Since Independence, India has treated its north-eastern states as unproductive black holes into which New Delhi pours vast amounts of treasure and obtains resentful ingratitude in return. But this backwater is in focus after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s successful visit to Dhaka earlier this month, which has not just built bridges with Bangladesh but it also holds out the promise of creating a new relationship with south-east Asia. If India is to capitalise on the improved Indo-Bangla relationship and benefit from its potential to physically connect this country with mainland Asean or the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, New Delhi has no choice but to reshape its relations with its north-east.
The potential for our eastern provinces to disrupt this opportunity has already been highlighted by Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister, who pulled out of the delegation to Dhaka in annoyance at the plan to give Bangladesh more water from the Teesta River. While Ms Banerjee’s absence somewhat dampened the euphoria in Dhaka, the blame for her embarrassing boycott lies in New Delhi, not Kolkata. Aware of the political sensitivity of water sharing anywhere, but especially between agricultural West Bengal and the erstwhile East Bengal, New Delhi failed to obtain Ms Banerjee’s unequivocal agreement on a water deal with Dhaka.
It is telling that Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, seemed more aware than New Delhi of the importance of West Bengal’s leader. Ms Banerjee was slated to receive an especially warm welcome in Dhaka and a meeting of the Bangladesh cabinet discussed at some length whether a Dhakai jamdani sari would be a befitting gift for her. Ms Banerjee might well – after some political grandstanding for the voters in North Bengal who rely on Teesta water – climb down and climb aboard a flight to Dhaka for her own little summit with Ms Hasina. But the fact remains that New Delhi’s insensitivity towards its peripheries created this muddle. Unless this approach changes, there is the risk of greater, and possibly irretrievable, debacles.
Beyond the Mamata fiasco, the PM’s visit to Bangladesh was an unalloyed strategic success. The agreement on demarcating the land boundary between the two countries eliminated a long-standing irritant. But the real triumph, both for bilateral ties and for regionalism, was the opening up of land, sea and riverine communications (“multi-modal links” is the term in vogue). These will provide a physical backbone to the “Look East” policy, so far just a strategic slogan. As Dr Singh and Ms Hasina noted, “road, rail and waterways [are] building blocks to an inter-dependent and mutually beneficial relationship among the countries of the region. The establishment of physical infrastructure would promote exchange of goods and traffic, and lead to the connectivity of services, information, ideas, culture and people.”
For now, there are only modest steps. New land ports and immigration stations are being established to facilitate trade and the movement of people. Trial runs have begun for moving cargo on the Brahmaputra between Ashuganj (in Bangladesh) and Silghat (in Assam). A rail line will link Agartala (in Tripura) with Bangladesh. Additional rail connections (Chilahati-Haldibari and Kulaura-Mahishashan) will be reactivated “in the spirit of encouraging revival of old linkages and transport routes between the two countries”. And goods could soon move between India’s north-east and Chittagong and Mongla seaports.
This is part of a far more expansive project: the linking of India’s Indo-Gangetic plain with its north-eastern states; and then expanding those linkages to the mainland Asean states of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; and through them to China. Currently the Seven Sisters – the north-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – are connected to India only through a 21-km-wide sliver of land, the so-called Siliguri corridor. Through this chicken’s neck runs all infrastructure to the north-east, including roads, railway lines and power transmission lines. Transit through Bangladesh, with its 4,000-km border with four Indian states (our longest land border with any neighbour) would magically open up the north-east.
Within striking distance of the north-east, major transport links are being built. China is building roads, a railway and pipelines from Yunnan to Myanmar’s Kyauk Phyu port on the Bay of Bengal. While China is connecting with the Bay of Bengal to bypass its “Malacca problem”, saving a week in transit time through that strait, New Delhi tends to see this infrastructure as a direct threat to India. But infrastructure is seldom a zero-sum game; it has the potential to simultaneously benefit multiple players.
Further inside Myanmar, but within easy reach from the north-east, is the Dawei Development Project, a deep-water port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast, which is being connected to Thailand through a multi-modal transport corridor. From Thailand this will link up with the three economic corridors of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. The railway from Dawei would also link up with a railway that China is building from Kunming, which will connect through Laos, to the Thai railway network.
Then there are the direct linkages between the north-eastern states and China: the existing border trade post at Nathu La, Sikkim; potential border crossings through Tawang and Walong in Arunachal Pradesh; and the much-discussed Stilwell Road that used to connect Dibrugarh (in upper Assam), through Myanmar, with Kunming.
India has traditionally shrunk from operationalising these connections even while espousing a “Look East” policy. But the people of the north-east understand how crucial these cross-border linkages are for their future. That is why the chief ministers of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura accompanied the PM to Dhaka. Despite New Delhi’s fears, this is an idea whose time has come. The Seven Sisters are poised to be India’s gateways to a strategically and economically vital neighbourhood. New Delhi has to quickly learn the political nuances of the north-east. The lessons of Mamata must be quickly absorbed.