Sinlung /
26 June 2012

Silk Route To Northeast India

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Northeast is awash with money. But the money is often treated as Delhi’s bribe to once rebellious tribes to make their peace with Central power.

My Nor-theastern frien-ds must be laughing up their sleeves. Dismissed as “chinks” in Indian universities, beaten up or even murdered in some cities, arrested as Tibetan protesters in Delhi and required to prove their citizenship at airports and hotels (Mumbai’s Taj Mahal once demanded that a former chief minister of Nagaland, Hokishe Sema, produce his passport), they have suddenly become the flavour of the month, thanks to two outstanding women.

The global acclaim for Aung San Suu Kyi has brought home the realisation that the stampede to do business with the new Burma will leave India behind unless connectivity is improved with the three border states, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur. Then, there’s American secretary of state Hillary Clinton harping on a New Silk Road linking Central and South Asia with Southeast Asia. It will “connect markets, businesses and consumers from the Caspian to the Ganges and beyond,” she says.

It may be a worthy idea but doesn’t seem relevant in this context. The Silk Road was the route the Italian traveller, Marco Polo, took to (and from) China. Any new variant of it should logically connect that country with Europe. Contemporary US strategic needs in Central and Southeast Asia don’t have to be legitimised by being forced into the straitjacket of alien tradition. The needs are valid in themselves and India has a stake in them.

It’s good, therefore, that the US consul-general in Kolkata, Dean R. Thompson, travelled recently to Aizawl, capital of landlocked Mizoram, to remind listeners that “Northeast India plays an important role as the region connects India with neighbours in the east.” Mr Thompson might have added that only 250 km of the region’s outer perimeter touches India. The remaining 4,750 km borders China, Burma, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, he also organsied the first-ever “Taste of America” festival in Agartala, Tripura’s capital.

Geography alone doesn’t separate the Northeast from the rest of India. Ethnicity is even more divisive. When it comes to language and culture, the descendants of the Aryans who people the Gangetic plain have more in common with Pakistanis than with the Northeast’s Tibeto-Burman tribes. Note that when Dr Manmohan Singh spoke of connectivity in a speech that Ms Clinton invokes to sell her New Silk Road, he mentioned “breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul”, not meals in Kohima, Imphal and Yangon.

Let’s be fair, the government hasn’t totally ignored the Northeast all these years. Jawaharlal Nehru’s concern for minority cultures prompted him to appoint the eminent British anthropologist, Verrier Elwin, anthropological adviser to the government of what is now Arunachal Pradesh. The North-Eastern Council was established in 1971 as to develop the eight Northeastern states. The North-Eastern Development Finance Corporation was incorporated in 1995, and the ministry of development of North-eastern region set up in 2001. Seven years later came the “Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the Northeast Region: Vision 2020” document with the objective of banishing poverty by that year.

Cultural integrity isn’t as much a major concern any longer because many north-easterners seem quite happy to front for businessmen from the plains. Bangladeshi infiltration — a major demographic feature of Assam, Tripura and Manipur — is slowly diluting racial exclusiveness. Money isn’t the problem either. The Northeast is awash with it. But the money is often treated as Delhi’s bribe to once rebellious tribes like the Nagas, Mizos, Meteis and others to make their peace with the Central power. It isn’t used for the development that the Northeast needs so desperately.

Now, Dr Singh’s visit to Yangon has focused attention on the need for improved connectivity to and through Burma. This is certainly necessary but it isn’t a new idea. The far-sighted Lord Dalhousie, India’s governor general from 1848 to 1856, dreamt of a railway line from Singapore to Constantinople and beyond, with a branch track meandering up to Lhasa. The Asian Development Bank has taken up a part of the project.

There was enthusiastic talk at a recent informal meeting on the New Silk Road with Donald Lu, the US charge d’affaires in Delhi, about a $120 million highway to link Mizoram with Burma’s Sittwe port. My mind raced back to the 1950s when Sittwe was Akyab and two boys from there were boarders at my school in Calcutta. I envied them not because they came from a foreign land called Burma (no Myanmar then) but because they flew home even for long weekends. I had never been on an aeroplane then. Union of Burma Airlines ran a regular Calcutta-Akyab service.

What worries me is whether grand new plans to restore connectivity will materialise.

Jaswant Singh’s ambitious Mekong-Ganga project, launched in 2000, hasn’t progressed much. The hopes it aroused of direct flights from Imphal or Guwahati to South-east Asia petered out. The hugely popular 2004 India-Asean car rally (slogan: “Networking People and Economies”) wasn’t repeated. The organisers of two magnificent Singapore exhibitions in 2008 (“KaalaChakra” and “On the Nalanda Trail”) had a terrible time persuading Indian museums to lend them artifacts gathering dust in their warehouses, unseen even by Indians.

Geographical contiguity doesn’t need stressing. As we say in Bengali, you don’t need a mirror to see the bracelet on your wrist. Some of us are also aware of Suvarnabhumi, the Land of Gold, that once encompassed the entire region. But can Suvarnabhumi be regained? That I don’t know.

A terrible lethargy overwhelms foreign policy. Mr Lu didn’t answer my question about whether South Block officials are as keen on the New Silk Road as Ms Clinton. Perhaps, even those who like the idea object to an inaccurate name.


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