Look East Policy: The Ugly and the East

Rewind to 1991. When India plunged into economic crisis, history was rewritten in bold letters. A new age was imminent and liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, shortly the LPG, became the catchword. Twenty-three years down the line, the dynamic of politics has changed drastically, much more than it had in the two centuries of imperial rule.

In this context, we have a surprising element of the promising Look East Policy—an offshoot of the economic development process. That it took decades of waiting and watching to implement things, howsoever embarrassingly scarce, is no news if we look at the larger picture of negligence and apathy, which are synonymous to the Northeast India. This is also a region with the longest-running insurgent movements in the world. Most of the regional issues is discussed in the prestigious defence institutes. It is understandable but the deception is hard to ignore when we see even development issues are viewed from security perspectives.

An official statement declares the Look East Policy will offer India’s economic space which may be of mutual benefit to India and its neighboring Southeast and East Asian countries. And it is ‘pursued in a multi-faceted manner in diverse areas such as improved connectivity, promotion of trade and investment and cultural exchanges’. For a landlocked region, surrounded by a number of countries, the LEP is a dream that we should realise it. It has been hailed as a new development paradigm with enough reasons. Why it is glorified is because the region has been a stage for tragicomedy, decades after the departure of the Imperialists and long after the independence. And now, with a policy that offers a global outlook, there is seemingly a chance to break free from underdevelopment and multiple conflicts.

Reasons, however, are not always logical. A bundle of questions pops up when we consider the rationale behind this better-late-than-never policy formulation of the government. Needless to say, there are some glaring issues with this development solution. See the dismal conditions of industry and infrastructure in major portions of this region. Exploitation is written large from the first glance. Is the development process going to be a life-saver with occasional kickbacks and benefits thrown in to wet the beak of regional power players? Is it going to pinch us and let us jump into the bandwagon of a really meaningful contemporary society? The problem is not merely economical or geographical but it is all inclusive in every facet of the society.

LEP Stands NOT for Light Machine Guns

We can consider a few seemingly unrelated factors. India has problems with China. The issue is geopolitical—with the two countries monkey-fighting over national boundaries that cover the entire stretch of the northern periphery up to the east, precisely from Jammu & Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. (Is there any reason why Hindi is the lingua franca in this Mongoloid province?)

It is an open secret that the Look East Policy is an attempt to counteract the Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. If we take a glance farther, there is a rat race in the Asia-Pacific region, with competitors even including Japan and the US. The rich countries are a blend of whore and gigolo in this world. And we have Myanmar, which is known for all the wrong reasons. Then we have the concepts of national boundary, buffer state, military intervention, Asian superpower, balance of power, armed movements for the right to self-determination and so on. What’s all these things got to do with the LEP? That might perhaps be the probable question. But what have we go to do with it?

Economy, Insurgency and the Miscellaneous

On the paper, three building blocks make up the LEP:
1.    economic development
2.    insurgency
3.    Indian superpower dreams
Moreh Noongdoom
Image from, Original by Jinendra Maibam

Sales Pitch

It is expected that by 2020, there will be an Asian Economic Community in the line of the European Union. The biggest advantage will be from free trade agreements that imply more economic activities and subsequently more progress. It is inevitable because those concepts define the modern world. A few promises like the prospective ASEAN group, a more developed part of India, the aspiration of superpower—if we go by today’s economic growth standards—make the Look East Policy a force to reckon with. These are possibly the reasons why the pro-policy groups are organising events on this issue in lavish hotels in the Imphal valley, singing paean for the future of the land. Especially when issues like connectivity and transportation have always been a bottleneck in a state like Manipur since long, the international highway blueprints are full of promises. However, do the policy makers ever admit the motive behind the implementation of LEP is NOT a charity?

When it comes to insurgency, many people are fed up with the self-righteousness of the rebel outfits. There is a hope that economic growth will contain the problems of insurgency. How is this supposed to be without addressing the root causes? No one has the answer.

Besides, there are tangible factors like Myanmar lending a helping hand to drive off the rebels from its territory—nothing can be better for India. The closer the tie, the better are its strategic moves. So the construction of Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road makes complete sense; even if it is stupid to think what it had got to do with the military preoccupation in Rangoon and Mandalay. Though the issues of Northeast were not even in the great scheme of things during the inception of this policy in the early 90s, it has been quite a decade for the region, not necessarily in terms of development.

The covert nature of militarisation in the region is also becoming clearer. All along, the posting of paramilitary forces and imposition of martial laws have been due to law-and-order problems. And issues like unemployment explosion are aggravating the ground realities. Yet the processes of building a state by force have found several new angles if we talk about oil, energy and geopolitics. It is not hard to believe patriotism ends at a national boundary. Our problem lies in detecting that line within the mainland India. A colonial mindset dictates the rules. And the issues are only fit enough for a footnote in the voluminous book called India, again if not  in military studies.

