North East Seminar
A seminar on Unravelling the Political, Economic and Security Influences in NE India and its Impact on the Nuances of Indo-Myanmar Border Management, was conducted by Assam Rifles under the stewardship of Lt Gen Shokin Chauhan, AVSM, YSM, SM, VSM, the Director General of Assam Rifles at Shillong on 23 and 24 Jun 2017. The speakers and panelists included a galaxy of luminaries to include Shri Tathagata Roy, Governor of Tripura, Lt Gen Nirbhay Sharma(retd),PVSM, UYSM,AVSM, VSM, Governor of Mizoram and Sh P B Acharya, Governor of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Besides those from the Assam Rifles and the Army, attendees included representatives of the Indian Air Force, BSF and the CRPF.
The seminar was the first of its kind and addressed a number of relevant and topical issues. The proceedings dwelled on a range of subjects from the history of the region to the causative factors of the insurgencies and the issues on the India Myanmar Border. India’s Act East Policy and the intrinsic role that the North-East region would play in its success, were duly deliberated upon. Aspects related to security were discussed appropriately, intertwined with factors influencing them. Discussions during the seminar clearly brought out the yeoman service being rendered by the Assam Rifles.
Salient Aspects discussed/that emerged over the course of the two days are given in succeeding paras.
The North-East Region
The Region, which is a strategically important part of India, is separated from the rest of the country physically by the Siliguri Corridor but is mentally and emotionally far removed from the Nation’s consciousness – a travesty India can do well without. It comprises 8% of India’s land mass and is home to 40 million people from diverse origins, tribes, religions and beliefs. There are 200 plus ethnic groups in the region
The allegiance of the region to India at the time of India’s Independence was not strong and this was worsened, for various reasons, by the formation of Bangladesh. The eight states that comprise the region came into being at various points of time. The Region has rugged terrain with two-thirds area being mountainous and hilly with poor road communications. It is rich in natural resources with potential for exploitation of hydrocarbons (20% of the country’s reserves rest here), hydropower and other mineral resources, besides approximately 44% of the area being under forest cover.
It has immense potential as a tourist destination. This potential needs to be exploited by giving a fillip to the development of requisite infrastructure. The nation needs to look at this area, which is the Gateway to South East Asia through a prism of empathy, caring and concern: aspects which unfortunately have been woefully lacking thus far; as is amply evident from the deficits obtaining in infrastructure, provision of basic resources and more importantly, good governance at the grass roots levels.
The people living herein are simple but the issues that concern them are complex. The seeds of a feeling of isolation and exclusion were sown when the British started the Inner Line Regulation on 13 Aug 1896 to safeguard the interests of British subjects. Though introduction of Christianity in the region had many progressive aspects, it gave rise to nationalistic/ethnic ambitions. In addition, there has been disquiet amongst the people because of lack of development, unemployment, feelings of neglect and also perceived grievances. For instance, Assam felt that it was being economically exploited as oil from the state was going out. Migration is another factor that has been instrumental in fanning the uprisings.
The insurgencies/conflicts in the states which though different in character have the same common thread of disaffection running through them and could be classified as National, Ethnic or Sub Regional. As on date there are 134 insurgent groups in the region of which 26 are in ceasefire agreements with the centre/state governments.
The situation currently, except for Manipur majorly and Nagaland somewhat, can be said to be stable. The Mizoram Accord of 1986 has been successful. Some of the pointers that indicate the success of the government, in the region, are the increasing reach of the civil administration, growth of socio-political organisations, unbiased media reporting and effectiveness of the local police.
However, the grass is not all green. Ceasefire agreements are at best loose arrangements till accords are reached, if at all. The groups entering into a ceasefire agreement invariably have splinter groups forming which continue with the cycle of violence. It is also impracticable to confine personnel of group, which has signed the ceasefire agreement, to camps. There is also large-scale extortion being carried out by several insurgent groups and this indeed is the bane of everyday life.
Indo Myanmar Border
India and Myanmar share long standing historical, ethnic and cultural ties. There is set of peculiarities and commonalities, imposed by shared history and traditions extended through linkages from the times of the Ahom Kings to British sovereignty over the area; when North East India and Myanmar of today were largely a single entity.
The two countries share a 1643 Kms long border (along Myanmar’s Sagaing Region and Chin State). There are issues about demarcation of 136 Kms, in the North, from BP 186 to the Tri Junction and 35 Km in the Kabaw valley in Manipur. The terrain is hilly with thick forest cover. There is lack of infrastructure development and the communication networks in the area are rather poor. The governments of both countries have an agreement, regards the common border, called the Free Movement Regime (FMR). The FMR permits people residing along the border to travel 16-km across the boundary without visa restrictions. They can carry head loads without any checking, which facilitates smuggling. Lushei, Nagas, Chins, and Kukis are some of the tribes, whose lands straddle the regions of both the countries. There are over 250 villages with over 300,000 people living within 10 km of the border, who frequently cross the border through 150 small and large, formal and informal, border crossings, which include the border trading posts which facilitate the Border Trade Agreement between India and Myanmar.
The border is thinly manned on the Myanmar side essentially because of the low capacity of the Myanmar Army: they have only four and a half battalions manning the 1600 odd Kms plus stretch. This fragile capacity also prevents them from acting against the Indian insurgent groups located within their area. As on date 55 insurgent groups are camped across. As the Myanmar army has leanings towards China, which supports the Myanmar insurgent groups, no action is taken against these particular groups, even when warranted. The border is also very thinly manned by the local police on our side.
