Modi govt’s Act East policy boosts development, security but challenges lie ahead

Hindustan Times | Apr 17, 2018

Gurmeet Kanwal, one of India's foremost military analysts, has been thinking and writing about India's nuclear policy for over two decades. Whatever the reason for India's very slow development of its capabilities, India's nuclear deterrence capability clearly suffers.

In the early 1990s, then Congress-led government at the Centre introduced the ‘Look East Policy’, a novel concept that aimed to turn the country’s Northeast into the gateway to the Asia-Pacific region, and help build stronger ties with India’s extended neighbourhood.

The policy remained India’s pivot for successive governments, including the first National Democratic Alliance regime led by BJP veteran Atal Bihari Vajpayee from 1999 to 2004.

While dividends of the Look East policy can be put up for debate, the Narendra Modi government, riding high on its landslide victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections, had different plans altogether for the oil-rich and tea-growing region, located at a strategic junction of China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Addressing the East Asia Summit in the Myanmarese capital of Nay Pyi Taw, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the audience comprising several world leaders, including then US President Barrack Obama, that his government had accorded high priority to turn India’s Look East policy into the Act East policy.

And somewhere between the erstwhile Look East policy and the re-branded Act East approach lies the journey the northeastern states have taken since the BJP came to power at the Centre.

Joined to the mainland with a thin strip of land called the Chicken’s Neck, the Northeast remained for most part since Independence as the land of insurgencies and exotic tribes. Successive governments responded to the armed rebellions with brute force that left communities alienated and angry.

And it was this sense of alienation that two policies tried to address in the development-deprived region.

“The (Act East) policy serves two purposes for the government. Stronger trade and business ties with other South East Asian countries and development opportunities to the north-east states. And development is the best anecdote to insurgency,” a senior home ministry official said requesting anonymity.

Multiple home ministry officials HT spoke to agreed that militancy in the northeast is on the decline and that government data supports this fact.

From 1,024-odd insurgency-related incidents across the region in 2012, the number came down to 308 in 2017.

Taking credit for the improving security scenario, junior home minister Kiren Rijiju — who himself hails from Arunachal Pradesh — told Parliament recently that in 2017 insurgency-related incidents declined by 63% since 2014, the year the BJP came to power at the Centre.

Rijiju’s claim must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Last week, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) — which leads the oldest-running insurgency in the country — accused Rijiju of “vitiating the environment of negotiation”, after the minister said the outfit had dropped “sovereignty” in the ongoing political talks with the Centre.

HT could not reach Rijiju for his comments on the issue despite repeated attempts.

The BJP-led government’s confidence in solving the decades-old impasse lies in a “framework agreement” signed between the NSCN (I-M) and the Centre in August, 2015, aimed at building consensus for the modalities of the final Naga peace accord.

Terms of the agreement are under wraps despite repeated attempts by opposition parties to force the government to reveal details.

“On the contrary, it is the NSCN-IM which is keen on keeping the agreement a secret and we are respecting their demand,” said a home ministry official.

The NSCN-IM’s frustration over the delay in finding a permanent solution was evident recently when the outfit backed a call by civil society groups for boycotting the assembly polls in Nagaland.

The issue was later resolved and the BJP went on to form the government in the state by aligning with the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party.

However, finding a permanent solution to the impasse will be one of the biggest challenges for the government.

Then there are other issues as well, such as the implementation of the 1985 Assam Accord and other agreements with militant outfits of Assam — the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and Dima-Halam-Daogah (DHD).

Several militant outfits also continue to be active, though their strengths have been severely dented.

“In Assam, for instance, the main militant group is ULFA (Independence) which has been limited to northern parts of the state. In Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, active militant groups such as the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Kangleipak Communist Party and so on have been suffered irreversible losses,” a senior paramilitary official.

Official data shows that more than 830 suspected militants have been killed since 2012. Several militant groups are also holding talks with the government.

Insurgency, though, is not the only issue facing the Northeast. The home ministry admits that the situation in the region continues to be fragile — the region is rife with inter-state border disputes, ethnic tensions and movements opposing immigration, both internal and external.

“The terrain, the state of socio-economic development and historical factors such as language, ethnicity, tribal rivalry, migration, control over local resources and a widespread feeling of exploitation and alienation have resulted in a fragile security situation in the north eastern states,” said an official internal document seen by HT.

“This has resulted in violence and diverse demands by various Indian insurgent groups (IIGs). The demands vary from sovereignty in some cases to independent state or homeland or simply better conditions for ethnic groups,” the document added.

Internal security expert Gurmeet Kanwal, who retired as a brigadier, said the lack of coordination between states and central government in the past was one of the main reasons behind the situation in Northeast.

“The nature of the problem in Northeast is a political one besides being an internal security issue. A coherent approach with inter-government and departmental coordination is the only way forward,” Kanwal said, adding the stakeholders in the states must be kept in the loop while framing policies for the region.

In Assam, illegal migration from Bangladesh has been a sensitive issue for decades, dividing people on religious and linguistic lines and sparking one of the worst communal flare-ups in the country, in the small hamlet of Nellie in Morigaon district, where more than 2,000 Muslims were killed by ethnic tribals on February 18, 1983. Unofficial count put the number of dead at more than 10,000.

The Centre’s move to amend the Citizenship Act that would give Indian citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh has riled many in the state, including the BJP’s ruling partner the Asom Gana Parishad.

Another point of friction is the ongoing process to update the National Register of Citizens, with one section accusing the state government of conspiring to leave out genuine Indian citizens on the basis of their religion.

Nationalistic groups claim that names of illegal migrants are being included in the NRC, defeating the very utility of the process.

The NRC updation process involves enlisting the names of those persons or their descendants whose names appear in any of the electoral rolls up to 1971, the 1951 NRC or any of the admissible documents.

The first draft of the NRC was published in December-end as per the Supreme Court directive, with the second draft expected to be published later this year.

Migration has been a vexed issue in other states too, including Tripura, where the BJP managed to displace the Left government after more than two decades.

About 35,000 Bru tribals are staying in six relief camps in Tripura for about 17 years after they fled their villages in Mizoram following ethnic clashes in October 1997. Their repatriation remains elusive with several groups in Mizoram opposed to their resettlement.

Similarly, a settlement over granting Indian citizenship to at least one lakh 000 Chakma and Hajong refugees from Bangladesh, staying in Arunachal Pradesh for more than 50 years, is another issue that could have serious ramifications for the state.

A large number of Rohingya Muslims, arrested in different states and kept in detention centres after they fled from Myanmar, could also pose a problem for the government owing to the sensitive nature of the issue.