India’s recasting of the “Look East policy" into “Act East" in 2014 was seen as a way to reorient its foreign policy, and act purposefully towards creating a better relationship with South-East Asian countries. The policy at its core focuses on using India’s eastern border states to improve trade relations with South-East Asia. The weakest link in this grand strategy, however, is the state of the states along the North-Eastern border. India continues to overlook the necessity of a strong border state with institutional capacity to withstand the pressures of being a launch board for a national foreign policy. The border states cannot metamorphosize into a gateway for South-East Asia without any tangible development within the states themselves.

Manipur, which shares 355km of its border with Myanmar and remains India’s most economically viable border to the south-east, forms the nucleus of India’s renewed zeal to act east, and therefore requires special focus. Manipur’s contentious merger with India and subsequent land and identity issues have resulted in a cycle of violence and insurgency movements within the state. The lack of competent governance institutions, infrastructure and economic growth has further intensified the inadequacies within the state.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa), which has been in place since 1958, has continued to alienate the local population, and act as a deterrence for focused modernizing of state police and counter-insurgency forces. Existing tensions between the majority Meitei ethnic group who occupy the valley and hill tribes like the Kukis, Nagas and Zomis have added to the troubled narrative within the state. Land is intrinsically tied to the nationhood idea for many of the ethnic tribes, and control over that land and, by extension, their identity has become a point of contention for many of these groups in Manipur. Entrenched interests within the state and outside interests have intensified existing tensions by calling for a stricter definition of who can be a resident, calling for control of outsider entry into the state, and greater autonomy for the hill district.

The signing of the Naga framework accord between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) and the National Democratic Alliance government in 2015 has also increased speculation about the territorial disintegration of Manipur. Manipur’s northern districts have been long claimed by Nagas as part of the greater Nagalim territory. Disputes over these lands in the 1990s resulted in targeted attacks against Kukis and tensions between Nagas and other tribes. The creation of the seven new districts (on 9 December), with at least three districts dividing the Naga-dominated areas in northern Manipur, has given new life to this tension, resulting in the continuation of a two-month economic blockade and now a curfew.

The Union and state governments must come together to act on these issues. Phased removal of Afspa and implementation of the Sixth Schedule, which gives autonomy to tribal districts, rather than an inner-line permit which will restrict the entry of people, will give people greater control over their narratives. Resolutions involving the various tribes along with possible administrative control over certain regions dominated by the Nagas can ensure better governance in the state. It will also help in removing incentives for the rise of smaller insurgent groups and remove the onus for maintaining peace from the state and on to the groups themselves.

Manipur has historical and cultural contiguity with Myanmar, apart from having a clear navigable, active trading route with Myanmar. The roadway between Moreh in India and Tamu in Myanmar is the core of trade and connectivity to South-East Asia. India’s planned trilateral highway starts from Moreh and is designed to cross Myanmar, extending all the way to Mae Sot in Thailand. Legalizing, securing, and streamlining this existing natural trade route will ensure economic connectivity remains, and benefits the state.

As infrastructure remains the weakest link and projects already identified by the government need speeding up, focus on developing Moreh as a smart city will help improve infrastructure and will also be a vital step in its development as the main trading point on the India-Myanmar border. Manipur, after Mizoram, remains the port of choice for drugs and arms originating from the golden triangle on the Myanmar, Laos, Thailand border. Better security infrastructure, a narcotics agency with more powers, better equipment, a modernized border force, and streamlining of trading posts can also help stop illegal cross border imports.

All of these developments need to be analysed against the backdrop of the Manipur state elections in 2017. The entry of a second national-level party into Manipur could end 15 years of single-party rule. Political competition would improve the efficiency of the government and assuage the distrust of citizens towards the political system.

Manipur, along with other eastern states, needs to be made a stakeholder in any foreign policy that involves acting east. Development in the region cannot be seen as an incidental benefit to a national foreign policy. An Act East policy that uses the growth and regional impact of a stronger, better-governed Manipur will have far greater impact on India’s commitment to its eastern neighbours.

Hamsini Hariharan and Priyadarshini Ravichandran are with The Takshashila Institution.

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