TODAY -

Unmasking the politics of India's Look East Policy
- Part 3 -

Sanatomba Kangujam *

ASEAN India Car Rally route :: Pix - TSE
ASEAN India Car Rally route :: Pix - TSE



The Northeast region is set to witness large-scale violation of Human Rights in the backdrop of India's Look East Policy as the policy is predominantly guided by militaristic concern to subdue the armed struggles in the region

The indigenous peoples of the North East have nothing to expect from India's Look East Policy, as the prospect of economic gains to be derived from it is still fuzzy. Certain informed quarters have observed that despite the rise in the overall volume of trade between India and Myanmar, trade through the Moreh-Tamu route has been declining over the years.

The border trade posts on the Indian side is also said to be lacking in infrastructure and supportive institutional structure. Owing to such an absence of appropriate domestic preparedness, border trade has not shown any significant stride even after the signing of the border trade agreement about two decades back. This is not unexpected since economic development of the North East did not figure prominently in framing this policy. So far, the Indian Government cannot produce a blueprint of LEP for the North East.

It is an irony that trading infrastructures and facilities are reportedly coming up in West Bengal bypassing the North East. Observations coming from analyst indicated that security considerations far outweigh economic considerations as far as the Indo-Myanmar border trade is concerned. Security and strategic consideration is the prime mover of India's LEP. Here, it needs to be stated that border trade constitutes a significant component of the Look East Policy.

AHN & TAR: Road to Militarization

A grand scheme of the Look East Policy is the Asian Highway Network Agreement, which came into force on July 4, 2005. The Inter-governmental Agreement on Asian Highway Network, which aims to complete 14,000 km of standardized roadways spanning 32 Asian countries including India with linkage to Europe, has been a landmark agreement. To be known as the Asian Highway I, the highway will enable direct travel from Tokyo to Istanbul and an estimated 18 billion US dollar is needed to upgrade and improve the highway.

This inter-governmental agreement on the Asian Highway Network is the first treaty developed by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP). It is deposited with the UN Secretary General. UNESCAP is working with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the Japan Bank for International Co-operation and the Islamic Development Bank to help countries identify sources for investment. India became the 24th country to sign the Agreement on April 28, 2004 at the 60th Session of UNESCAP.

Apart from the Trans-Asian Highways sponsored by the International Financial Institutions, the Government of India (GoI) has recently initiated a new railway scheme in pursuit of India's Look East Policy. The rail link scheme proposed by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is part of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Project. The scheme, which is in its nascent stage, envisages bringing the Asian countries closer to each other for ensuring more interactive economic cooperation.

Keeping this aspiration in view, India and Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on July 29, 2004 under which India would make available a line credit of US dollar 56 million to Yangon authorities to facilitate them to build a modern utility along the North Western and Central flank of that country.

The Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES), an ancillary of the Indian Railways had already completed the drawing up of a preliminary feasibility survey to build a broad-gauge track between Moreh in Manipur and Segyi in Myanmar with an estimated cost of Rs.13.39 billion.

In conjunction with this plan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had laid the foundation stone of the railway line from Jiribam to Tupul in Manipur's Tamenglong district in November 2004.

The Indian Railways had also initiated the preliminary task to extend the broad gauge track from Jiribam in southwest Manipur and the state's lone railhead to Moreh via Tupul and Imphal in phase manner. The construction of the railways is currently underway.

While the importance of such transport facilities cannot be overridden, apprehension looms large on the negative consequences likely to emerge from such a developmental project. Firstly, in the absence of a viable market structure and trading infrastructure, construction of highways and extension of railways will not augment much to alleviate the existing predicament. The North East will be reduced to a mere transit point or a corridor route in the whole scheme of things.

Transformation of the region from the “local” to the “global” will not entail any guarantee for development as already depicted by Myanmar unless the local economy is restructured. And economic gain, if there could be any, would be neutralised by the surplus migrant population that shall arrive with the coming of highways and railways. Impending demographic pressure of the migrant population will undoubtedly result in shrinking of social and economic space of the indigenous peoples.

