Connecting Regions of Asia.

Understanding Northeast: Fulcrum Of ‘Act East Policy’ And Saviors Of India

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Backdrop

The Northeast Region (NER), which consisted of only one state of Assam and two Union territories of Tripura and Manipur in 1950’s, now comprises of eight states – Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim (Bracketed under North East in 2003). North East India is a region poorly connected to rest of the India by Siliguri Corridor with a narrow width of only 17 kilometers, which is a historical problem since partition of India, when almost all the communication lines between rest of India and NER got snapped with emergence of erstwhile East Pakistan.

Approximately 70 percent of the region is mountainous, generally forested, and dissected by a large number of major rivers, which effectively segregate the valleys, making the ethnic groups living in these areas, naturally isolated from each other. While many perceive these tribes as backward, but they showcase some of the best reforms which modern society is struggling to implement like no dowry, strong clan system without caste discrimination, grass root level democracy and  women empowerment to the extent that it has the largest all women market in the world, in Manipur. A land of miracles housing cleanest village in Asia. These ethnic groups choose to retain their exclusive identity, which is one of the root causes of strong ethnic rivalries and clashes, besides poor governance, infrastructure and social development, coupled with poor understanding of their systems by administrators.

Strategic Significance

The NER has tremendous strategic significance to the nation, as it has shares 5100 km of international borders with five countries including China (which has been showing increasing interest in almost all of them). It also has great potential of utilization of large amount of natural resources including hydropower, tourism and opportunities for connectivity with some neighboring countries, which are of interest to (NER) and India.

Chinese claim of Indian sovereign territory of Arunachal as its South Tibet, aggressive expansionist design, unsettled borders, trust deficit, lack of identifiable demarcation of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and junking of existing Confidence Building Measures (CBM) in Ladakh, pose serious challenge to security of NER and India. Despite our strong defensive posture in Sikkim, Siliguri Corridor mentally isolates North East India. India has tried to mitigate the problem by establishing a rail route via Bangladesh, but with growing Chinese investments, engagements and its inclusion in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it can hardly termed as strategic alternative to Siliguri Corridor. Chinese claim to Tawang and trying to use it as bargaining chip for Aksai Chin, makes security of NER even more relevant.

The geographic disadvantage, poor connectivity, perceived isolation, insurgency in some states, growing vulnerability to terrorism, ethnic conflicts arising due to migration, cross border linkages in some areas in China and Myanmar, inter-tribal feuds for dominance, poor economic development, poor governance, have been some of the strategic concerns, which make security situation in this region extremely complex to deal with, but strategically inescapable to be tackled. NER is likely to be the center stage for India’s “Act East Policy”, which needs to succeed to check Chinese design of regional dominance. Chinese on their part will continue to sell the idea that NER to be the meeting point of Act East and BRI/ Bangladesh-China-India Myanmar (BCIM).

Infrastructure Push Needed

India needs to improve the rail and road infrastructure in NER at a much faster rate than never before, something, which in last many decades did not progress at desirable pace. This infrastructure besides being strategically important has a dual use potential of inclusive growth of people of NER, which also integrates them socially. The social developments triggered of due to Boghibil bridge and hydro projects on lives of people of Assam and Arunachal bears testimony to it. It will also help in tourism as an instrument of social upliftment which has great potential with picturesque sites, largest floating lake in Asia, most rainy spots and much more. The economic benefits of infrastructure push in NER will also provide greater job opportunities to locals fulfilling inclusive social and economic goals.

The Chinese initiative of BCIM model does not suit India. It has already established connectivity with Bangladesh including rail link and multi modal connectivity between Kolkata and Agartala. India is in the process of improving connectivity with Myanmar. With Chinese efforts of infrastructure development in Myanmar due to its urge to reach Bay of Bengal, India will automatically have the option of using communication network in Myanmar; hence our connectivity needs will be met. If we chose to adopt BCIM then we would find that the rules of some of our internal communication being interfered by China. Conversely Indian initiatives of connecting our neighbour countries through trilateral and multilateral highways involving Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, extendable to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will pay greater dividend, if India convinces them that its developmental models are not exploitative like China. The NER thus becomes the focal point of Indian ‘Act East Policy’.

Internal Dynamics

The Brahmaputra valley, has always been the source of attraction in terms of availability of water, fertile soil, agricultural opportunities leading to development of population centers’, lines of communication, with their abundant natural resources (fifty per cent of India’s tea, twenty per cent of its oil, undiscovered shale oil, huge forest wealth and large coal and mineral reserves) has been a bone of contention amongst the hill tribes,

which are on fringes and feel deprived of it. This has led to hill tribes increasing claims to grab larger part of valley. The valley has also attracted invaders, migrants and refugees from neighboring countries/regions. This has further added to the variety of tribes and cultures having trans-border/international linkages.

