India can pursue its ‘Act East’ policy via Bangladesh, but with caution

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 The situation in Myanmar post the 1 February 2021 military takeover has become murkier in recent times with an intensification of the civil war that is being waged between the Myanmar army and the People’s Defence Force (PDF). A recent visit by the author to Moreh (Manipur), the township that would have acted as the Indian gateway to its “Act East Policy”, informed that Myanmar of the present is not an option for “Going East” in the near future. There is no sign of the restoration of normalcy in Myanmar and by all reckoning the PDF, having joined hands with the ethnic militias in the country, seems to be gaining in strength.

The “Look East Policy” which was rechristened by the Modi dispensation as India’s “Act East Policy” in 2014 to instil a new spirit of collaboration with South East Asia as also to offset Chinese designs to thwart India’s growth engine by way of the North East that was looking up after decades of abandonment has come to naught. The gates that would have shipped Indian goods via the North East which in turn too would have resonated commercially to the hum of activity that would have accompanied it have been shut.

It is in the backdrop that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s statement in the “NADI-3” (Natural Allies in Development and Interdependence) Conclave 2022 in Guwahati on 28-29 May 2022 about restoration of cross-border links with Bangladesh with the North Eastern states gains in importance. Echoing the EAM’s statement, his Bangladesh counterpart, Dr AK Abdul Momen, stated that the agreement on the use of the Chattogram and Mongla in Bangladesh for the movement of goods to and from India would be a milestone. Indeed, even Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in the same Conclave, elegantly spoke of “fifty riverine systems between India and Bangladesh (that) beautifully weave in into one another” and ones that would be illustrative “of a future buzzing with promise”. While the vista, on the face of it, is a welcome one, for the landlocked North East, especially as the Myanmar option has been closed, there were quarters which also voiced that the issue of illegal migration from the erstwhile East Pakistan into Assam might have to be addressed as a result of the opening up.

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It is in this scenario that a fresh look needs to be taken at both the “Act East” policy as well as the security matrix (read: illegal migration) that governs the North East.

The gateway to South East Asia and beyond which had been envisaged and that would have been the causeway for the “Act East” policy by way of Myanmar, as aforesaid, is no longer an option. Forward Indian engineering could have waded through the morass of the “killing fields” that Myanmar has been transformed into by a variety of means, but India did not take advantage of the instability in Myanmar and all the cards are either in the hands of the insurgent groups, the warlords or the Chinese. Attempts to even enter Myanmar would be met with fierce resistance.

India’s bonhomie with Sheikh Hasina’s dispensation, as have been voiced by the dignitaries of both India and Bangladesh, provides the North East an inroad into Bangladesh. New Delhi can seize the opportunity and open new axes via the North East into Bangladesh from where the latter’s seaports can ferry Indian goods by the sea route to South East Asia and beyond. Some of the important routes are the ones from Agartala via Akhaura, from Dawki (Meghalaya) via Tamabil, from Sutarkandi (Assam), from Srimantapur (Tripura) via Bibirbazar.

Goods that would be manufactured in mainland India and which have a ready access to the North East can reach the seaports of Bangladesh via the identified routes from the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. To that end, correct infrastructure and provisions such as container depots, cold storage facilities and seamless highways would have to be developed adding to the growth trajectory of the region.

Indeed, the “Act East” Policy is intertwined with India’s North East Policy. To that end, the development of a conduit from the North East via Bangladesh and one which would be able to circumvent the problems that have arisen as a result of the instability in Myanmar presents itself as a veritable alternative. However, there is apprehension that migration from Bangladesh could witness an incremental rise as a result. Furthermore, the regional seat of the Islamist agenda that Bangladesh is slowly turning out to be could result in the entry of radical elements into Assam in a manner that would be detrimental for the nation’s health. Indeed, several cadres of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansarullah Bangla Team have been apprehended in Assam in recent months and a scenario that has massive radicalisation of educated youth from the minority community seems to be on the Islamist plate. The present setting, therefore, portrays an interesting dilemma between security and development.

A calibrated cost-benefit analysis, however, seems to be of the opinion that even as Bangladesh is carefully utilised as a land corridor for the ferrying of goods from the North East to the seaports of the country for onward connectivity with the ASEAN nations, a correct mechanism must be put in place whereby the “opening up” does not act as an “Open Season” for the illegal Bangladeshi migrant who seeks lebensraum in India.

The author has visited and studied the US-Mexican border way back in 2003 when he was selected by the United States Department of State to visit the United States as an “International Visitor”. India should draw lessons from the robust border management in that part of the world and replicate it in the India-Bangladesh border. Furthermore, Bangladesh has signed several MoUs with South East Asian and African countries in the past few years whereby legal export of labour takes place.

India, even as it inks an economic blueprint for thorough faring Bangladesh in order to reach the Bay of Bengal, should insert a full-bodied prerequisite by which the entry into India by Bangladeshis desirous of labour is regulated by instituting “Integrated Check Posts” and “Land Custom Stations” that would be robustly manned and monitored. It should also cull from the Bangladesh experience with other countries to which it is exporting bona fide labour. Indeed, if proper care is taken, the opportunity which the “new vista” would provide might actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise and frustrate the “illegal mechanisms” that have been the bane of India-Bangladesh relationship by way of illegal migration for about a century.

Pragmatism demands that drawbacks that have emerged to hinder progress should not act as impediments. Instead, “out-of-the-box” thought must manoeuvre “beyond-the-horizon-planning” and guide both security and development and steer a scenario away from what seems to be a dismal situation. Setting off the “Act East” policy with spot on safeguards that prevents any compromise to India’s security and which also provides seamless development should be the mantra as the North East readies to “Go East”.

The author is a conflict analyst and author of several books on security and strategy. Views expressed are personal.

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India can pursue its ‘Act East’ policy via Bangladesh, but with caution
India can pursue its ‘Act East’ policy via Bangladesh, but with caution
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