Sunday, December 14, 2014

Northeast India needs a Yoda

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

- Yoda, Star Wars

For the northeast of India to prosper and finally make it home to economic fame and social stability, we perhaps need a Yoda of Star Wars fame.

Someone who can predict the future; offer insights on what needs to be done, and the time plots of when and how to get there.

I say this with some measure of seriousness (as someone with roots in the region) as the negatives that afflict the region are far too many: armed conflicts, intra-ethnic violence, secessionist movements, unemployment, demands for secession, lack of infrastructure, cultural estrangement, political indifference, ethnic hatred, and limited tolerance for ethnic "others". We therefore have to aspire, like in the world of space, to something higher than ourselves, to that infinite cosmic unity that makes the impossible seem real. We will come to this aspect later in the article.

On the morning of November 29, the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi began a tour of the northeastern region of India, he tweeted of how he was eagerly looking forward to attending a wide variety of programs and connecting with the people. Invoking Vaastushastra (the Indian traditional system of harmonizing energies for architecture) to highlight the importance of the northeast wing of a house for the prosperity of its occupants, Modi dreamt big for the region as India's gateway to Asia in the 21st 'Asian Century".

In a whirlwind tour covering Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura, the prime minister coined a new acronym: NEZ, or Natural Economic Zone, and called for the region to be developed through economic corridors to Southeast Asia. Modi announced a slew of much needed projects including scholarships for students, a national sports university, agricultural colleges, upgraded power and digital connectivity and new railway lines.

He addressed regional police chiefs, waved off the first train from Guwahati to Meghalaya, laid the foundation stone of the first railway line to Mizoram and inaugurated a power plant in Tripura, With a nearly US$10 billion budgetary allocation for the northeastern region, Modi's focus is on infrastructure, both inside India and on projects linking the northeast regionally such as the road from Imphal to Mandalay in Myanmar.

Modi's visit to Nagaland and Manipur was especially significant due to the long-running ethnic insurgencies and political issues common to both. The heart of the issue being the Naga peace talks which have been running around in circles for 17 long years, with no resolution in sight. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is a widely criticized issue in Manipur's civil society.

Prior to the PM's arrival, Manipur's chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh had reiterated that his state will not sacrifice 'an inch of land' towards the creation of a separate Naga inhabited administrative unit. On the other hand Nagaland's chief minister T R Zeliang pressed upon Modi to finalize the Naga peace process.

Modi did throw a poser to the Nagas during his speech at the Hornbill Festival to "take pause to look back at the past fifty years and take stock". And while Modi has instructed his official interlocutor to bring speedy closure to the Naga issue within 18 months, the prime minister kept his cards close to his chest.

Modi did reveal his intentions of following up on the land swap agreement with Bangladesh to demarcate the border comprehensively. In Assam, the prime minister pushed for this solution in tandem with cracking down on existing illegal immigrants as the most effective measures, although the proposal will seem like a loss in the short term. Modi's announcements were not well received in Assam, which along with West Bengal, Meghalaya and Tripura stands to lose about 40 square kilometers of land to Bangladesh.

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar demanded that Modi take up transportation access through Bangladesh with that country. In his outreach to Bangladesh Modi offered to sell surplus power and thanked Bangladesh for allowing transhipment of heavy machinery to the 726-MW gas-based power plant at Palatana, 60 kilometers south of Agartala, the capital of Tripura.

The genesis of the majority of these issues and the theme of Modi's visit lie in the economic deprivation of the northeastern region since independence. Modi did well to kick off massive economic packages to alleviate the anxieties of people of the northeastern states. With enhanced infrastructure in place, Modi is betting big on boosting economic development with tourism, organic agriculture, textiles, IT-enabled services and traditional industries. His long-term goal is for the region to act as the economic bridgehead for India into Southeast Asian markets.

While Modi's visit was an internal one to the northeast, it does underscore the importance the region plays in the new foreign policy outreach of India to Southeast Asia. Towards this end, the resolution of all internal issues has become prime imperative to prepare the region for its role as India's "Gateway to Asia in the 21st Asian Century". So Modi certainly has his plate full to achieving internal stability and international connectivity in a region that has been a complete administrative disaster and suffered incompetent governance since independence.

The immediate challenge is to provide a personal leadership to resolving the festering thorny issues that have long plagued the region. What needs to be done now is follow through with final binding political and administrative decisions to secure the region and ensure harmony amongst its multitude of ethnic groups and communities to truly get the 'being India's gateway' share of prosperity in this "Asian Century".

his would require a different conceptualization than just state-driven approaches based on a "synthetic" sense of unity. Rather, it will require the meeting of cultures, of peoples, of hearts, of feeling that being part of the 'Indian dream' is truly emancipating for individuals and for ethnic communities. It will require a sense of organic natural unity in diversity, not something forced down from Delhi, but something spontaneous, lively, and inspiring.

That is why we need a Yoda, an old Jedi force who is powerful, wise, and has a strong vision for the future. Hopefully, northeast India will finally get it act together for itself. But then again, hope cannot be a policy. Steps have to be tangible and realistic, plotted on a time-scale with achievable goals.

Dr Namrata Goswami is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are her personal opinions and do not represent the views of the IDSA.

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