The North East will experience intensified immigrant influx from mainland India in addition to aggravation of existing social problems including AIDS, prostitution, illegal arms-trade, illicit drug smuggling and human trafficking. The fragile local economy already in the grip of the outsiders will ultimately crumble and consequently, the indigenous peoples of the region have a chance of becoming beggars in their own land. Ultimately, the land and its distinct identity will perish.

The most immediate danger lies in further militarisation of the already militarised North East. Heavy deployment of security forces along the highways and railways will become highly inevitable given the prevalence of conflict situation in the region.

Illegal detention, involuntary disappearance, arrest without warrant, undesirable frisking, summary execution, staged encounter, torture and rape can be expected on an unprecedented scale if past experiences are any indication. The military establishment and the central government will find a more suitable ground to justify the continued imposition of the draconian AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), 1958 while much new inhuman legislation may be forthcoming. In this way, the security forces will be better equipped to launch counter-insurgency operations with increased brutality and immunity.

The operational aspect of India's Look East Policy in the context of the North East remains heavily confined to development of surface transport infrastructures like highways and railways. The emphasis attached to construction of highways and railways seems loaded with military objectives to conduct military operations against the insurgents.

Once considered a landlocked region, those in the corridors of power in New Delhi had cited the topographical terrain as the major cause of inaccessibility and transport bottleneck of the North East. But the onset of economic liberalization in India since the early Nineties has led to falsification of such a traditional notion.

The logic behind such a paradox infers that the central government had deliberately kept the region backward on one pretext or the other. It is only when the Indian corporate class began to realize the importance of the North East that the Government of India started acting on their behalf in collaboration with the Multinational Corporations (MNCs). However, in the absence of any concrete policy framework committed to bringing about substantial economic development in the North East, the peoples of this region can hardly expect a qualitative change in their existence from the much hyped Look East Policy.

Concluding Observations

An interesting aspect of the Look East Policy, which needs serious introspection, is New Delhi's attitude towards the North East. The notion of North East as a 'frontier' has dominated the mindset of the Indian ruling elites for a long time and there seems no break to such a legacy inherited from the colonial past. Even after sixty years of independence, there is no paradigm shift to the outlook of Indian political leadership.

In spite of the new policy initiative, economic integration of the North East with mainland India still remains a far-fetched dream. Development in the last six decades has not shown any meaningful step to transform the frontier concept of the North East. The concept of frontier that denotes an area which needs to be defended militarily still holds true even today.

The possibility of the North East to be rendered merely as a transit point or rather as a corridor lends authenticity to such an understanding. Because, one can hardly see any tangible development of trading infrastructure in the region except for the limited construction of roads and highways, that too for military purpose.

India's Look East Policy is fraught with the state-centric notion of viewing any development project in the North East from the security paradigm. The military implications inherent in any of these projects - be it the Tipaimukh High Dam, the Border Trade, the Trans-Asian Highways, the Trans-continental Railways or the Shwe Gas Pipeline - reflect the persistence of a colonial mindset.

It is colonial in a sense that the development projects which are purportedly undertaken in the name of effecting economic upliftment is overshadowed by the underlying logic of militarisation. The notion of development is employed as a mere pretext for deployment of more military personnel and structures. Legitimacy to conduct military operations is also derived from the notion of development that asserts peace as a necessary pre-condition for development.

Maintenance of peace and order makes it imperative for the state to use forces. Developmentalism has been a powerful justificatory doctrine of state violence against the civil population. It is in line with this understanding that the logic of economic development is employed as a mere façade of India's Look East Policy to conceal the inherent militaristic design to subdue the armed struggles launched by different nationalist groups in the North East. Such a policy will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications on the state of Human Rights in the region.

Concluded


* Sanatomba Kangujam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science, Manipur University. He is currently working on "Peace Initiatives and Conflict Transformation in Manipur". He can be reached at sanatombak(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was posted on January 02, 2014.


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