Nowadays, many experts and academicians from mainland India have started admitting that there was a flaw in its approach toward the nation-building process. And they know the contemporary waves of thoughts and beliefs. This was something unimaginable a couple of decades ago. But this tiny community from the mainland, from our perspective, has more questions than the answers they have and we want. For starters, it is doubtful that the Indian nationalism has been cut off from their agenda. Ask a kid why only retired army men would speak out. And where have all the anthropologists gone?

To cut the long story short, India is still more interested in imposing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act than admitting that it committed a blunder by using force to build a union. It is more interested in how much gas the Chinese has bought from Myanmar than the impending annihilation of indigenous people with highway projects and influx from the ever porous international borders.
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Regulation is a solution but the hope is bleak; ironically because we are told only about the merits of this policy. In the garb of regional economic integration, we can see the naked truth. In the last census report, in Manipur, outsiders comprise a depressing figure — nearly 40% of the population. This would create a disaster in a place that is home to several ethnic groups. Models of development are highly subjective but the will of the political class is as only strong as the thread that binds a kite. Politically and economically insignificant, the ingredients are already on the table — the factors that would destroy fabric completely in this forbidden region of India.

No one can build a vote bank but to arouse the emotion of the refugees and domestic immigrants. It has been repeated that the larger groups, though small in number, like the North Indians, have captured the commercial centres. It is plain how the natives are being pushed out gradually over the years. In this context, only a few people can afford to be liberal, though it is perfectly clear that they want to be open-minded, at the cost of losing their brains because of their openness. This is why our generation is a disgrace to our existence.

Finishing Lines

It used to be absurd how India always talk about the Chinese conquest vis-à-vis any issues that are related to insurgency in the Northeast. Now it makes complete sense why even the higher salaried class and the negligible elites in Manipur share the view that China will invade if, by chance, this erstwhile kingdom regains its lost sovereignty.  

It’s not China but Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal, which are a nuisance in this regard. Political merits have cajoled the representatives to get rid of the issues at hand. Demographic disaster has happened in the past; and seemingly it is bound to continue. A cursory glance gives the general condition of the milieu. On the other side of the world, a chair; a seat among the group of political leaders is the ultimate goal, which is again fanned by the opportunity to plunder the public wealth with immunity and nauseating arrogance. Read it as the role of our elected representatives standing up for us in a farcical democracy.

The garish nature of the Look East Policy appears, from the years of negligence and rapid militarisation of the region. We have to include as well the ulterior motives of the union and the province—the two entities which have everything to gain from the sacrifice. More power is less empathy. As the state becomes more powerful, with ease, it can ignore the plight of the people, more so, in an economically insignificant region. At least, that’s always been the case.

Are we ready to be the collateral damage to others’ strategic and security goals? Considering the trend, we are least bothered about it. Maybe the businessmen and development experts should organise more closed-door meetings on the benefits of the Policy. For a long time in the province, the political class has been the sole beneficiary out of the Indian nation-building process. Now ministers, you got company!

The better for the whole is better than the better for the parts. It might follow that the better for the nation is crucial but the case is different when we take into account that of the province, or the part. Accusations of regionalism (Minority Report: Regionalism Is a Lie) are apparent but then again we are talking about the story of a people, who can exist regardless of the whole. Thus, the better for the parts is valid substantially. And the supreme better for the whole is just a myth.

The LEP accentuates the geopolitical, security and strategic positions. A fine rationale underlies its very existence but we are not always logical and sometimes too incompetent. So the skepticism is unsurprising howsoever the policymakers are determined to impose the trends and rules. An economic crisis had helped in the past, yet this does not mean every crisis will be a catalyst for positive change. It was from the crisis that India made conscious efforts to forge ties with the ASEAN countries. So this is the reason. Others are just secondary. Even the right to live and exist has been sidelined for the whole’s good.

The LEP will be making a big impact, that’s for sure. We are sure as well about the limitless migration of mainland Indians in the periphery. What is not certain will be the impending political condition in the region because of the drastic changes in the entire political, social and economic landscapes.

Further Reading

Northeast Region - Vision 2020

Examining India’s Look East Policy 3.0
International Policy Digest

India’s Look East Policy: A Critical Assessment (PDF)
Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

India’s ‘Look East Policy’ means ‘Look to encircle China’?
People's Daily Online

Postscript    There is a Meitei prophecy, predicted a couple of centuries ago. Nongpokthong haangba, the opening of the eastern gate was timed; and so now are the days of Look East Policy. Ipu Khongnangthaba had made some exact predictions. Many of us are glad to chance upon it. And many of us are happy to forget that the prophecy also mentioned Nongchupthong lonba, which is the closing of the western gate. The entire eastern periphery of Manipur, or the districts of Tamenglong and Chandel, shares the boundary with Myanmar. In the north, Nagaland kisses the districts of Chandel, Ukhrul and Tamenglong. In the south, Churachandpur and Chandel meet Mizoram and finally in the west, Churachandpur and Tamenglong face Assam. Nongchupthong shows the gate at Assam, the most mainland-Indian-looking province. Only time will tell.



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