Despite various attempts to resolve the problems of North East Region (NER), by various Governments, the signs of alienation of people of NER and some of their perceived grievances still remain. Most solutions tried by Central and State Governments so far have not been fully successful, because the problems are much more complex and inter-related between states, tribes/communities with different geographical linkages (including old linkages with neighboring countries), are not easily understood by some policy makers.

Can China Re-ignite Insurgency?

The insurgency in NER has been a mix of homegrown insurgency along with international linkages and earlier proxy war against India. The pattern of insurgency kept changing, due to varying reasons to include sociological, geographic, historical, economic and political, however things seem to be settling down now, as NER is well integrated with India. In Northern parts of Myanmar, China has considerable influence and the tribal linkages of some of the tribes in NER with the people in that areas, and some parts of Yunnan are few centuries old. In past some of these linkages were used to help insurgent groups in NER; hence the old experiences of China, sheltering some Indian insurgent leaders does not rule out suspicion of such attempts. Bulk of the weapons with insurgent groups of NER are Chinese make, but China maintains the deniability that it sells them commercially on world market and claims no control over those buying it through conduits. Most insurgent groups can be lured by financial and material support, which can be provided by China, whenever its national interest demands so. It therefore indicates that India cannot be complacent to potential of China to ignite insurgency in future. It therefore underlines the importance of inclusive development, social and cultural connect to mainstream the tribal population, because India has to prove that its genuineness in their inclusiveness of last seven decades is better than Chinese engagement of centuries, which did not bring any development to them. Today, except some districts including Manipur, most of the NER is peaceful, fully integrated and ruled by democratically elected government; hence it may not be easy for Chinese to easily reignite insurgency.

Saviors’ of India

The history of capability of the people of NER as saviors’ dates back to 16th/17th centuries, when (undivided) Assam was invaded by the Mughals, who gained control over central and lower Assam for about 70 years, were ultimately defeated by Ahoms ( Residents of undivided Assam) who proved their martial prowess by defeating them at the Battle of Saraighat. The Assam Regiment was raised to meet the need of the then undivided State of Assam for its own fighting unit, and to counter the threat of the Japanese invasion of India. The Assam Regiment, which has representation of people of all states of NER, is a fine example of knitting these people from rival tribes, including some, which are still pursuing violence because of various grievances, by training them to form a truly secular, patriotic and unbeatable organization, fighting to protect

The history of capability of the people of NER as saviors’ dates back to 16th/17th centuries, when (undivided) Assam was invaded by the Mughals, who gained control over central and lower Assam for about 70 years, were ultimately defeated by Ahoms ( Residents of undivided Assam) who proved their martial prowess by defeating them at the Battle of Saraighat. The Assam Regiment was raised to meet the need of the then undivided State of Assam for its own fighting unit, and to counter the threat of the Japanese invasion of India. The Assam Regiment, which has representation of people of all states of NER, is a fine example of knitting these people from rival tribes, including some, which are still pursuing violence because of various grievances, by training them to form a truly secular, patriotic and unbeatable organization, fighting to protect

The Assam Regiment nearing 80 years of raising, proved its capabilities in second World War, within three years of its raising, at the consecutive battles of Jessami, the epic defence of Kohima and the capture of Aradura, all of which were awarded as battle honors to the regiment. It was later awarded a battle honor for its tenacious defence at Chamb in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.  Three battalions of the regiment have acquitted themselves admirably in the highest battlefield of the world, Siachen Glacier. Two of its battalions, performed remarkably well as part of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka earning first Mahavir Chakra for the Regiment. Three of its units have the unique distinction of being part of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force. In fact, most of the units which went to Jammu and Kashmir were honored with Unit citations, which proves how the fighting instincts of various tribes, can be honed synergized, and channelized for national cause, and the national spirit which these ambassadors of NER display for National unity and pride.

The Nation honored the sheer grit and determination of 36-year-old Havildar Hangpan Dada, that saw him fight valiantly at the 13,000-feet high Shamsabari range to eliminate four heavily-armed terrorists, who infiltrated into North Kashmir from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir before he laid down his life, by awarding ‘Ashok Chakra, the highest gallantry award in peace’. The contribution of these troops towards National cause is well indicated by the series of awards earned by the regiment and the list continues to grow with every Republic/Independence Day.

