The problem

back to issue

INITIATED in the early days of the post cold war era, India's Look East policy has begun showing results. India is now one of four summit level partners – along with China, Japan and Korea – of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Trade between India and ASEAN countries is expanding significantly. India has signed free trade area (FTA) agreements with Thailand and Singapore; there are plans to create a free-trade area with Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia by 2011 and with the remaining ASEAN countries – the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – by 2016. There are a number of structures of sub-regional cooperation in place including the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – Economic Cooperation). Outside of ASEAN, bilateral trade between India and China has improved significantly and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's proposal for an Asian economic community – to include ASEAN, China, Japan, Korea and India – generated significant excitement at last year's third ASEAN-India summit.

There has been much talk about the potential of the Look East policy transforming India's Northeastern region that borders ASEAN. In this foreign policy vision Northeast India is often described as the gateway to Southeast Asia. The ASEAN-India car rally in 2004 was flagged off in Guwahati. According to Rajiv Sikri, Secretary East of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Look East policy ‘envisages the Northeast region not as the periphery of India, but as the centre of a thriving and integrated economic space linking two dynamic regions with a network of highways, railways, pipelines, transmission lines crisscrossing the region.' He expressed the hope that one day it would be possible to drive from Kolkata via Dhaka, or from Guwahati to Yangon and Bangkok in three or four days and trains and buses would carry ‘millions of tourists, pilgrims, workers and businessmen in both directions.' Sikri spoke at a Forum organized by the Guwahati-based Centre for Northeast India, South and Southeast Asia Studies [CENISEAS]. The theme of this issue of Seminar grew out of that Forum and a number of the essays are revised versions of papers presented there. 1

The opportunities that economic integration with its transnational neighbours could open up for Northeast India are enormous. The region's difficulties as a result of the loss of connectivity and market access following the partition of 1947 are well known. But there is also an older story of colonial geopolitics that cut the region off from its neighbourhood across the eastern and northern borders. 19th century British colonial decisions to draw lines between the hills and the plains, to put barriers on trade between Bhutan and Assam, and to treat Burma as a buffer against French Indochina and China severed the region from its traditional trade routes – the southern trails of the Silk Road. While colonial rulers built railways and roads mostly to take tea, coal, oil and other resources out of Assam, the disruption of old trade routes remained colonialism's most enduring negative legacy. After a century and half the opportunity has now arisen to undo the effects of colonial geopolitics. However, there are serious hurdles to the Look East policy developing its Northeast Indian thrust. Indeed there is a growing sense in Northeast India that there may be more rhetoric than substance to the talk of the region becoming India's gateway to Southeast Asia.

This symposium on Northeast India and the Look East policy begins with Jairam Ramesh's essay reviewing Indian policy towards the Northeast. Despite good intentions and a variety of approaches, the region, he points out is always in crisis. For every ten citizens there is roughly one armed personnel – not exactly how things should be in a democracy. He argues against the current conventional wisdom that spending more money on development will get the region out of its current predicament and concludes by outlining a bold vision for the region's future: political integration with India and economic integration with Southeast Asia.

Sushil Khanna's essay outlines a vision of Northeast India supplying hydroelectric power to its cross-border neighbours, pipelines moving gas and petroleum products across the transnational region and a water transport network – with lower transportation costs – making Northeast India an attractive investment destination. Picking up the last theme from another angle, Sanjoy Hazarika writes that since the main road and rail corridor of the region is under water or is affected by water for long periods every year, without substantial investments in water transportation the Look East policy will ‘run into the sandbanks of the Brahmaputra.' M.P. Bezbaruah spells out the potential in the area of tourism. India's tourism industry has traditionally focused primarily on western tourists and Northeast India is far away from the places from where most western tourists enter India. However, the changing geography of tourism since 9/11 has brought home the importance of regional and domestic tourism. By 2020 the Asia Pacific region is projected to become the second largest tourist generating market in the world. To open up to that market could be very rewarding for Northeast India.

