India’s Northeast and the Look East Policy: Challenging Established Notions

27 Aug, 2014    ·   4628

Ruhee Neog reviews Subir Bhaumik's June 2014 paper, titled 'Look East through Northeast: Challenges and Prospects for India'

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog
Subir Bhaumik, in a June 2014 paper published by the Observer Research Foundation, outlines, in much detail, the challenges and prospects of looking East through the Northeast, i.e. comprehensively locating India’s Northeast in its Look East Policy (LEP). Bhaumik argues that although “India will have to try to use the Northeast as a land bridge to Southeast Asia….India and its economy will largely have to ‘look east’ through the sea into Southeast Asia for trade and human movement for a wide variety of reasons.” While he makes a compelling case for the variety of reasons identified above, there is a sense, as with most of the literature on the subject, of a tendency to favour political statements over actual policy formulation, and an unquestioning faith in the conceptualisation of the approach of “looking east through the Northeast.”

This review argues that the larger problem is with the nature of the conceptualisation itself, which sees India’s Northeast as a “land bridge” to connect the country’s mainland with its Southeast Asian neighbours. Bhaumik starts his paper with this statement: “Since the early 1990s, India has been seeking to situate the country’s troubled Northeast at the heart of what eventually evovled into its so-called ‘Look East’ policy.” He however also writes that this reorientation “has led Indian policy-makers and analysts to revise their attitudes on the country’s long troubled Northeast,” presenting a contradiciton in terms. One statement claims the centrality of the Northeast, another re-affirms that the LEP came first, and a change in official attitudes towards the Northeast followed.

In any case, that the LEP is centred on the Northeast is not strictly true: the decision to reorient India’s foreign policy towards its eastern borders came first, and the strategic location of the Northeast, useful for the implementation of this new direction, came as a necessary corollary. The Northeast has historically been considered a means to an end – the successful implementation of the LEP – and herein lies the problem. The many problems identified with the Northeast in the context of the LEP are symptomatic of the unequal focus on forward as well as backward integration and connectivity, which implies that internal developments must be concomitant to external developments. Admittedly, this is due a variety of limitations as identified in the paper: physical terrian, violent conflicts, lack of proper infrastructure and so on. However, to claim that New Delhi is “driven as much by domestic as by foreign policy concerns to ‘Look East’” grants no negative agency to the Centre, whose efforts (or lack of) at backward integration have been given much more merit then actually due.

Viewing the Northeast as a “land bridge” has also led to the fear that development will pass through without doing much good to the region itself. The author takes note of the multiple insurgencies that have held up development in the past and continue to do so (to a lesser degree, although this is not mentioned), that have also eaten into “vital resources” that could have been more gainfully used. However, he does not take note of the problem of funds not reaching their recipients due to the ubiquitous corruption in the seven states. Another issue – that of inter-state politicking – based primarily on the notion of Assam’s primacy due to which the other Northeastern states are not granted equal focus, is also not discussed.

Bhaumik also talks about the opening of the defunct Stilwell Route, on which the debate is split. This is an ambitious project, and focus on this can be at the expense of sidelining the other roads/trade points that are already in existence. This attention accorded to Stilwell Road speaks volumes of the ‘enclavisation’ of Assam in matters of the Northeast. It is a widely acknowledged fact that of all the states in the Northeast, Assam enjoys the most political clout at the Centre. It is therefore little wonder that Stilwell Road, which is the only cross-border route that gives Assam a starring role, has garnered so much scrutiny despite lying in a state of utter disrepair for decades.

To illustrate the opposition to the Stilwell route, Bhaumik recognises the “strange security mindset” of Indian military officials who think that this could allow China great advantages in the event of a conventional war with India. However, he does not challenge the notion that “trade officials say the Stilwell road could be used by China to dump its goods on Northeast India and through it to the rest of the country.” The reality is that Chinese goods have already infiltrated the Indian market through the large volume of informal trade that takes place at the border. In this paper therefore, while concessions are made for a wide range of problems in seeking to situate the Northeast in the LEP, the ‘what’ has been accorded much more focus than the ‘why’.