Khamoi Village, Myanmar.   Photo: Kuku Christina. 


By Khriezo Yhome

By virtue of its geographical location, India’s Northeast forms part of three strategic subregions–––the Himalayan subregion, the Bay of Bengal subregion and the Mekong subregion. The three subregions form India’s key strategic spaces in safeguarding its primacy and in its strategic outreach in the wider region.

Each subregion has its unique characteristics in terms of opportunities and challenges it presents with many commonalities and overlapping issues and interests. Even though the subregions form part of the wider Indo-Pacific region, there are specific reasons why they require attention and it is these factors that increases the significance of the Northeast in Delhi’s strategic calculus.

For many years, subregional initiatives in India’s neighbourhood have existed without realising the goals set for themselves due to lack of political will in the capitals of member states. This has been changing in recent years.

A few factors explain why subregional initiatives in India’s neighbourhood have found relevance in recent years. First, the limitations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) mechanism in addressing regional governance issues has pushed India and its smaller neighbours to explore alternative arrangements.

Second, China’s strategic penetration into the subregions has prompted New Delhi to protect its interests in the neighbourhood, while this has pushed the smaller nations to hedge against the growing rivalry between India and China. Beijing’s growing influence has become a common feature in all these subregions. A countervailing strategy of India has been to strengthen bilateral and multilateral security engagements with nations in the subregions and beyond.

Third, as a response to the emerging strategic scenario, New Delhi launched the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and the ‘Act East’ policy that have received positive responses from the smaller neighbours in the subregions.

Closer economic engagement with Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region has been one of the key elements in India’s eastward drive. India’s engagements are also seen from within the framework of “balancing Asia.”

India’s strategic interests in other parts of the Indo-Pacific region are shaped by geopolitical concerns to maintain a strategic equilibrium in the emerging regional order through its participation in ASEAN-led forums, such as the East Asia Forum or the ASEAN Regional Forum and entering into various mini- and pluri-laterals such as the four-nation Quad forum involving the US, Japan, India and Australia.

In the subregions too, economic cooperation is emphasised, given the huge complementarity that exists among nations in the subregions, whether in cross-border trade and connectivity. From a strategic perspective, it is also about protecting India’s strategic interests in the neighbourhood.

India’s ties with nations in the subregions are different from the relations with other nations in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India has and continues to have difficult relations with several nations in the three subregions owing to the discomforts of proximity and the difficulties of asymmetrical relationships.

Subregional initiatives neutralise the asymmetric relationship between India and its smaller neighbours and allow for going beyond bilateralism, which is often mired in political difficulties. Moreover, assessing strategic challenges from the bilateral prism narrow one’s view, while the subregional approach allows for taking a holistic view of issues and help frame a more effective response.

An important feature of the three subregions is that they are all connected geographically, except Sri Lanka, which is an island nation. There is, thus, overlapping of nations in these subregions that blurs defining the boundaries of a subregion as their interlinked security, development, and ecological issues are interlinked.

Development and opening up of India’s Northeast fit in well in the operationalisation of the Act East policy and the Neighbourhood First policy as it is surrounded by the Mekong subregion to the east, the Bay of Bengal subregion to the south, and the Himalayan subregion to the north-west.

For a long time, a host of factors including political, security, and infrastructure issues have greatly impeded New Delhi’s ability to leverage the potential of the Northeast region in regional diplomacy. India’s frontier policy must consider its wider subregions as they provide both land and maritime options to access the East and have emerged as key spaces in India’s connectivity efforts.

Active participation of the frontier states in subregional initiatives is critical. In the backdrop of the prolonged suspicion harboured by the local population towards policies emanating from New Delhi, the practice of working together with a shared vision is a work in progress. In subregionalism, the role of provinces in regional diplomacy is emphasised.

Cooperative federalism could be an effective instrument in pushing forward cooperative subregionalism. The principle of cooperative federalism stresses the role and significance of provincial governments and taking along states in regional diplomacy. This also helps create relations between the bordering provinces of neighbouring countries to enter in initiatives for mutual benefits.

New Delhi’s strategy of involving its partners in the subregional development and security is a departure from the past policy of keeping external actors out of its neighbourhood. The growing convergence of strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region has opened new areas for Japan and India to coordinate closely in these subregions, particularly in the development of infrastructure in India’s Northeast and cross-border transportation projects to boost connectivity between India and its neighbours.

As India pushes its subregional approach further, it is imperative for the development of frontier regions such as the Northeast as it forms an integral part of India’s subregional strategy and plays a critical role in the effective implementation of cross-border initiatives.


The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based public policy think tank. 