While economics dominate discussions of what the Look East policy could do for the region there are potential non-economic dividends as well. Transnational ties could speak to Northeast India's current political troubles. The politics of recognition 2 is a recurrent theme in the movements of ethnic assertion and in the insurgencies of Northeast India. The European Union has facilitated the pursuit of recognition at the international sphere by dissenting regions – e.g. the Basque country, Catalonia or the Tyrol. One can imagine new transnational structures some day allowing regions like Assam, Manipur and Nagalim to reclaim their identities through the pursuit of European Union style paradiplomacy by non-state regions. 3 Plans to develop Northeast India's tourist industry could include building community cultural centres and museums to showcase and celebrate the cultures of the region's many ethnic communities. This could attract tourists while at the same time respond to the urge for recognition. However, such projects would require substantial investment of economic, political and intellectual capital. Both Khanna and Bezbaruah emphasize the need for investments to build infrastructure – including highways, rail links, bridges and trading facilities. Tourism, as Bezbaruah points out, ‘cannot be developed in a vacuum. It requires social and economic infrastructure.'

The prism of security through which Indian policy-makers view the Northeast is likely to remain a major factor inhibiting serious investment of resources – intellectual, political and material – to make the region India's gateway to Southeast Asia. The porous borders that allow insurgent groups to procure arms and the inclination of some of India's enemies to fish in these troubled waters, understandably, make the security establishment quite nervous. Despite India's growing official ties with Myanmar, the country's uncertain political future will remain a hurdle in pursuing policies with a longer time horizon.

Dolly Kikon's account of the hornbill festival in Nagaland illustrates the tension between security anxieties and tourism. ‘As advertised,' she reports on the festival held last year, ‘the colours and tastes were truly unlike anything one would see in festivals in South Asia. Where else would pork, beef and assorted Naga delicacies be so grandly offered to people in the largely vegetarian Hindu heartland of mainland India?' But she adds sardonically, ‘where else would the army play such a big role in organising and participating in an event meant to showcase culture?' Throughout the festival, according to Kikon, armed security personnel were stationed at strategic points not too far from the site of the festival and locals complained of abuse by soldiers. In terms of the content of the festival, a flawed military orientation, she says, led to a depiction of the ‘Orient at our doorstep' that she considers pejorative.

Ethnic festivals held under the watchful eyes of gun-toting soldiers are unlikely to become big tourist draws. The number of tourists visiting the region after negotiating obstacles such as rules requiring Restrictive Area Permits and Inner Line Permits remains very small. Few foreign scholars are given research visas to study Northeast India. The resultant isolation of Northeast Indian scholarship from global intellectual currents is a little known but significant cost of official India's security obsession. Giving substance to the Northeast Indian thrust of our Look East policy would require settling the region's numerous conflicts through a comprehensive approach that goes beyond the unstable peace that policies shaped by today's counter-insurgency mindset can bring about. It would be necessary to get out of the security prism and seek a general opening of the region, not unlike Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost that involved opening doors and windows in intellectual, cultural, political matters as well as in the economic arena.

India's security concerns, of course, have a basis in ground reality. So long as insurgency remains a part of the region's political landscape and India's relations with some of its neighbours remain adversarial or rancorous, counter-insurgency operations and security-driven restrictions are likely to continue. Yet reconciling the demands of a globalizing economy that relies on greater opening with security concerns is a policy dilemma that many governments face today. ‘There is a potential train wreck in the making,' says Stephen E. Flynn with reference to the US. ‘Moving in one direction are those who would like to see national borders become as seamless as possible, while coming from the opposite direction are those charged with homeland security who would like to stop would-be terrorists, contraband, criminals, and illegal migrants at border crossings.' 4

But no matter how compelling the homeland security imperative, says Flynn, it cannot be allowed to derail North America's ‘continental engine of free trade and travel.' Since US power and prosperity depend on ready access to global transportation, energy, information, finance, and labour networks, security measures that isolate the US from those networks would be self-defeating. 5 But unlike the US, in the case of Northeast India there are no powerful economic stakeholders pushing for greater openness against those who look at borders through an old-fashioned security obsessed mindset.

If Northeast India is to live up to the promise of becoming India's gateway to Southeast Asia we must imagine a world where border-crossings are not thought of primarily as sites for security checks. ‘Terrorists and the tools of terrorism do not spring up at the border,' writes Flynn, they arrive through international trade and travel networks. Border crossings are ‘nodes in an international network that moves people and cargo' and controls at the border can be no more than a part of a broader effort at ensuring transportation and cargo security. In that sense security is tied to better border management, better governance inside the country as well as in the countries of the transnational neighbourhood, deepening relations with our neighbours and developing multilateral institutions of governance.

