The logic of geography is a crucial determining factor of India’s Act East Policy. However, geography could be seen as either an opportunity or a challenge. The eastern geography of India is widely known. The porous international borders that India shares with countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh remain the focal point of this policy. The long-term aspiration has been to turn these borders and frontier areas into a region of peace and prosperity. The aspiration has been that narratives and stories of economic development and progress should subsume those of protracted conflicts and violent insurgencies. Frontiers have always been the intersecting points of people, culture, and economies. However, frontiers, at the same time, tend to be securitized based on threats. This is perhaps reflected very acutely in the ethnic and cultural continuum across India’s eastern borders and the informal border trade that has been flourishing for years in these areas. For much of independent India and the efforts of nation-building, the North-eastern region of India has been identified with narratives of isolation, physical and otherwise, from the rest of India and by the requirements of state responses to persistent armed ethnic violence. As such, the approach to border management has been overwhelmingly security-driven.
Have the issues that demand a security-centric approach dissipated, allowing for a phase of socio-economic and culturally driven approach? Are the connectivity projects being envisioned and implemented under the Act East Policy a reflection of this phase? Maybe not. Even as the Indian government opens up talks and negotiations with some insurgent groups in the region and takes steps to coordinate with neighboring countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh, which have been safe havens for many of these groups, the move remains evolving in nature and far from accomplished. Therefore, to expect a linear progression from the end of violence to economic prosperity would be naïve.
Other issues that are endemic to the region, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, and small arms trafficking, are as much a product of the intentions and motives of those involved, as they are of the geography that intersects South Asia and South-east Asia. A cursory examination of the trails of the trafficking routes and the insurgent safe havens in the region will make it clear that they intriguingly collide with the aspirational routes of economic progress. The National Highways that play such a crucial role in terms of connecting the North-eastern states to each other, to the rest of India, and takes India to South-east Asia, are the same routes where legal taxes co-exist with illegal extortion. Therefore, there will be no sense of complete closure of the many issues that afflict this region in the near term. Hence, the approach has to be grounded in this understanding. In other words, there is no super glue to fix what is wrong in the North-east.
The Act East Policy, succeeding the Look East Policy, has initiated a number of connectivity projects, spanning the roads, railways, sea, inland waterways and air sectors. These sectors are clearly instrumental in connecting people and the markets. One of the elemental issues confronting many frontiers in the world is the one relating to governance or rather ungoverned spaces. Ungoverned spaces usually translate to a relative absence of benign state presence, which allows the people to view the state as a benefactor and not as a problem to be dealt with. The presence of such ungoverned spaces gives fodder to the anti-government forces to weave Robin-Hood narratives, where they become providers of goods and services to the people.
Therefore, the connectivity projects that are either being envisioned or implemented under the Act East Policy could be seen as ways of claiming or reclaiming such ungoverned spaces with an intent to create legal, economic opportunities, entrepreneurship and hence change public perception of the state. Projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project aim to activate the land routes as well as the inland waterway routes and the maritime opportunities provided by the Bay of Bengal.
The historical and geographical narratives weaved around the North-east have been used by anti-state elements to justify secessionist tendencies. On the contrary, the Act East Policy through bilateral engagements and multilateral ties through the ASEAN and BIMSTEC emphasize the historical and geographical connect between the North-east and South-east Asia as justifications of further integration to the rest of India, and open up together to a contiguous economic zone. In the final analysis, the Act East Policy has several components, and the one where the North-east plays a crucial role should be understood and implemented by creating synergies between what are the aspirations and what is feasible. Without a clear aligning of the expectations and the viability, grandiosity will only lead to frustrations, and a further slide down the darker manifestations of what history and geography can do.
*** The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) ***