There is a simple but fundamental truth – good relations, trust and cooperation are critical among neighbours, both within India's borders and across it.
As India takes over the presidency of the G-20 – an inter-governmental forum of the largest developed and developing nations and savours its moment in the sun – its much-spoken of Act East Policy (AEP), which seeks to drive economic and cultural relations with its eastern neighbours and Southeast Asia, also takes a front seat.
The AEP has seen huge national and international investment in infrastructures such as highways, railways, river navigation, bridges, drinking water projects, urbanisation, health and ambitious plans to connect India's northeastern region to the neighbourhood as part of the imperatives of regional economic growth encompassing South and Southeast Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific region.
However, one of the issues that have impacts far beyond national borders is the relationship between competing states in the Northeast itself. Healthy competition is driven by what investors seek, starting with the critical precondition of safe and secure conditions as well as including good connectivity (infrastructure including net), and a welcoming atmosphere which means smooth processes to handle banking and land laws but also access to high-quality health and education facilities.
It would not be incorrect to say that this is a work in progress and a state like Assam, with a large economy, a significant presence of professionals, a skilled force and health and tourism infrastructure, outscores the others. The city of Aizawl, capital of Mizoram, recently hosted an international tourism mart for the region with representation from all states of the Northeast. The minister for the Northeast in the central government, G Kishan Reddy, spoke of the potential of the region in tourism and connected It to India’s presidency of the G-20.
“We have to use this occasion (G-20 meetings) to showcase our cultural richness. Our focus will be to increase the global Investments not only in the hospitality industry but also to promote entertainment centers, adventure tourism, cruise tourism, and wellness tourism,” Reddy said.
Lingering unaddressed issues
Importantly, Reddy stressed the return of peace to the region and the virtual ending of insurgency and violence after decades. While this is widely acknowledged as a major achievement of New Delhi. complications remain – India’s oldest armed rebellion, the Naga movement, has been in a ceasefire mode for decades but an agreement has not yet been finalized. In addition, there are some lingering issues that have remained unresolved for decades and have the capacity of disrupting supply chains that are so crucial for trade and economic activities. These include demands and counter-demands over territory which lie at the heart of numerous vexatious confrontations between different states of the Northeast. Assam has disputes with virtually all the states carved out of it -- Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. There is also a land issue between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
The fragility of inter-state relationships in India was underlined when, a few days after the tourism mart in Mizoram, Assam police fired on a crowd of villagers from Meghalaya, killing five villagers and one forest guard from Assam. The incident was apparently related to the smuggling of timber, a major source of ecological destruction and illegal revenue benefiting vested interests in both states. The fallout was immediate as student and youth organizations called for protests. Unwilling to take chances, the Meghalaya government cancelled the much-publicized Cherry Blossom festival, including a three-day literary programme featuring authors such as Jerry Pinto, and another festival of music and food where thousands had bought tickets.
Hotels and guest houses emptied out and an all too familiar crackling tension spread through the town. There were assaults on policewomen and vandalism in a government hospital while several non-tribals - a euphemism for non-locals - and often an easy target for ‘miscreants’, were also beaten. (Incidentally, both in Meghalaya and Mizoram, local laws do not allow 'non-tribals' to buy land). The internet was shut for days and stray incidents of arson took place. But the overall law and order situation held. However, both states closed their borders fearing attacks on travellers and vehicles.
Within days, an uneasy peace returned as school exams continued and Shillong’s famous traffic jams returned as did its street stalls of fresh vegetables. The travel restrictions and net bans were lifted and it appeared to be business as usual. But the damage had been done as tourist after tourist pledged not to return and Chief Minster Conrad Sangma’s promise of lifting Meghalaya from the bottom of the state’s economic ranking to the top 10 lay in tatters.
Good neighbourly relations a must
Last year, the Assam-Mizoram border became a flashpoint as Mizoram police opened automatic fire on Assam police killing at least five, shutting down the border, resulting in long queues of trucks loaded with goods and forcing an intervention by India's Home minister Amit Shah.
What governments, activists and protesters fail to adequately understand is the irreversible damage such incidents do to the image and fabric of a state and community. Graphic images and news flash across the world; social media, despite internet shutdowns, spans nations showing a place’s stability or lack of it. The disruption of supply lines sends negative signals to potential investors.
Conditions are not eased by the fact that Myanmar, an immediate neighbour, has been virtually in a state of civil war since February 2021 with the military regime battling a wide range of ethnic minorities as well as resistance units comprising army defectors, students and activists. The violence is bloody and includes significant human rights violations by the junta including air attacks on public gatherings such as concerts, assaults on villages and rural populations. There are no signs of an end to the violence in Myanmar which has displaced tens of thousands of innocent people and driven them to safety and sanctuary in Thailand and India.
There is a simple but fundamental truth – good relations, trust and cooperation are critical among neighbours, both within India's borders and across it. That needs hard-nosed negotiations but also willing to be open as shown by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma who has laid down five principles for resolving border issues. A major element could be the idea placed by the late B G Verghese, editor and scholar who took passionate interest in the development of the Northeast, who spoke of reducing tension by creating development spaces in these very areas where food processing and other industries could be set up, generating employment and prosperity for all.
Trust and goodwill among neighbours is the engine for sustained growth and development. A vehicle without an engine can’t go far.
(The writer is a veteran journalist, author and an expert on Northeast and border issues. Views are personal)