and cultural engagements with the region. However, it is supremely ironic that as the locus of India’s foreign policy shifts eastwards, the Indian northeast remains as neglected as ever in New Delhi’s domestic policy calculations. The recent riots in Dimapur, the largest city in the northeastern state of Nagaland, should serve as a timely reminder to New Delhi that the rupture between this region and the rest of India seems only to be widening.
Known by the sobriquet “The Seven Sisters,” the Indian northeast comprises the seven states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. After the creation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1947, the states of the Northeast were geographically cut off from the rest of India, and a tiny 22km-wide sliver of land known as the Siliguri corridor, flanked by Bhutan, Bangladesh and China, now connects the two. The region is heavily clothed in forests and rich in natural resources, but insurgency movements in the post-independence era and the government’s failure to cultivate industry have fostered conflict and little development.
A report on the region by The Economist in 2012 suggested that between 20% and 55% of the Seven Sisters’ GDP comes from transfers from the central government in New Delhi. Further, six out of the seven state capitals in the region are not connected to the Indian Railways and three state capitals do not have a proper domestic airport. These facts suggest that the center has sought to promote clientelism and relations of patronage between New Delhi and the Northeast, as opposed to investing in industry and sustainably developing the region. When limited industrialization and a lack of economic opportunity is coupled with the presence of a corrupt, nanny state that is the only source of employment, it becomes apparent why jingoistic political and social movements hold allure for the region’s youth.
In fact, it is the paucity of jobs and economic opportunity that may be the root cause of the worsening identity conflict in the region. The rioting in Dimapur on March 6, for example, occurred in response to a suspected rape committed by Sharif Khan, an alleged illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. A mob made up of enraged indigenous Nagas stormed the police station where he was being held, dragged Khan out and beat him to death. This apparently vindictive act is rooted in a deep-seated identity clash between the people of the “plains,” (represented in this instance by Khan) and those of the Northeast. This identity clash has been fomented by years of state neglect and racial discrimination towards Northeasterners in the rest of India due to their Mongoloid features and cultural differences.
In 2012, in response to this discrimination, the Indian Supreme Court made it illegal to address an individual as “chinki,” a common slur used against people from the Northeast in India’s modern urban spaces. Yet as the Dimapur incident suggests, this notion of “otherness” has also percolated into the Northeast, where, conversely, people from the “plains” and the rest of the subcontinent are looked down upon and targeted. Anti-outsider movements have been prevalent in the northeastern state of Assam since the late 1970s, with various ethnic communities such as Bengalis and Biharis bearing the brunt of local angst. Clearly, a massive trust deficit exists on both sides and proactive policymaking that redresses the neglect of the past and equitably creates opportunity through sustained economic growth is necessary to build a more cohesive social fabric.
The tension embedded in the social fabric of the Northeast has been accentuated by a growing indigenous population combined with the influx of migrants from other parts of India and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The threadbare economy has been put under pressure by these new arrivals, especially as they often emerge as the market-dominant minority, breeding resentment among locals. Local politicians, moreover, aid in the influx of illegal immigrants in order to create vote banks that they can fall back on come election time. Due to the longstanding neglect of the region, it is evident that the conflict in the Northeast between “locals” and “outsiders” remains primarily an economic one as opposed to being sectarian, cultural or racial. Thus, rapid economic development and equitable resource allocation is vital if the social fabric of the region is to be maintained and the narrative of India’s 67 year-old nation-building project isn’t to be undermined.
Along with an “Act East” foreign policy, an “Act East” domestic policy that seeks to foster equitable growth in the states of the Northeast is sorely needed. One policy measure that can be adopted, for example, is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to the one used in South Africa, to provide restorative justice to the individuals and groups alienated by years of conflict between the state and armed insurgents. Other measures may include the creation of Special Economic Zones to attract much-needed capital from India’s industrialists, in addition to making micro-credit available at favorable interest rates to enable indigenous arts to flourish and expand.
However, the most important requirement in developing the Northeast is a stimulus package invested in upgrading airport infrastructure, constructing road networks, and linking all state capitals by rail. Better communication facilities will draw in industry and tourism, making the economic environment a lot more dynamic in the region and creating opportunity for youth.
To be sure, the key stumbling block to development is not a shortage of good ideas, but rather the lack of political will needed to effectively implement these measures and tackle the issue that remains the problem. It can only be hoped that Modi’s Act East foreign policy also translates into an eastward shift in domestic policy focus, so that the development of the Northeast registers higher on New Delhi’s political radar in the years to come.