An eastern road to Indian and regional prosperity

Afaq Hussain
Director, BRIEF

Riya Sinha
Research Assistant, BRIEF

Of late, India has adopted a ‘diplomatic détente’ approach for fruition of her Act East Policy, and the latest developments along the eastern border, both domestic and international, have been significant steps towards India’s ambition of becoming a regional and global power.

Domestically, the north-east plays a vital role in enhancing India’s economic connectivity to the countries of South-East Asia and has been rather underdeveloped over the years due to repeated instances of insurgencies and, admittedly, government negligence. However, a draft treaty signed between the Government of India (GoI) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN-IM, on August 3, has created a fresh possibility of bringing an end to the oldest insurgency in India. The Nagas have been fighting for a separate homeland (Nagalim) that unifies all Naga-inhabited areas, for the last several decades. A number of efforts have been made over the years, aimed at resolving the conflicts through the instrumentalities of the Hydari Agreement in 1947; the creation of a separate Nagaland state in 1963; the peace process initiated in 1964; and the Shillong Accord of 1975. The Shillong Accord in fact caused a split in the ranks of the Naga National Council (NNC) and has aggravated the violence in the state. Local Naga leaders like Muivah, Isak Swu, and SS Khaplang bitterly opposed the Shillong Accord and described those who signed the accord as betrayers of the Naga cause. They formed NSCN in 1980, breaking away from NNC, and were touted as a notorious group in the state ever since.

Many developments of this Naga Peace Accord have not gone down well with stakeholders, including the Naga civil society organizations and the Congress ruled states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, on the account of secrecy of the accord. However, the breakthrough in talks between the, erstwhile, antagonistic GoI and NSCN-IM is a positive step towards peace and stability in the state; it can also have a constructive effect on the whole region if implemented in true spirit.

On the regional front, India and Bangladesh, under the Land Bill Agreement (LBA), have swapped 111 Indian enclaves located in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. A 4,100 km border drawn erratically through heavily populated areas at the India-Bangladesh border had left these enclaves invisible on most maps, and to the respective governments. Some 50,000 inhabitants had been rendered stateless and without basic facilities, as a result. The LBA is not just a diplomatic win for both states, but has significant humanitarian consequences as well. It will ensure the inhabitants finally getting their desired citizenship, and can enjoy basic facilities like healthcare, education, employment, and most importantly, security. Before the LBA the inhabitants, being stateless, would regularly risk their lives by venturing outside their enclaves or counter-enclaves in search of work and markets. Many have been jailed for invalid travel. Resolving the enclave dispute has brought relief to the inhabitants and cleared the political wedge limiting co-operation between both countries.

The implications of these two developments along the eastern border of India are three-fold:
Firstly, the successful negotiation of the LBA has opened doors for other significant agreements— regarding Teesta water sharing and increasing connectivity through the Motor Vehicles Agreement— that would enhance trade and commerce between the two South Asian nations. The two countries can reap immense benefits from increased rail and road connectivity. Securing borders is the most pertinent step towards this.

Secondly, it is a win-win situation for Bangladesh. This diplomatic détente is important to India’s efforts in keeping a check on China’s influence in South Asia. Furthermore, driven by the increased investments of China in Bangladesh, particularly in the development of Chittagong Port, the Indian government has also decided to step up investment with plans to build a transit trade port at Paira in Bangladesh.

Finally, peace initiatives in the north-east region paint an optimistic picture for development, overcoming a history of violence and insurgency— a result of long–standing mistrust towards the Indian government. While the terms and conditions of the final treaty are still not public, the assurance that there will be no redrawing of borders should relieve critics of the accord. This accord may finally boost economic connectivity and development of the state as a comprehensive security paradigm, and will reduce the risk of militant violence.