The fencing of the Indo Myanmar border has been stalled since 2003 for various reasons and has been rejected by most Chief Ministers of the bordering Indian states as it is considered to be a retrograde step.
India’s Act East Policy
India’s Act East policy (a continuation of the Look East policy developed by former prime ministers Sh P V Narsimha Rao and Sh Atal Bihari Vajpayee) is a vehicle for greater economic and cultural engagement with our eastern neighbours to include those in South East Asia and perhaps even further east. Our North-East region is vital to the success of the said policy as it is central to the scheme of things as connectivity towards the ‘East’ hinges around this region. The start point therefore is to improve connectivity within the region as also extend it to neighbouring countries. Improved connectivity will result in enhanced trade and cultural relations. Buddhist outreach is a key element of the said policy. This aspect must be worked upon in right earnest so that advantage can be taken of the cultural and tourist aspects.
With regards to connectivity, work is in progress on the Trilateral Highway Project (total length approximately 1360 Km) connecting Moreh (Manipur) to Mae Sot (Thailand) through Myanmar. The project is to be executed jointly by India, Myanmar and Thailand. This would help India integrate with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam.)
Assam Rifles has been rendering yeoman service in the area. Being of the local stock, the personnel have natural empathy towards the populace and they are perceived as being one of their own by the people. It is indeed a matter of great pride for the organisation that it has not been involved in a single case of human rights violations. During the seminar, the Assam Rifles was felicitated by the All India Council of Human Rights, Liberties and Social justice for their impeccable record in the field of human rights. The force is presently tasked with manning/ process of moving towards manning of the border with Myanmar, with 15 battalions earmarked for the said task. The balance 31 battalions will continue with counter insurgency operations in the hinterland. There are views that the border manning and the counter insurgency forces must be from different agencies. This however, is, not only impracticable but an arrangement which is not well thought through and rife with possibilities of implosion due to lack of coordination, multiplicity of control and things going wrong because of games of one-upmanship that human beings have a propensity for.
The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority group settled in the Rakhine state, which is in the South West of Myanmar. There are 1.3 million Rohingyas in Myanmar and they are not welcome in the country as is evident from the fact that they are denied citizenship and are religiously persecuted. Hence, they try to flee the country and their plight makes them easy targets for recruitment by the ISIS and therefore should be a cause of concern.
• Change the Narrative. It is incumbent on the people of this nation to change the North-East Narrative by making the people of the region forget their sense of alienation. An earnest endeavour is required to inculcate a sense of belonging for the people of the North East. This can only be achieved if they are treated well in other parts of the country, where many of them are now moving to for work and studies. They cannot be treated as aliens in the National Capital and then expected to have a sense of oneness with the country.
• Development. Inclusive development of the entire region, which has been in a state of neglect for many decades, is the only way forward to ensure complete integration with the rest of the country.
There are several reasons for the lack of development- from the insurgencies, rampant corruption in the area and a lack of deficit as far in governance and last but not the least, the lack of genuine concern as far as successive Central Governments have been concerned. However, change is on the horizon. Keen to push development and job creation without disturbing the regional ecological balance, the present Central Government is formulating a new industrial policy for the North-Eastern region, building incentives for select sectors. Priority sectors have been identified; these include education, rural development and imparting of vocational skills. Road communications and infrastructure development too are being accorded due attention.56 Central ministries have earmarked INR 33,000 crores for various projects. It is now incumbent on the state governments/local administrations to ensure that these are correctly used and not siphoned off.
• Communication Links. Though briefly covered under the ambit of development, these would provide the necessary impetus to betterment of the region. The region has poor and limited road communications, the administration needs to focus on this aspect as it is only a good communication network that would facilitate the harnessing of the immense natural resources available in the region. The road distance within India from Kolkata to Agartala is 1526 Kms, as one has to go around Bangladesh. If a transit arrangement (with required road construction) is reached with Bangladesh, the direct distance would be reduced to only 448 Kms. This would bring the North East much closer. The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) link as and when it comes up will also prove to be a boon.
• Indo Myanmar Border Management. An indigenous approach needs to be adopted to guard the border. This would entail exercising population control by technologically advanced methods and deploying adequately (approximately a company strength) bases along the border for launch of operations and providing the force with suitable radio communication equipment. Deployment of UAVs will greatly enhance the security posture. The Assam Rifles should be given police powers to deal with smuggling of narcotics and contraband. Due liaison and coordination should be carried out with the Myanmar Army. Development of the areas adjacent to the border would also automatically enhance security. The construction of a border fence is a moot point and has both pros and cons. Management of the integrated check points also needs to be improved.
• Assam Rifles. The force should continue to be responsible for border guarding on the Indo Myanmar border as well as CI duties in the hinterland. Assigning the CI responsibility to another force would not be in the fitness of things as there would be issues related to coordination as also Assam Rifles by virtue of being ‘sons of the soil’ are better suited than any other force to operate in the hinterland. The personnel of the force, especially those on border guarding duties, need to be imparted training to handle issues related to narcotics, contraband and human trafficking.
• Signing of Accords. The signing of accords with hostile groups, willing to come forward, must be done with alacrity. The time lag between ceasefires / suspension of operations should be minimal and matters should not be allowed to dither. Aspirations of the people must be kept in mind and met to the extent feasible within the constitutional framework. Surrender and rehabilitation policies need to be holistically re-examined to make them workable and practicable.
• Act East. The Act East policy and the advantages that would accrue thereof and the development of the North-East region are two mutually inclusive issues. A necessary push to the Act East policy will innately entail benefits to the said region in terms of development and vice versa. We should therefore give the necessary focus and attention to both aspects.