Abstract--Arijit Sen

Arijit Sen, Senior Editor, Northeast India, CNN-IBN

Title: Overlooking East: Is India’s Engagement with its Look East Policy Trapped in its Own Northeast?

Manipur is a state in Northeast India closer to Burma. It has about 30 militant outfits and is under a special Army rule that exists alongside an elected government. The state with only 5 hours of electricity in a day, also has witnessed 1,500 fake encounter deaths in the last 3 decades. The state has 5 hours of electricity a day, no railways, and roads that are often non-existent or in advanced states of disrepair . Yet, policymakers promise the heavens when it comes to India’s Look East policy, of which Manipur is a gateway.

Is New Delhi overlooking Northeast? Or is this India’s indifferent regional engagement?

Since the 1950s, virtually every state in the India’s Northeast has witnessed the emergence of powerful militias that contest the Indian nation-state’s narrative of socio-economic progress and national integrity. As people who live here continue to insist, the Indian state’s brutal repression of political struggles and implementation of draconian measures—such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), which authorizes security forces to use lethal force with legal immunity—have done little to improve the situation. The Northeast also remains the gateway to Southeast Asia and India’s Look East Policy. This is a policy that represents India’s so-called efforts to extend its economic and cultural influence in nations of Southeast Asia as a regional power. Many believe this could be a game-changer in bringing peace and prosperity to Northeast India. Yet, not much has changed in the Northeast beyond the tokenism of delegation visits, a flight to Burma, or just a promise of a railway service or a bus service that shows no sign of coming into being. A veil of selective silence has been cast over the region by most of the mainstream urban-based media.

The result is that, despite the widespread violence that this area has suffered from, and the strategic importance of this frontier zone, it has been reduced to a footnote in Indian history. One may say that it has been rendered practically invisible.. In this talk, I will underline what I have observed, in the course of my reporting from the Northeast and its neighbouring countries. What does the Look East policy mean for daily life in India’s Northeast and across the border? What does it mean for people culturally close to each other? Does it hold any importance for Indo-Burmese relationship? What does it mean for militancy in the region? What does New Delhi think about this situation?

I will use audiovisual aids to illustrate the point that this underreported region is marginal also on the maps of policy, which is created far away from the area, at New Delhi.  This marginalization has implications too on India’s Look East policy, a discussion of which will conclude the presentation.