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A graveyard on the outskirts of Shillong, Meghalaya. PHOTO: CALVIN LYNGDOH 

5 points to ponder


Distressing news about the coronavirus pandemic has come out of Shillong in the past few days. The news of the first case in the state being detected has been followed almost immediately by news that the patient had died. Tragedy was heaped on tragedy as his last rites could not be performed for the better part of two days. The bereaved family, already dealing with the shock of a loved and respected elder being afflicted and dying, had to deal with trolling from strangers who blamed them for bringing the disease to the state, and the shocking aftermath in which different localities refused to allow both cremation and burial of the deceased.
Dr John Sailo Ryntathiang, 69, was director of the Bethany Hospital in Shillong, and had spent his life as a medical practitioner serving the people. His wish to be buried on his own land near Nongpoh unfortunately could not be fulfilled because the public there, perhaps being instigated, refused to allow this. Christians are normally buried in the burial grounds of their own church denominations, but this too did not happen. The government’s proposal to cremate the body and bury the ashes in the place he had wanted also faced a hurdle because society leaders of the Jhalupara crematorium objected to the corpse being taken to their locality. Now, when the country’s Vice President has commented on this, and the national media has reported it, individuals and communities are busy bickering and blaming one another for the mess. As if the coronavirus pandemic is not a big enough problem already, the situation is being made worse by the introduction of a communal angle, surrounding both the infection, and the incidents of denial of cremation and burying.
We had seen this tendency towards communalisation already earlier at a national level when news of the Tablighi Markaz cluster of cases emerged. The case in Shillong was a senior doctor, a tribal and a Christian, just not one from the local tribe. Had the patient been a Bengali Muslim or even a Hindu non-tribal, I shudder to think of what the reaction might have been. The main reason for such a reaction, to my mind, is fear. People are afraid and they are reacting in fear which soon turns to hatred and anger. Since they cannot see the virus, the anger turns on the unfortunate afflicted. This is probably a natural reaction given the shock of realising that the dreaded disease has finally found its way to their vicinity. However, it is based on a failure to understand or remember a few basic facts:

1. Meghalaya and Shillong were extremely fortunate for a long time

The first case in India was detected on January 30 in Kerala. The first case in Meghalaya was reported on April 13. By then, every state in India except Meghalaya and Sikkim had reported cases. All other Northeast states including Arunachal Pradesh, the remotest of the Northeast states, had cases. Even the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had cases. It hardly needs to be said that all major communities had cases. Shillong is arguably far more connected at a global level than any Northeastern town or city excepting Guwahati. Given that the coronavirus has spread literally to the ends of the world, it was a bit too hopeful for Shillongites to think the disease would never find its way there.

2. Meghalaya and Shillong were extremely unfortunate when it hit

Manipur’s first case was detected on March 24. It was a young student studying in London. She was safely quarantined, and recovered. Mizoram’s first case was detected on March 25. He was a pastor who had returned from the Netherlands. In both of these cases, the first patient to show symptoms was not someone who had wide physical contact with a large number of people. Mizoram had already suspended church services a week earlier. Shillong’s luck was truly rotten. The first case itself happened to be a senior doctor. A lot of people are going to hospitals even under lockdown, because they have to – other diseases have not ended since coronavirus began. A lot of people also work in the hospital. Doctors and medical staff have to touch patients, in many cases. From no suspects the state went directly to having thousands of people calling in to be tested because they had visited the hospital and therefore had possible contact with the doctor directly or indirectly.

3. A lot of infected people are asymptomatic

It is not necessary that an infected person will show symptoms. The dangerous thing about the disease is that around 25 percent of the cases are asymptomatic, meaning that the infected person shows no symptoms, Dr Robert Redfield, the Director of the US Centers for Disease Control, told NPR in an interview. In case of Shillong, Dr John Sailo, the deceased patient, is the first known case. It was unfortunate that he happened to be an elderly man with existing health conditions, which caused him to pass away soon after he was diagnosed. How he got the disease is still a matter of speculation. His son in law, a pilot, who flew back from New York on March 14, was suspected of being the carrier, but he had no symptoms and tested negative thrice. Is it possible for someone to have the disease and test negative? Yes. Scientists have expressed concern that the most common type of covid-19 test, the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test, is showing false-negative results about 30 percent of the time. Moreover, the accuracy of any test depends on it being properly performed. This is a new disease and ground level staff, who are themselves terrified of it, are also inexperienced in dealing with the sample collection and testing. There are chances of errors, although thrice would be highly unlikely.

4. Illogical beliefs are making things worse

Part of the widespread fear is being fuelled by illogical and unscientific suspicions. In the case of Shillong, it was irrational on the part of those who denied Dr Sailo cremation and burial to have done so. The mere passage of a coffin through an area should not be enough to panic a neighbourhood out of its humanity. Dead people do not cough, sneeze or even breathe. Whatever viruses are inside the dead body would remain there. Some viruses might be present outside, on clothes or skin, but once the casket is sealed the virus should not normally be propelled outside. Burning the body in case of cremation would also destroy the virus. A wash of the place and some thorough hand-washing by those who handled the body after would have sufficed – and indeed, this is more or less what finally happened. It is understood that thoroughly washing hands with soap is sufficient to wash away the virus. That is why the whole world is busy washing hands all the time these days – because washing hands washes away any viruses that might be on the hands. There was no need to panic.