On the diplomatic front, while China no longer backs Northeastern rebels, writes Subir Bhaumik, many of them buy weapons in the black markets of Southeast Asia. Cheap weapons from China are either transported through the land route through Myanmar or they are brought by sea through the Bay of Bengal. India, according to Bhaumik, would have to engage China on the issue of small arms proliferation. Until the Chinese are willing to forego profits from weapons in the interest of peace and stability in the region, India has to turn to the military rulers of Myanmar to stop the thriving Yunnan-Upper Myanmar-Northeast India weapons route.

Bilateral relations between India and Myanmar will determine India's ability to keep out drugs as well. Indeed, such ‘realist' considerations – including the goal of limiting China's influence in Myanmar – have pushed the Indian policy of ‘wooing the generals', to use the words of Renaud Egreteau. 6 Egreteau is critical of this policy. While it might pay in the short-term, in the long-term it will be to India's interest to have a democratic neighbour. Whatever the argument for or against realism in foreign policy, it is clear that so long as the situation in Myanmar remains fluid, and the sanctions of the US and the EU on Myanmar continue, the level of Indian interaction with Myanmar cannot acquire the depth necessary to turn the Northeast into India's gateway to Southeast Asia.

India's relations with China are also an important piece of the puzzle. Massive investments in infrastructure to revive the southern Silk Road was at the core of the vision that inspired the Kunming initiative of 1999 that created the Track Two body called the BCIM Forum that includes Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar. While relations between India and China have shown signs of improvement, many in India are skeptical of Chinese plans to build roads and ports in Myanmar that will give China a strong presence all along our eastern border. It is unlikely, therefore, that the BCIM Forum's vision of cooperation on infrastructure building by Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar would come to fruition any time soon. On the other hand, India is actively engaged in road diplomacy with Myanmar – there is a trilateral highway project involving India, Myanmar and Thailand and a proposal for building railway links. It seems that in the foreseeable future China and India will go on their separate ways vis-à-vis Myanmar.

So far though we have taken a state-centric perspective on borders – as if states can open or close them at will and practice inclusion and exclusion distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens. But this understanding of borders is empirically problematic. At the Ceniseas Forum, M.S. Prabhakara, a former journalist, who has extensively covered the region, observed that cross-border contacts are ‘a feature of daily experience, indeed a necessary condition of the people's existence on both sides of the border.' Outside the world of formal trade, he said, there are routine exchanges of goods and services of many kinds. Apart from the thriving border towns such traffic goes on even in the ‘obscure, almost invisible little settlements that dot the border.' 7

Indeed, informal transnational processes today escape the surveillance of most states and, arguably, they subvert the primacy of the nation state. Many border communities make flexible use of citizenship8 and develop what can be described as post-national forms of belonging. Karin Dean's essay throws light on the lives of some trans-border communities on the Indo-Myanmarese border. Jayeeta Sharma describes the consequence of Assam's integration into British India in 1826 as follows: ‘While Assam had, through the centuries, served as an intersection between the Indic and Sinic worlds to its west and east, the colonial annexation brought the former centrally to the forefront.' While colonial and postcolonial borders have undoubtedly solidified the Indian connection, these borders have been far from closed – strictly conforming to the norms of the national geographic order.

Dean gives the example of a community known as Kachin in Upper Myanmar, Singpho in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and Jingpo in Yunnan, China. According to her the community has ‘creatively adjusted to the dominating international system of the states' by incorporating into their self-definition references to the three ‘host' states of China, Myanmar and India. Despite being citizens of three different states they are ‘united through a tight unique kinship lineage network of various spatial trajectories and social bonds, a commonly recognized lingua franca and a variety of tangible ethnic features.' She emphasizes the absurdity of state-centric geography. Citing Dutch historian Willem van Schendel, she notes that there are four settlements in a 50 kilometre radius, that are part of three sovereign states and four different world regions: Gohaling in Yunnan is part of ‘East Asia', Sakongdan in Myanmar is part of ‘Southeast Asia', Dong in Arunachal is part of ‘South Asia' and Zayü in Tibet part of ‘Central Asia'.