The passion of defending the country is not restricted to the award winners, but includes many unsung heroes present in all the units and regiments. Let me narrate an incident of one Kuki soldier, who during Kargil Conflict, while moving from one post to another got targeted by heavy MMG fire in his right arm. His right arm had to be amputed on the post by the doctor; otherwise he would have died before reaching the hospital. On evacuation to hospital, as Commanding Officer, I reached there to break this tragic news myself to him. On his gaining consciousness I told him “Beta aap ko goli bahut jyada lag gaya tha, aap ka jaan to ham log bacha saka hai, lekin aap ka hath nahin bacha saka”. He embraced me, cried and the first sentence which came from his mouth was “Saheb, Kuch Pakistani marne ke baad yeh hath katne se jyada acha hona tha”. Such passionate is their love for the country, and we are proud of our soldiers from the NER.

The Assam Rifles has been the old paramilitary force, which historically provided the security grid for comprehensive development of NER. Having taken part in both world wars, it continues to be part of counter insurgency operations in NER and has made significant contribution in controlling and waning insurgency in NER. It is now an all India force along with BSF who continue to efficiently guard the borders in NER, ready to thwart any inimical designs of the adversaries in the region.    

The Role Model of Seculiarism

Assam Regiment contingent march during the 2016 Republic Day at Rajpath (PTI Photo)

The initial recruitment for the regiment was drawn from Undivided Assam, consisting of the doughty Ahoms, the hardy, tough and cheerful Nagas, Mizos, Kukis, Garos, Manipuris and other tribals. Later, the Adis, Nishis, Monpas, other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, domiciled Gorkhas and Sikkimese were also recruited into the regiment. Today, the Assam regiment can boast of being composed of troops of NER with most diverse tribes, customs, cultures, languages, traditions and ethos belonging to the seven states of the northeast and Sikkim. The regiment gets carefree youth of various tribes, some of which are fighting amongst themselves, and their valour, ferocity to fight is channelized to make him disciplined soldiers in the Assam Regiment to an extent that nation feels proud of them. This is vindicated by the fact that in Republic Day Parade 2016, the regiment wins the coveted title of “The best Marching Contingent of Services at Rajpath”.

The Assam Regiment represents a role model of religious tolerance. It has troops from various religions mainly Hindus and Christians, who celebrate each other’s festivals with full zeal and enthusiasm. It’s a nice scene to watch with Panditji attending Christmas ceremonies, Christians attending Holi and Diwali functions voluntarily, with officers attending Church as well as Mandir regularly. The variation in various languages is integrated by everyone speaking ‘Hindustani’. It is a lesson/role model for those who ferment religious/sectarian troubles in the country. It is very normal to see that in all units, the troops belonging to rival tribes (which may be fighting fiercely with each other at native places), amalgamate as one entity to fight for the nation, and have such a bonhomie in the unit that they are ready to die for each other.  

Conclusion    

Considering the current situation along LAC, Chinese attempt for aggressive posturing along LAC and efforts to reignite insurgency in NER may be a possibility, for which our security forces have to be ready.  The people of NER have outstanding potential in terms of resources including human resource and have repeatedly proved themselves to be saviors of the country. The Assam Regiment is one such example, like a basket having flowers in the form of people of NER, who are as patriot as any proud Indian would like to be. Those who have limited knowledge of NER, may relate a state like Manipur with insurgency, Sharmila’s fast, and voices against AFSPA, but they forget that the same state gives the best of athletes like Mary Kom, so many archers, gymnasts, excels to win National Athletic Championship repeatedly, and provides one of the best soldiers, of whom the Nation and the Indian Army can feel proud of. There is a crying need for the decision makers responsible for peace and development of NER, to first understand the internal dynamics, grievances, and the resource potential including human resource to be able to achieve this National Goal. I salute the soldiers of The Assam Regiment, other security forces in NER, and the people of NER, as saviors of the nation.  Tagra Raho!

Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM (Veteran)

MAJ GEN S B ASTHANA,SM,VSM

The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in national & international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst authored over 350 publications. Interviewed by various National and International news
channels/newspapers/organisations. Currently Chief Instructor, USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India. On Governing/Security Council CEE, IOED, IPC, ITVMNN and other UN Organisations. On Advisory Board of SWEDINT, member EPON. Expert Group Challenges Forum, Former Additional DG Infantry. Awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Maldova and Governor of Haryana.

(The views expressed are personal views of the author, who also retains the copyright). He can be reached at Facebook and LinkedIn, as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, on personnel site https://asthanawrites.org/ email shashiasthana29@gmail.com  LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6 

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