AROUND THE REGION
Manipur holds the key to 'Look East'
An old Manipuri folktale hopes for prosperity once “the eastern gates are opened”. But opening the eastern gates for Manipur -- and India -- must begin with return of peace and stability in the state itself. If Manipur remains disturbed, as it currently is, it is difficult to see how it can function as India's overland bridge to south-east Asia. Let me explain why.
The Modi government may be faulted for many a lapse but none can overlook its huge push for improving connectivity in the Northeast. Look at the speed at which the broad gauging of the Barak Valley railway section has been achieved. Now the work to extend railway to Manipur is going on at considerable speed.
One of the factors that were long delaying the work on the broad gauging of the rail network in Barak valley was the extortion and terror unleashed by militants in the two hill districts of Assam – Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong. Much like Tripura could only finish work and open the rail link to Agartala only after the decimation of the NLFT and ATTF, the broad gauging of Barak Valley's rail network has gained speed after the Dimasa-Karbi insurgents have lost teeth.
But this is not to say the push given to the project by the Modi government. The opening of the broad gauge rail service to Silchar from Lumding will surely be one major point when the BJP campaign starts for the 2016 Assam elections. But what if parties ask for votes after doing in a year what previous governments failed to do in 17 years!
Now after Barak valley, the work on extending the railway to Imphal and then on to Moreh on the Manipur-Myanmar border is in full swing. But Manipur's thriving insurgents are not making it easy for the contractors. A top Calcutta based firm has been slapped with huge demand notice for 'tax' by at least five insurgent outfits. That is affecting work.
It will be further affected if there are road blockades, so common in Manipur since the pro-Nagalim groups started using it to pressurise the Centre and the state government to concede their demands. Blockades will disrupt supply of crucial construction material and movement of machinery. With the pro-ILP groups threatening an agitation again if the three bills passed by the state assembly this year are not implemented, uncertainty is gripping all those working on the Silchar-Jiribam-Imphal section. President Pranab Mukherjee has not given assent for the three bills without which it will not be law. The Centre has not pushed for Presidential assent because the government in Delhi is BJP and the one in Imphal is Congress.
But if the Modi government has to really 'act east' and expedite the road and rail expansion into Manipur to help open the 'eastern gates', it has to ensure peace in the state. It has to bring to the table as many insurgent groups as possible -- and ensure that those like NSCN(I-M) who are negotiating don't resort to extortion. Least it needs to do is to ensure no statewide agitation engulfs Manipur because that will hugely delay work on the railway and the roads that are critical to connectivity with south-east Asia.
Trouble is if the three bills are implemented, it will surely placate the Meiteis but it will upset the tribals. That was evident when the bills were passed. Violence erupted in Churachandpur immediately and despite beinjg rivals over contesting homeland demands, Naga and Kuki tribesmen made common ground to oppose the three bills.
For the Modi government, therefore, Manipur remains the key to the challenge of turning round the Northeastern region. With insurgency decimated in Tripura and the state serving as an excellent opening to Bangladesh for access of Chittagong port, one can say the 'western gates' have opened. A very friendly government in Dhaka has only helped the process. Work on several rail and road, water and internet connectivity between Bangladesh and Tripura has unlocked the promise of undoing the loss of the pre-Partition networks.
But unless a Tripura happens in Manipur, 'Act East' will remain a cliche.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His forthcoming book "Agartala Doctrine" is being published by Oxford University Press. )