5. The disease is probably here to stay

This is the hardest realisation that not just Shillong or Meghalaya but India and the world have to come to. The coronavirus is probably here to stay. It is not going away next week or next month. It has now spread to 210 countries and territories, which is more than the membership of the United Nations. It can no longer be isolated or contained. The genie is out of the bottle. The only way this pandemic is going to end is when a sizeable part of the world’s population develops what experts call “herd immunity”, meaning immunity as a group. This immunity can be developed in one of two ways. A person can become immune by having the disease and recovering from it, or by taking a vaccine once it is invented, tested and available in the market. However, please remember that no vaccine exists yet, and even when one is invented, all countries around the world will try to grab it, and rich people everywhere will scramble to buy it driving prices up beyond reach of the poor. It may be years before it is available at affordable prices all over the world.

It is going to be a long haul. People of Shillong, Meghalaya, and the world will have to overcome their fears and rally together to courageously help one another in this crisis. Panic, recriminations, and communal hatred will not help. They will make a bad situation worse. In order to successfully fight this pandemic, we have to find, if at all they exist, the better angels of our nature.

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It is true that ‘national interest’ is paramount. Yet as eminent political scientist Rajni Kothari put it: an aggressive approach to the establishment of one central authority and the suppression of all plural identities provides a ready recipe for disintegration rather than integration. The challenge lies in keeping the country intact and of creating, out of its disparate parts and varied elements, a nation with a broad vision and consensus.

If the CAB is to be tweaked to allow the ILP to prevail over it, it effectively means that all the non-natives without any eligible document to prove Indian citizenship in the ILP states will be settled in the neighbouring States of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Tripura.
The futility of the ILP stands exposed from the fact that the ILP States had more population growth rate than the non ILP states except Tripura.

An organisational reshuffle in the ranks of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Northeast India is in the works, according to informed sources in the party. The BJP’s internal organisational election process is on, and new state presidents are expected to be elected by December. The party in Northeast India is in the throes of a quiet turmoil due to internal power struggles in most states barring Arunachal Pradesh.

Dr. S.C Jamir, a veteran politician, famously known as the architect of modern Nagaland, served five times as Chief Minister of Nagaland, was a Member of Parliament during which he served as Union Deputy Minister of Railways, Labour & Rehabilitation, and later as the Union Deputy Minister of Community Development & Cooperation, Food and Agriculture. In later years of his political career, Jamir served as Governor of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa and Odisha. During the tenure of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Jamir was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and represented India as a member of UN delegations.
East Wind publisher Nona Arhe sat down with him in his home in Dimapur, Nagaland to hear his views on his state, Nagaland, his political party, the Indian National Congress, and the country’s Act East policy, which has special relevance to Northeast India.

On January 8, the Finance department had already put in place a new procedure for release of funds amounting to more than Rs 2 crore. According to the new procedure, all such proposals for release of funds would have to be cleared by the Chief Minister, along with the status of financial resources available. This was done, and files were subsequently sent to the CM for his approval. The Chief Minister himself signed off on release of funds worth more than Rs 2 crore, and the file notes bear his signature.
The investigation ordered by the CM into the sanctions’ procedure is therefore an eyewash.

Why are they going back on the issue of Inner Line Permit which the British had started? By now we should have been able to get rid of that but instead more states are demanding for it. For example, Meghalaya is now asking for ILP and so also Manipur. Though the situations may be very different in every state, the general psychology is that they want some sort of protection, whether justified or just born of apprehension. Consider the Assam Accord wherein the feeling of identity is strongly indicated. Such issues have to be tackled very sensitively and those at the Centre in Delhi might not be able to understand the psychology of the people of northeast and why such feelings exist.

It is also important to note that the fundamental legal bases of the two Registers, viz the NRC of 1951 and the NRC of 2018 are distinct and separate. While the NRC, 1951 was completed under the Census Act of 1948 which makes the register a contemporaneous document prepared by field staff engaged in course of census operation and was legally “not open to inspection nor admissible in evidence” (ALR 1970 (A&N) 206 para 15), admittedly the current NRC is being prepared under the Citizenship Act 1955 read with the Citizenship Rules, 2003. To the best of our knowledge, the Courts and the various orders and judgement have not as yet constructed any legal framework to reconcile the two Acts which have distinct origin and purposes. Neither has any legal framework been evolved to legitimize the use of the NRC,1951 as evidence in matters governed by the Citizenship Act by any amendment or an enabling clause.
The matter is more complicated now as we know that the district offices have not maintained the NRC-1951 data for all the districts as was mandated in the Census of 1951 and the matter is today admitted by the government of Assam as well. While the government was forced to rely on other documents produced by the people, from those districts where the NRC 1951 was absent or fragmentary, to enlist their names in the NRC, 2018, it therefore raises serious questions on the legality or legitimacy of ‘updating’ NRC,1951 in the province of Assam as a whole.