India’s North East: Geostrategic Relevance Amidst Ethnic Conundrum


The North East Region (NER) essentially presents a mosaic of cultures, lucrative economic opportunities and numerous political and geostrategic alliances that ought to be pursued in the realm of national security concerns. Unfortunately, perception created about this region is that this region is characterized by “inhospitable terrain, under-developed infrastructure, tribal rivalry, immense ethnicity, hostile mindset, illegal migration, inward-looking populace” etc. These ‘adjectives’ are liberally used by a large section of society to describe India’s NER. Ironically, a considerable segment of those who copiously assign these expletives and polemic invectives are those who have made only ‘cosmetic’ visits to NER, either as tourist or as a member of some of the official delegations. Contrast it with the views of research scholars and passionate philanthropists, who dare to venture into these remote areas and copiously interact with the adorable tribal populace to get a real insight into our NER. It is because of these ‘anthropological adventurists’ that the geostrategic, socio-economic, and cultural relevance of this region along with the unimaginable affability, warmth, and gregariousness of the people of North-East is comprehensively projected and meticulously understood. A catalytic boost to their efforts in promoting Northeast is rendered by our ‘uniformed fraternity’ of Defence, Para-military, and CAPF’ personnel, as also by some of the civil servants, who narrate their experiences gained by them while they were serving in those remote areas.

Unique Geostrategic Challenges

The unique challenge for the seven North-Eastern States stems from their geographical and geopolitical dimensions which saddles them with the burden of sharing their state boundaries as international borders with five of our neighbouring countries, including one of them being our principal adversary.

Engrained in this boundary dynamics is the challenge of numerous disputed areas along the international borders, un-demarcated border segments, disputed border pillars and contested pockets of land.

Historically also, this region has witnessed ‘foreign interest’ on numerous occasions. Burma (Now Myanmar) ruled a large part of this NER before it fell in the hands of the Britishers in 1826 through the Treaty of Yandabo. The agriculturally rich Kabaw Valley opposite Manipur continues to be part of Myanmar. Similarly, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had always demonstrated interests in the economic potential of our NER. On the Northern front, the irksome designs of China in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, combined with their intent of dominating northern parts of Myanmar through “trade and debt” dynamics, will always remain a cause of worry for India in the realms of geostrategic domain. Trade routes from China to India via Burma (now Myanmar) add another dimension to the geostrategic tilt in favour of China.

Unfortunately, we as a nation, are obsessed with a mindset of ‘competing’ with China rather than focusing on a policy of ‘containing’ it. We must cognize and comprehend that the economic might of China cannot be disregarded. In the same breath, we also ought to fathom the fact that in our desire to dominate any geographical or geostrategic region, our economy will play a governing role. Since we are way behind China in economic prowess, we would address our ‘strategic interests’ better if we focus on ‘containing’ China rather than ‘competing’ with her. Therefore, to contain China we ought to remain focused on our strategic stability in the region.

The said stability in NER can come about if our polity sheds its obsession with electoral politics and focuses on a strategic vision for the NER. The prolonged instability that had adversely affected the NER had led to the tendency of frequently requisitioning Army to restore normalcy or to render aid to civil authority. It needs to be understood that this deployment of Army will always be at the cost of Army’s primary role of defending our national frontiers. And we also need to appreciate that this calling-in of Army augurs well for China’s strategic interests since this entails reducing Army’s deployment along India-China border. We therefore ought to ensure that Army is not saddled with internal security tasks which can best be left to Police and to the Para Military Force, the Assam Rifles. This Force i.e. Assam Rifles has a legacy of being with the people of North East for almost two hundred years. They are rightly called as ‘Sentinels of the North East’ and ‘Friends of the North East People.’ Not only are they battle-hardened by having fought ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Army in all wars but have also demonstrated enviable prowess in counter insurgency operations in Jammu & Kashmir, in NER and even against LTTE in Sri Lanka. Assam Rifles also has a commendable record in guarding Indo Myanmar Border and in recovery of drugs, timber, areca nuts and smuggled goods worth crores of rupees. Even during the ongoing Manipur crisis, their contributions in saving hundreds of lives of innocent locals has not gone un-noticed by the civil society.

Assam Rifles also has the capability to contribute in our ‘south-eastward pursuits’, as part of our ‘Act East Policy’. It can play a pivotal role of providing a platform for anchoring our endeavours that aid our Act East policy. Another dimension that needs to be analysed regarding our Act East policy is that a mere land-based approach to act east through Indo-Myanmar border may not yield the desired results.

Therefore, a maritime dimension needs to be dovetailed into this policy. Assam Rifles, who is affiliated with the Indian Coast Guard, can play a significant role in projecting our soft power in SE Asia through the maritime route. Both, the Assam Rifles, and Indian Coast Guard can have a well chalked out program to establish connect with the SE Asia and enhance our influence there.

The Free Movement Regime (FMR) agreement with Myanmar too, merits a de-novo look. This free movement permits the locals on either side of the Indo-Myanmar Border (IMB) to travel upto 16 Kilometers across the border for a stay of upto 72 hours. Any attempts at tinkering with this free movement is likely to be resisted by the locals and may not augur well for the bilateral relations.