According to Yasmin Saikia, the identity movement of the Tai-Ahoms of Assam – little known in the rest of the country – extends ‘the horizons of history and memories to include the past in the present, South with Southeast Asia.' The efforts by a Northeast Indian community to seek belonging among the Tai people reflect the anxieties and hopes of a marginalized and disempowered people. The movement draws on a discourse about the Tai people that has significant appeal among intellectuals in Thailand. From their original home in Nanchao in Southern China, the Tais are believed to have migrated to Assam, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. The Tai ethnic groups of Upper Assam are the western-most Tai people. Saikia, however, worries that those seeking to be recognized as Tai-Ahoms have little place in ‘arithmetic of history and commerce' that is part of today's official diplomacy.

Mrinal Miri takes up the complexity of identity issues in Northeast India and of the region's identity vis-à-vis the rest of India. The political engineering response to identity movements – creating small states, extending the Sixth Schedule etc. – has not produced a stable political order in Northeast India. The difficulties faced by the Naga peace process today in responding to the demand for Nagalim underscore this failure. Approaching the question of identities from the perspective of language, Miri points out that while a language is in a certain sense, complete in itself, its boundaries often merge into the boundaries of other languages. There are conversations that take place between them and such conversations make a great deal of difference to each other. He rejects ‘mainstream' and ‘marginality' as useful metaphors to make sense of cultural India.

Northeast India's ethnic question, argues Samir Das, requires independent attention in our Look East policy. For ‘who initiates' policies can become more important than ‘what is being initiated'. Projects might be more acceptable if they are initiated locally than externally. But to date there is almost no role for the states of Northeast India in the Look East policy – except as a site for events such as the ASEAN-India car rally. This, for instance, is in sharp contrast with the role that the province of Yunnan plays in the Chinese pursuit of closer relationship with its neighbours in South and Southeast Asia. It was in Yunnan's capital Kunming where experts, scholars and business people from China, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh got together to initiate the BCIM Forum. Yunnan's provincial government plays a far more active role in attracting foreign investments to the province than Northeast Indian states. It plays a role in institutions of the Greater Mekong sub-region. But there is little room for India's Northeastern states in the Mekong Ganga Cooperation forum or in BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation). The difference is quite ironic given that China's political system is centralized and authoritarian while ours is democratic and federal.

Mainland India's ties with Southeast Asia have historically been primarily maritime and not continental. As it has been in the past, even today it is both cheaper and easier to trade with Southeast Asia by sea rather than by land. Under present circumstances, it may be a while before the political, intellectual and material resources necessary to make the Northeast India's actual gateway to Southeast Asia can be mobilized. But circumventing Northeast India and down-playing the continental dimension of the Look East policy will not only bring deep disappointment to Northeast India, it will have serious costs in terms of India's diplomatic ambitions as well.


1. The theme of the Ceniseas Forum was ‘Towards a New Asia: Transnationalism and Northeast India.' Sikri's lecture at the Forum ‘Northeast India and India's Look East Policy' is available at For the full proceedings of the Forum see the Forum's microsite Only a few of the papers presented at the Forum are included in this issue. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Sukanya Sharma, Ceniseas Fellow, in putting together this issue of Seminar . Unless explicitly indicated and another source is cited, the authors and writings discussed in this essay refer to essays included in this issue. Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition', in Amy Gutman (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition . Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1994.

3. Paradiplomacy refers to international activities on the part of regions and stateless nations. There are more than 200 regional ‘embassies' in Brussels that lobby the European Commission and network with each other.

4. Stephen E. Flynn, ‘The Role of Border Technology in Advancing Homeland Security', written testimony before a joint hearing of the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism, and Government Information and the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security, Citizenship, and Immigration, 12 March 2003. security.php

5. Ibid.

6. Renaud Egreteau, Wooing the Generals: India's New Burma Policy , Authors Press, New Delhi, 2003.

7. M.S. Prabhakara, ‘Is Northeast India Landlocked?' Economic and Political Weekly , 16 October 2004.

8. See Aiwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality , Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 1999.