Of late, there has been an increasing amount of thrust at the political sphere towards the role of the border states in India’s foreign policy. Geo-strategically, Assam has a significant role to play in India’s 21st century foreign policy towards the East. The fact that Assam is a peripheral state that shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh makes it very significant in this aspect.
In the recent history of modern South Asia, Assam has been one of the most volatile and sensitive regions engraved with insurgencies and ethnic conflicts. For long the state has been delinked from its neighbours due to security and migration issues. After many years of India’s prolonged campaign for conflict management, the state still shows signs of volatility on the occasional grounds. Nonetheless, there has been a considerable change in its outlook as a conflict prone state, as the issue of insurgent activity and the level of violence have been decreasing over the years. Today, the Indian state is more confident than ever before which is quite visible from the various policy statements and the governmental actions in Assam vis a vis in the northeast region. It is in this aspect that Assam has been put at the forefront of India’s ‘development paradigm’ in northeast region.
India’s post-cold war strategic foreign policy – the Act East Policy, considers reviving old ties and once existing communication networks between India’s peripheries in the northeast with East and South East Asia. This makes Assam a crucial player in India’s greater connectivity policy. Such recognition has come in action when the present government concluded a land boundary agreement (LBA) with its eastern neighbour Bangladesh in the year 2015 that had lasted over four decades. The passage of the enabling legislation (the One Hundred Nineteenth Constitutional Amendment Act of 2013) in the parliament paved the way for the operationalization of the 1974 India-Bangladesh LBA, including the exchange of enclaves and “adverse possessions” from the Indian states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and West Bengal (Haidar 2015). India had to make sure that Assam as a key border state is on board for the agreement, as it required the consent at least half of the state legislatures before becoming law considering that it was a constitutional amendment (Kaushal 2015; see also Jacob 2016: 10). Thus, Assam is a regional foreign policy connector for India that played a major role in negotiating and signing the LBA.
Similar position holds for India’s policy towards Bhutan. India aspires to connect with Bhutan through the opening a road, linking strategic Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh with Assam via Eastern Bhutan. It is envisaged that “the road will enhance cultural exchange, boost trade with Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal and improve security coordination in border areas” (Mitra 2016). Connecting with Bhutan is also crucial for India due to the fact that India’s security concerns in Assam can better be addressed through cooperation. In fact, Bhutan has been very significant in the past for India as cooperation with Bhutan helped to flush out Assam’s prominent militant groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). For instance, India received cooperation during the counter insurgency operation – ‘Operation Flush Out’ from the Royal Bhutan Army in 2003 which helped in containing United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to a large extent.
Assam also becomes crucial for India’s regional connectivity policy through proposed corridors such as Guwahati-Chittagong Corridor and Guwahati-Kunming Corridor. The Guwahati-Kunming Corridor covering a distance 2276 kilometres, starts from Guwahati in Assam and goes across Nampong in Arunachal Pradesh and Shindbwiyang, Bhamo and Myitkyina in Kachin (Myanmar) linking the Ledo-Burma road junction through Wanding and Yunnanyi to the city of Kunming in China (Pattnaik 2015). These corridors have the potential to be materialized for sub-regional cooperation such as BCIM, Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), SAARC and Greater Mekong Sub-region Cooperation (GMS).
Although connectivity with Bangladesh or Bhutan is of not much relevance for rest of the country, but it is of great significance for Assam in particular and India’s Northeast region in terms of ensuring better security and economic development. Therefore, it is both the security and economic imperatives that makes Assam crucial for India’s foreign policy to get operationalized at full scale. In the year 2015, India became more pragmatic when it considered moving from looking at the East to acting at the East. From ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’ premising on the Gujaral doctrine has been viewed as India’s policy in relation to changing geo-strategic environment in the Asia Pacific region. The AEP envisages for deeper economic engagements with ASEAN in terms of commerce, culture and connectivity. The policy was ‘originally conceived as an economic initiative, but it has gained political, strategic and cultural dimensions including establishment of institutional mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation’ (Government of India, Press Information Bureau 2015). Through AEP, India considers the NER to be a gateway for economic growth and development. It is envisaged that connectivity will transform the region into an economic corridor and which will eventually lead to a development corridor by connecting the region with its neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal.
However, the role of India’s north-eastern border states in the foreign policy has not been explored to its full potential yet. Moreover, it is argued that even after the two decades of India’s post-cold war strategic foreign policy, India has not been able to reap the benefits of this gateway the way it should have as a majority of the economic transaction with South East Asia do not involve this continental route. As Hazarika puts it, “the policy till date has benefitted the coastline states of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu because international trade is predominantly moved by sea; much less goes by land, be it road or rail” (Hazarika 2016: 8).
For India, one of the important challenges has been developing infrastructure in the border states of northeast region. The region continues to suffer from the infrastructure and communication bottlenecks. For instance, many of the road communication networks within the state of Assam are in pathetic condition that needs utmost attention. The on-going physical connectivity projects are running at a very slow pace suggesting that the benefit of regional economic integration is still a distant dream (Sahrma and Singh 2017). Therefore, India’s quest for connectivity requires completion of major infrastructure initiatives at the earliest and recognition of the development needs of Assam. A better communication network and economic development of Assam is essential for India’s foreign policy to get success.
One crucial lacuna in India’s drive for regional integration having border state like Assam on board is that the border states do not have a say when it comes to matters of national interest or sub-regional initiatives such as cross-border economic trade. This is quite the opposite in the case of China. For instance, the Yunnan province of China enjoys provincial autonomy in matters relating to China’s sub-regional integration. In fact, the provinces in China have their own Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Commissions (FTECCs) and Foreign Affairs Offices (FAOs) to engage with sub-regional partners (Zhimin and Junbo 2009). It is argued that Yunnan has been instrumental in the success of Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) that includes Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Today Yunnan is reaping the benefits of sub-regional economic integration notwithstanding the fact that it was once a disturbed and economically poor region. Similar connotation can be raised for border states in India’s northeast region as well. Thus, India needs to consider these aforesaid issues so that it can augment its current vision towards the East.
*Indrajit Sharma is a Ph.D. research scholar and a senior research fellow (UGC) at the Centre for Security Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar
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