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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2554

Road blocks in ‘Look East’ policy

By Vinod Vedi - Syndicate Features

Even as a Group of Union Ministers (GOM) was meeting with Chief Ministers of the north eastern States in the first week of November to give content to India's Look East policy, roadblocks to the overland gateway were coming up. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah group) decreed that no construction would be allowed to be carried out in Naga areas without first securing permission from it.

A militant group walking into an establishment and demanding “taxes" that are non-negotiable is not new to north-east. Non-payment usually means a closure of the establishment and/or beatings and shootings. But the I-M diktat has raised the level of extortion to an insult to Indian nationhood.

The GOM and Chief Ministers agreed that looking beyond India's borders mandates good road and rail connectivity through the North East. However, given its location and terrain these connections will need to be made through Bangladesh.

The Union Minister for north-east affairs Mani Shankar Aiyar has organized the conclave that brought about a synergy between the Ministries of External Affairs, Defence, Home, Finance and foreign trade with the Chief Ministers of the "seven sisters" creating an internal-external ambiance intended, as Mr Aiyar hoped, to "help spring the north-east region from the geo-political trap".

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee had this to say of the new arrangement: “What we are looking at here is a new paradigm of development whereby our foreign policy initiatives blend seamlessly into our national economic development. Given that we have, over 15 years of pursuing our Look East policy, put in place certain diplomatic and political structures, there is need now to makes these structures work for our north-east region. Diplomatic initiatives urgently need to be converted into commercial opportunities”.

In this scheme of things the NSCN (I-M) caveat is clearly intended to be a stumbling block. The militant Naga group, which has signed a ceasefire arrangement with the Government, is seeking to create a separate Naga nation covering all areas where Nagas reside in the contiguous States of Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam as also Nagaland. On the face of it such a State would entail a Naga ethnic monolith that currently encompass not only the large segments of the Indian Union but also parts of Myanmar where ethnic Nagas reside.

The reality is somewhat different: The overall “Naga" ethnicity is sundered by many sub-cultures which too are contending violently with each other undermining whatever territorial framework Isak Swu and T. Muivah are basing their nationhood. Thus Nagaland with its capital in Kohima is a politically settled entity with its internal security, defence, trade, foreign affairs and every other avenue of intra and inter-national connectivity firmly embedded in the Indian Union.

While the NSCN (I-M) slogan of amalgamation of all Naga ethnic areas into one unit called Greater Nagalim does resonate among the Naga masses there is also great awareness that pandering to such ethnicity could encourage even more virulent demands of the kind that the Gujjars unleashed in Rajasthan recently.

New Delhi has handled all insurgencies on the basis of the touchstone of territorial integrity of the Indian Union as enshrined in the Constitution. This has already been made amply clear to the NSCN leadership at various stages of interactions between delegations of the two sides. In a recent interview its General Secretary Muivah indicated that his group is studying the Indian Constitution to ascertain what parts would be acceptable to it.

The offer of a federal relationship he made it clear has envisioned a separate federation of Nagalim which implies a loose confederation arrangement. One clause states that Nagalim will not be bound to come to the assistance of India if it is attacked. The implication is that the Naga Regiment of the Indian Army, would, as in the case of the Gorkhas of the British India Army have to make a choice between India and Nagalim. This kind of splintering can hardly been seen to be good governance by any government in India.

The diplomatic and political structures referred to by External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee include efforts to get the military junta in Myanmar and the Army-supported regime in Bangladesh to institute joint military operations against bases and sanctuaries used by Indian insurgent groups. If and when that fructifies -- already with Myanmar that has happened albeit fitfully over the decades -- it could ring the death-knell for the Naga insurgency which depends largely on this external factor for it sustenance.

The threat held out by the NSCN (I-M) to the Jiribum-Toupul rail link intended to connect Manipur to the rest of India by destroying construction material, "arresting" the labourers and the unstated collection of "taxes" from the contractors will have to be seen as a violation of the ceasefire arrangement and dealt with accordingly.

For an India set to Look East far beyond its own horizons it is pertinent to ask if it can afford not to look closely at the ground below its feet and deal with the insurgencies in the north-east more effectively either to bring them into the mainstream of political life or crush them like it did the Khalistan separatism in Punjab.

Insurgent groups like the NSCN (I-M) must read the writing on the wall. There is no doubt that it will be able to assert some kind of dictation within areas of its operations in the Naga segments of some of the "seven sisters" but over time the NSCN (I-M) will find its area of operations and influence shrinking given the kind of international ambiance that has been created through diplomacy and politics.

NSCN (I-M) leaders will have to give up their pipedream of a federation outside the Indian Union if for no other reason than that the Nagas themselves would see in India's dynamic growth an attractive proposition to co-exist.

- Syndicate Features -

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