The NER thus holds immense strategic significance due to its unique geographic location sharing borders with Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Siliguri Corridor adds a sensitive facet to its geostrategic significance. Similarly, the narrow ‘finger like’ enclave of Vijayanagar in Arunachal Pradesh which juts into Myanmar, needs to be favourably exploited for projecting our soft power in the northern regions of Myanmar so as to contest the growing influence of China in that region. The trade through Border Haats along Indo-Myanmar Border also needs to be resuscitated with verve and dynamism.

Gateway to the Southeast Asia

Needless to emphasise that the unique geographic location of the NER makes it a gateway to the SE Asia. In fact, this NER serves as the fulcrum for fostering friendship in this region and projecting our soft power which has abundant acceptance amongst the regional populace of SE Asia. The commonalities of culture, fervent ethnic bonding, the Buddhism connect with SE Asia and tourism prospects in the region are all such factors that are pivotal to promote our Act East Policy. The region ought to play an influential role in contributing to our SE forays particularly because this NER is a repertoire of genuine, authentic, and veritable soft power.

The geostrategic relevance can further be bolstered by showing urgency in connecting the ports of Chittagong, Sittwe and Haldia with this region. Free movement of goods through Myanmar and Bangladesh will enable the landlocked NER to have an easy access to the Bay of Bengal thereby facilitating the ‘economic milking’ of this region.

Ethnic Conundrum of India’s North East

The fallacy of clubbing all the ethnicities of NER, despite plentifully abundant diversities, and giving them a collective identity as “North East” is perhaps the greatest blooper that the nation has done on the people of this region. Distinct cultural traits of each of these diversities, adequately laced with their tribal heritage and legacy, afford them such identities which can never be clubbed into a singular regional identity governed merely by single entity as North-East India. Any attempts at tinkering with the ethnicity of the region will attract violent retaliation by the locals as it stokes their fears about “identity-crisis” and unites them to retaliate with both, vigour, and valour. India needs to respect the respective ethnicities of these North Eastern states and desist from applying the same yardstick for each. They are all different from each other and take great pride in being different.

It is time for the nation to understand that all the states of the North East, sans Manipur (as of now), are by and large, in a state of relative peace and calm. Much distance has been traversed in this direction by the efforts of various governments in the past and the current dispensation. The people of North East do have the knack of sifting the chaff from the grain and have adequately understood the futility of towing the lines of subversive elements. They have fully understood that the erstwhile ethnic turmoil in the North-East region was certainly an outcome of their ‘induced’ anxiety to preserve ethnic identities. But now they have tasted the fruits of ‘peace’ and would not like to to sail back in the backwaters of insurgency, militancy, and terrorism, which largely was fuelled by the aspirations of some of the “political as well as tribal leaders.”

Conflict resolution has now reached a stage where North East is ushering in an era of peace and prosperity; and in certain case even opulence and magnificence as is visible in cities like, Guwahati, Shillong, Kohima, Imphal, Aizawl, Agartala, Tawang etc. The ethnic conundrum that was oft exploited by diverse agencies is seemingly showing a downward trend and numerous agreements that have been signed between various governments over the last few decades are a pointer towards return of normalcy in the region.

Way Forward

The turbulence and frustrations in the NER are certainly waning. The cleavage that uncouthly exposed geographical isolation, yawning communication gap with rest of India, gross obliviousness to the ethnicity and tribal dynamics of the region has now appositely been covered. The ethnic fault-lines have been addressed, except of course in Manipur, which somehow has been an irksomely vexatious blot on the overall mosaic that depicts a relatively peaceful North East. The annoyingly long stand-off in Manipur should certainly be a cause of great concern and uneasy trepidation for both, the Central as well as the State Government. A quick, rational, and pragmatic solution ought to be thought through at the earliest lest it drags the state back into subversion and exploitation by external forces.

Manipur, as a perceived ‘trouble-spot’ can certainly gallop back to normalcy if requisite thrust is accorded by the policy makers. A suggested 5-point approach in this direction had been elaborated by me earlier through the print as well as well as electronic media. The same can be worked upon and improved by incorporating the views and suggestions of eminent citizens and specialists from the region as well as from other parts of the country. These five points termed by me as ‘ABCDE option’ aim at addressing following dimensions in Manipur:

  • Accountability. Assign accountability for turbulence and turmoil in Manipur.
  • Book Defaulters.
  • Collective Effort. Collective effort by eminent persons from all walks of life.
  • Disarm Civil Society. Ensure ‘looted’ arms are recovered and society disarmed.
  • Enlist Youth. Enlist and enrol in Decision Making process for finding solutions.

The seemingly ‘negative’ role of some of the media should also be held accountable keeping in view the geostrategic importance of the North east.

The geographical zone of the NER and its proximity to SE Asia makes it a fulcrum for India’s Act East Policy and will be pivotal for promoting commercial prospects and connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region as well. The region certainly holds geopolitical and geostrategic significance and has rightly been termed as the “growth engine” and “Economic powerhouse” for India and therefore merits rapt attention by one and all.


Lieutenant General Sukhdeep Sangwan, PVSM, AVSM, SM** superannuated on 31 May 2021 as Director General Assam Rifles after four decades of distinguished service. He is a visiting faculty at Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), LBSNAA, XLRI, NTPC, IBMs, JK Business School, ICFAI, Yantra India Limited etc. He is also a TeD speaker. He has authored a book titled “Integrated Force Projection by India.”

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