How do we make sense of India intensifying development and infrastructure projects across the Northeastern States, especially in the past decade? Is it because India wants to appease these mutinous States? Or are there more serious considerations motivating India to develop this region? These questions provide a distinctive lens (which is neither understood nor appreciated by many in Nagaland) for a broader and deeper understanding of how India has approach development in Nagaland and the Indo-Naga issues.
After a resounding defeat at the hands of China in 1962, India intentionally made a foreign policy decision not to develop the Northeastern States of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh. India designated these States as a buffer zone in case of China’s aggression. By “buffer zone,” India meant an expendable area used as a shield to absorb China’s destructive blows. However, by the late 1980s, it became evident that India had to engage and build security, as well as political and economic ties with its South East Asian neighbours. One of India’s main interests particularly with Myanmar and Thailand had to do with security concerning the rebel groups (such as ULFA and NSCN) from the Northeast finding shelter in these countries, as well as the building of India’s economic ties these economies (as a way to increase India’s footprint in competition with China in the region). Since then, there have been significant exchanges of high-level diplomatic visits from the respective sides.
To keep a long story short (so as not to bore readers with foreign policy talk), the consequences of such diplomatic and security exchanges led Myanmar to help India fight against the numerous rebel groups from the Northeast. While the Thai Government, in the early 2000s, also pressured and stifled these rebel groups from using Thailand as their refuge. At the same time, India’s foreign relation with Bangladesh was beginning to improve from the 20-odd years of frigid relations between these two South Asian countries. Bangladesh has always been important for India, especially for the development of the Northeast. It led to a reformulation of security and economic ties between these two countries. One of the consequences of such resumption of relations between India and Bangladesh for Nagaland was that, with a higher level of security cooperation, the rebel groups further lost another source of sanctuary and arms procurement, among many others.
These developments, no doubt, contributed to the fleeing of the NSCN groups (along with other groups) from these countries and return to Indian territories, where the Government of India (GoI) will have better control over them. With no place to seek refuge, these groups signed a cease-fire that ultimately culminated years later with the signing of the Framework Agreement in 2015. Indeed, this agreement was a victory for India in terms of its foreign policy, since one major source of concern was brought under a controlled environment where GoI can dictate the course, time, duration, and place to deal with the Indo-Naga issues (and looking at the scenario of the present Naga talks, this seem to be the case).
Yet, India also faced another dilemma. The dilemma was this: India realized that to promote harmonious security, political, socio-cultural, and economic ties with its South Asian Neighbours, it had to develop the Northeast States which it had previously (after its disastrous war with China) relegated to a “buffer zone” that can be dispense with in case of war with China. And with China increasing its presence and ties in these Southeast Asian countries, India took a firm foreign policy decision to begin developing its Northeastern States. For India, a developed (rather than an underdeveloped) Northeast will serve well as India’s gateway to the Southeast Asian economies.
Thus, one of the consequences is that today (particularly over the last decade or so) in all the Northeastern States, we see GoI investing and allocating vast financial resources for development and infrastructure projects from highways to hydro projects, education to health care, etc. For instance, Nagaland has received immense financial resources, as well as infrastructure projects from (but not limited to) setting up of two medical colleges, construction of highways, electricity and hydro projects, railroads and other transport connectivity, communication linkages, water connectivity, international trade centres, etc.
These developments are sometimes wrongfully attributed, by most people, to the political party currently in power at the Centre (as well as to its branch and affiliated parties at the state level). The reality, however, is that regardless of which party (or parties) is in control at the Centre, the Northeast States will continue to receive developmental projects and financial resources for infrastructure expansion and development. Such enormous infrastructure and development projects are allocated to Northeast States not because the GoI cares for these diverse disposable tribal people in the “buffer zone,” but because India stands to doubly benefit financially, politically, and economically. India’s rising power and its role in world affairs dictate the importance of maintaining security, political, socio-economic ties with its South East Asian neighbours. And for this relationship to grow and benefit, India must develop its Northeast States. It is a significant aspect of India’s foreign policy, and no Prime Minister (nor any political party) now or in the future can derail and risk the country’s interest for the sake of some ideological inclinations. Certainly, Ajit Doval, India’s present National Security Advisor, will neither advise the Prime Minister, nor any political parties in charge at the Centre, to endanger India’s foreign policy.
The question for Nagaland is: Do we want to be left behind in this race or do we want to play a greater role in the development of the Northeast? A preliminary glance is not very promising for Nagaland. Assam has developed to such a degree and scale that it will probably become the hub for India’s entry into the South East Asian economies. Not to be outdone, Manipur and Mizoram will also play key roles in this development as one of the primary hubs with the construction of India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway (one from) from Moreh in Manipur (and the other from Zokhawthar in Mizoram) to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. We continue to lag behind Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, as well as Tripura in terms of scales of development.
What Nagaland needs is a political will on the part of the political leaders, civil societies, and other NGOs to address any outstanding socio-political issues that hamper our State’s development and economic growth. We can either bask within the confines of our pond or we can be an engine of development, ingenuity, entrepreneurial acumen and serve as a primary hub through which Nagaland can be a bridge linking the two worlds. This will certainly ensure a brighter future for our younger generation. Can we take advantage of India’s foreign policy to improve the well-being of our people? By “advantage,” I mean which the society, in general, can benefit from, not selfish gains for oneself. Or do we continue with our existing ways, and in the process squander the development and infrastructure projects we have been allotted with?