India’s Northeast: Where India and Asean can thrive

Lying at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, the Northeast region of India is geographically and culturally remote from the heartland of India and incorporates a cultural kaleidoscope of more than 200 ethnic and tribal groups, who are ethnically, linguistically and culturally distinct. This has the potential to make it a future tourist paradise and an intriguing study for social scientists as well.
Unlike their counterparts in the rest of India who speak languages belonging to the Indo-European and Dravidian family of languages a large number of people from Northeast India speak Sino-Tibetan languages or Austro-Asiatic languages.
The 22-kilometre Siliguri strategic neck controls access to the area and represents a developmental hurdle as much as it acts as a psychological barrier to the integration of the region with the rest of India. On the other hand, India’s northeast shares a longer border of 1,643 kilometres with Southeast Asia. The geostrategic significance is something that India and Southeast Asia cannot ignore.
Any observer who has travelled to any part of the Northeast India and also to far-flung areas of Thailand away from the hustle and the bustle of Bangkok would realise the striking similarity between the two. The landscape is the same, people look the same, dress almost the same (sarongs), eat dried fish, fermented pork, and so on. The two are also bound by religious, cultural and ethnic ties that go back two millennia.
Why is it, then, that New Delhi and Bangkok have not been able to translate the resulting advantages and establish the kind of relations that they should have had? The meeting point is clearly Northeast India, which is a point of linkage where there are indelible similarities in cultural and social systems.
In this, Myanmar also has an important bearing since it is geographically contiguous with parts of Northeast India and forms a land bridge that connects India with the rest of Southeast Asia.
Scholars have highlighted reaping of the benefits from establishing associations with the unique Northeast region and the countries of Southeast Asia either on a bilateral basis, with Thailand and Myanmar or even in projects such as the Ganga-Mekong project.
To do so practically would require greater and more efficient connectivity. Once the scope for greater connectivity is ascertained, India will have to adopt policies in working toward peace and stability in the Northeast and attend to other factors. These range from non-existent infrastructure to non-conducive investment opportunities which impede the integration of Northeast India into the dynamic economics of Southeast Asia.
India can refer to the Southeast Asian roots of the Tai Ahom and tap into trans-border links based on cultural affinities, tradition and ethnicity that have historically governed relations between Northeast India and Southeast Asian countries, to create a soft power resource bank. This in turn will encourage smarter interactions leading to an increase in trade, commerce and tourism in the entire region and across international boundaries as well.
There is considerable scope to activate India’s cultural diplomacy to underpin its economic initiatives and strategic moves in the region. This cultural diplomacy can also be backed up by promoting cooperation in the fields of education, science and technology, where India has notable assets and strengths.
Educational links can provide a lasting and powerful stimulus to regional cooperation and integration. Educational institutes located in the Northeast must include courses on Southeast Asia and its languages and engage specialists in Southeast Asian studies, just as space for understanding of Northeast India should be made in Thailand.
It is high time for both India and Thailand to draw on the advantages offered by the new international actors that have created special regional dynamics. India would be required to reinvigorate its Look East policy with a definite roadmap to include plans to promote soft power in the region, strengthen existing trade and investment links, and devise a concrete strategy with actionable goals.
As for Thailand, it would need to understand the Northeast India not only with an eye for investment but as two sisters who are willing to come together for a constructive engagement. If the governments are serious about their declared intentions, then new initiatives must be taken to rejuvenate the age-old cultural and historical ties between the two peoples.
That, in turn, would perhaps be a wise step if both India and Thailand are to establish relations in a way that will lead to the creation of more secure and safe breathing space, and bring to life India’s Look-East and Thailand’s Look-West policies.
Dr Munmun Majumdar is an Associate Professor with the Department of Political Science at North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong, Meghalaya, India