North by North East: Why it’s time for India to move beyond its ‘Look East’ policy to actually ‘Go East’

India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 27 February 2008: Ramon Magsaysay awardee, information adviser to former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri...

India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 27 February 2008: Ramon Magsaysay awardee, information adviser to former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and former editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, BG Verghese during the course of inaugurating one of my books Frontier in Flames: North East India in Turmoil (Penguin, 2007) stated: “There is no point ‘Looking East’ unless you actually ‘Go East’.” The recollection of the 2008 event is also important at this juncture, not only because of Verghese’s sage remark but because the India Habitat Centre auditorium audience who had gathered to witness the launch of my book had many important policymakers from the present Modi dispensation including the present National Security Adviser Ajit K Doval. As a matter of fact, Doval had even written a blurb for the book, stating: “Jaideep Saikia’s keen insight into national security issues has made a significant contribution to its study and analysis. As an analyst, he painstakingly marshals his facts and provides original perspective. With the sort of scholarship and application he possesses, he will continue to make important contributions to the scarce security literature in India.”

In any event, six years later, in 2014, the “Look East Policy” was rechristened by the Narendra Modi government as India’s “Act East Policy”. In so doing he sought not only to infuse a fresh spirit of cooperation with South East Asia but counter Chinese designs to stymie India’s growth engine by way of the North East that was looking up after decades of neglect. However, closer to a decade has passed since the “paradigm shift” was initiated, but the policy has not been translated on the ground. There has been neither an effort to “Go East” nor engineer a tectonic shift across the core sectors of what constituted Modi’s “Four Cs” of “culture, commerce, connectivity and capacity building”. Verghese’s dream of “Going East” was all dressed up but was not going anywhere. Or, rather it had nowhere to venture into. The gates that would have shipped Indian goods via the North East which in turn too would have resonated commercially to the hum of the transportation and the attendant frills that would have accompanied it had been shut.

If the pandemic halted the “Free Trade Regime” between India and Myanmar, the 1 February 2021 military takeover sealed the fate of any movement between the two countries. Furthermore, the Indian insurgent groups, primarily the Valley-based ones, were coerced by the Myanmarese army into signing an agreement with the junta. Operations against the Indian insurgents that had “reluctantly” been undertaken (or at least photographs of burnt down camps of Taga were later shown to India even as the inmates spirited away into the dark “Naypyidaw Night” of the Indian insurgent-Tatmadaw nexus) in the past by way of Op Sunrise-I and Op Sunrise-II would no longer be undertaken by the Myanmarese army.

In return, the Indian insurgent had to join hands with the junta to quell the rebellion that had erupted after the 1 February 2021 putsch. But the Indian insurgents — despite sops of safe haven — had been forced to join the Myanmarese army ranks and operate alongside it. An important source informed me that there have been of late desertions by the Indian insurgents. But I could not ferret out as to where the deserters had gone. There have been a few “surrenders” to the Indian authorities. Is it possible that some Indian insurgents are joining the People’s Defence Force which was battling the Myanmarese army?

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On 22 April 2022, delivering a lecture on “Future Contours of India’s Act East Policy in the Emerging Geo-strategic Environment” in Imphal in a joint venture of the Assam Rifles and the Manipur University, I reiterated Verghese’s 2008 observation. But, it was also made clear to a capacity audience in the Manipur University auditorium that unless the road from Manipur — the gateway to South East Asia — could thoroughfare the present “killing fields” of Myanmar and into places such as Mandalay and beyond, there can be no talk of “Going East”.

Indeed, when I took a tour of Moreh, the township from which the much-hyped “Act East” was to “Go East” I was met only with a deserted Integrated Check Post, a few bored street peddlers and a hostile gate to the east that was locked so forbiddingly that one could actually smell the rust on the iron gates that should have flung open the future of the North East onto a beckoning horizon. The sound of gunfire and grenade explosions that could be heard from Tamu across, I was told by the Assam Rifles officer who accompanied me to the gate, were from the battle that was raging between the Myanmarese Army and the People’s Defence Force, the latter a rag-tag band of resistance fighters which the exiled National Unity Government of Myanmar had succeeded in cobbling, but not quite together.

There was no central command and control or unified HQs to direct the resistance. I was puzzled, but my limited comprehension of the military idiom quickly surmised that there was actually sound logic, motivation and might in the disunited manner in which the People’s Defence Force and sundry ethnic militia groups such as the Chin National Army were engaging the Myanmarese army. After all, a united command would have made the task of the Myanmarese army to identify and neutralise the leaders of the resistance relatively easier, marking thereby a dismantling of the structure that oversaw its operations.

But absurd as it might seem in the mire of confusion that Myanmar has been transformed into since 1 February 2021 the best way to battle the government forces was by acting disunitedly, independent of one another. Therefore, even if the People’s Defence Force’s unit operating from say Hesin were to fall to elements of the Myanmarese army’s 266 Light Infantry Regiment in Mintha, the ones in Bogjang or Witok would not be affected. I was also not surprised to learn that 5 lakh Kyat was being offered for every defection from the junta and there have been quite a few such from the Myanmarese army.

It was, of course, left for me to fathom in solitude as to who was actually funding the People’s Defence Force and what the clandestine conduits were by which arms, supplies and money were making their way into the innards of Myanmar from all around the world. Incidentally, although I had all along been under the impression that the People’s Defence Force had the support of the people, the fact of the matter is that the groupings are collecting taxes from the populace which was not voluntary. There was more than meets the eye in the beleaguered “Land of Jade”.

The author is a conflict analyst and bestselling author of several books. He is also a Fellow, Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA. Views expressed are personal.

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India World News: North by North East: Why it’s time for India to move beyond its ‘Look East’ policy to actually ‘Go East’
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