The Naga insurgency is said to be the mother of all insurgencies in the Northeastern region (NER). Its origin can be traced to the days of the Raj. For strategic reasons, the British wanted to separate the hills of the NER from the Indian mainland, known as the ‘Coupland Plan’, and create a ‘Crown Colony’. Though the plan could not take roots, the influence of the colonial masters on the village headmen of some of the Naga tribes and the segregation of the hills tribes from the plains men were responsible for fostering separatism in the region. Members of mainly the Lhota and Sema tribes who had joined the Naga Labour Corps (NLC) as part of the Indian military contingent in France during WW I were later introduced to modern guerilla warfare during the course of WW II. Zasibito Nagi, sometimes known as the first Naga martyr, whose death in 1952 sparked popular protests in the Naga Hills, was sent as the leader of the NLC on errands to Burma for disrupting Japanese communications in the early 1940’s. Ursula Graham Bower, a British anthropologist who had first visited the Naga Hills in 1937, mobilized a force of Nagas in 1942 against the Japanese. Her exemplary work in aiding the Allied war effort came to the notice of General Slim who supplied her with reinforcements and supported her in expanding her own unit within the ‘Victor Force’, a guerrilla outfit which was involved in resisting the Japanese forces. The ‘V Force’ was commanded by none other than the legendary Major Bob Khathing, the man who helped re-integrate Tawang to India in 1950, in the Ukhrul campaign.
After the war, the weapons dumps left behind by the retreating Japanese and Allied forces served as ready material for use against Indian forces. C.R. Pawsey, the British DC of Naga Hills District, raised the Naga Hills Tribal Council in 1945 to augment the post-war reconstruction and relief effort, which became the Naga National Council (NNC) a year later. The NNC veterans came handy for Kaito Sema (Phizo’s aide) to set up the military wing of the NNC. While in exile in Britain, A.Z. Phizo was propped up by the likes of Bertrand Russell, who implored Harold Macmillan to press Nehru to scale back military operations against the Nagas. The Naga movement inspired several ethno-nationalist rebellions in the NER, which in turn spawned local war economies. Peace will upset the applecart of those who capitalize from the politics of unrest. As long as the respective State governments fail to ensure security and speedy development of the various ethnic groups, the predatory impulses of a divisive few will continue undermining the possibility of lasting peaceful co-existence by fanning dormant separatist passions.
Jairam Ramesh has emphasized Subhas Chandra Bose’s role as the forerunner of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP). Nehru had also attached great importance to the South East Asian neighborhood in his deliberations at the Asian Relations Conference held at Delhi in March 1947. Although it is P.V. Narasimha Rao who is credited as the architect of the policy, not many are aware of the key role played by a silent crusader from insurgency-ravaged Manipur, which has also produced prominent figures like Irom Sharmila and Mary Kom, in promoting the LEP. This less-known enigmatic figure is Nengcha Lhouvum, Dean of the Indian Foreign Service Institute and a Thadou Kuki from Churachandpur in Manipur who studied in Shillong and joined the IFS in 1980. She has served in the Indian missions of Dhaka, Mexico City, Havana, Serbia and New York. But it was for her stellar role as Indian envoy in Beirut in evacuating the 12,000 Indian nationals trapped in the Israeli-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006 that she earned wide acclaim. She, along with her batchmate and husband Gautam Mukhopadhayay, the Indian envoy in Damascus, coordinated the evacuation of Indians from Lebanon to Syria, then to Cyprus and onward to India as Israeli fighter jets pounded Hezbollah strongholds throughout Lebanon. Lhouvum is also an alumnus of the National Defence College and a recipient of the PM’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration, 2007-08. During her stint as Joint Secretary, SE Asia and ASEAN, in the Narasimha Rao years, she vigorously promoted the LEP with an unwavering belief that India’s NER stood to gain from this policy. Later she was instrumental in organizing the first Indo-ASEAN car rally in 2004.
Efforts in integrating India’s Northeast with Delhi’s LEP to transform the socio-economic conditions of the region have not paid off due to the lack of cooperation and enthusiasm among the different ministries in Delhi; the security scenario of the region, slow pace of infrastructural development, and the transportation bottlenecks; lack of sufficient interest and inputs from the regional stakeholders; inadequate cooperation between the Northeastern States, the regional political climate, and security scenario in neighboring Myanmar; and Bangladesh and Delhi’s ambivalence towards the region with scant representation in the Indian Parliament. Delhi is forever grappling to preserve the unity and integrity of a country as diverse as India riven by intractable internal problems, faced with serious military and economic issues, and sandwiched in a tough neighborhood.
For the NER to emerge as a key area in a regional commercial forum involving Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan as envisaged in the LEP; State governments, government organs, academia, civil society actors, and business chambers must all be at the forefront in steering the collective regional growth initiative, pushing the agenda in Delhi, lest the representative voices of the region get drowned in the din of the shouting matches that often play out in the Parliament. A strong regional push is integral to the realization of the LEP. Delhi must not view the NER merely as the bridge between mainland India and SE Asia or India’s gateway to SE Asia, but as a potential economic zone in India’s development roadmap.
Each State can develop its own economic model to mitigate the hardships of its people. Manipur and Nagaland will benefit from enhanced trade and commercial exchanges with Myanmar. Manipur is turning out to be a Mecca for medical tourists from western Myanmar where healthcare facilities are virtually non-existent. It can also cater to students seeking medical and nursing education. This will also give a boost to the State’s hospitality sector. Nagaland can export its quality apples to Myanmar. Events like the Hornbill fest has already become a big draw for foreign tourists. Export of handicrafts can also add to the State’s financial strength. Mizoram can evolve into an IT hub, attracting students and businesses from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Meghalaya can build on its tourism potential to lure eco-tourists from SE Asia. Coal and cement supplies from Meghalaya have already found the way to Bangladesh. Assam can emerge as an education and healthcare destination for students and patients from Bhutan, Bangladesh,, and Myanmar. Arunachal is known as an eco-tourism hotspot. It has the topography and climatic conditions to transform itself into a fruit basket. The State can also develop the forest based products industry. With several gas based power projects coming up in Tripura, the State is likely to sell some of the surplus power to electricity starved Bangladesh. The NER can also expect overland transit rights through Bangladesh connecting Kolkata to Agartala when the Akhaura-Agartala railway line is complete, thus relieving the pressure on the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor. And when this stretch of railway line is connected to Sabroom in southern Tripura, the NER will have an outlet to the sea, since Sabroom is just 70 kms from Chittagong port.
For its part, Delhi must do its bit in the timely completion of road and railway projects connecting the NER to SE Asia and increasing the air connectivity. Delhi must also facilitate the State governments of the NER to fetch investments from the SE Asian nations and enable the entrepreneurs of this region to engage with the economies of SE Asia. More trading posts need to come up along the lengthy Indo-Myanmar and Indo-Bangladesh borders and the numbers of trade-able items must be allowed to grow.
This article first appeared at The Foreign Policy Journal and is reprinted with permission.