India’s Look East Policy (ILEP) was launched in the early 1990s as an economic and security-oriented foreign policy initiative linking India and East Asia. Fifteen years later, the External Affairs Ministry brought the policy to the North-east for the first time in a consultation that took place in Shillong in June 2007, with the second one held soon thereafter in Guwahati. The latest round in the series took place on October 31 in the form of a meeting of the Chief Ministers of the North-east in New Delhi.
While the earlier Guwahati October 7 meeting was being held, several hundred miles to the east, Buddhist monks were pouring into the streets of Rangoon in an unprecedented democratic protest against a junta that has become a close ally of the present Indian regime. When the protest was brutally suppressed, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, attending the meeting, said, “India is involved in a variety of bilateral projects with Myanmar, including roads, railway, telecom, information technology, science and technology, power...” There was no word about the democratic upsurge or its brutal repression. This provided a grim backdrop to the undemocratic nature of the ILEP process itself.
These economic priorities, which are increasingly turning our leaders away from their democratic responsibilities, underscore another critically important reality. The North-east has closer relations with Burma — and vice versa — than with New Delhi. Before national boundaries were drawn in 1947, the North-east and Burmese territories shared deep cultural, economic and political ties. With the hardening of boundaries, these historical links were severed, except for a few economic holes in the form of Indo-Myanmar trade via Manipur and Mizoram. What has received little attention is the anguish that local communities continue to feel about them being delinked from the plurality of relationships they enjoyed with the people in and beyond Burma.
If the ILEP is also about understanding the reality and aspirations of the North-east, with policy flowing as a natural corollary to this, there should be a very different set of priorities. The first step would be the democratisation of the North-east — and of Burma. Present thinking in the corridors of power seems to shy away from engaging with this path. It seems to be easier to push through a host of development projects in a largely undemocratic manner. Minister of Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER) Mani Shankar Aiyar nearly got it right when he stated that the North-east needs to be “liberated” from its “geo-political trap”. He has, however, not told the complete truth. Aiyar promptly went on to give solutions to the problem — solutions directed from New Delhi and beyond, and not those based on local aspirations and needs.
A recent publication, ‘Insidious Financial Intrusions in India’s North East’ by Intercultural Resources has been one among many efforts that have tried, despite many odds, to reveal the intensive and multi-layered efforts of MDONER in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to ‘develop’ the region. The publication also reveals that there is a comprehensive long-term plan for the North-east, ‘Vision 2020’, on the North East Council website. Except for one person, none of the authors is from the North-east. The ADB and the World Bank have also authored or commissioned a spate of reports and studies that detail plans to open trade routes, lay railways lines, promote cash crops and mono-culture plantations, build dams, expand tourism, etc. But there has been little involvement of the people for whom these ambitious schemes are being planned.
Not satisfied with a massive exercise in economic and social engineering, the North-east is being geographically re-configured by clubbing it with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Little is publicly known about what is being called the South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC). Under the garb of doing the region a favour, there seems to be a massive plan that privileges external corporations and other economic players. A narrow elite in the region will benefit tremendously and this is already becoming visible.
The people’s right to development, to their culture and to their own security, justice and democracy are getting short shrift. This is an unsustainable and dangerous path that will increase inequality and conflict and make the people in the region subservient to the dictates of national and international interest groups. The ILEP, in its present incarnation, must be stopped. What more and more people of the region realise is the need for a North-east-wide debate on their own path of development that integrally demands a restoration of democracy and political autonomy in the region and in the neighbouring countries as a pre-condition to further centralised interventions.
Ramananda Wangkheirakpam and Smitu Kothari are researchers with Intercultural Resources (ICR), an independent public policy research group in New Delhi.