Act East Policy and the Ongoing Manipur Ethnic Conflict: Navigating Challenges for Regional Stability
H. Luaisangmuan – Student, Kautilya
The Indian government launched the Act East Policy in 2014 based on 4 C’s – Culture, Commerce, Connectivity, and Capacity Building as an extension of the Look East Policy to strengthen economic, strategic, and cultural ties with Southeast Asian countries. While the policy has resulted in positive progress in various sectors like the development sector, its implementation is fraught with difficulties, particularly in states such as Manipur. Manipur, a northeastern Indian state, is dealing with a long-standing ethnic conflict that intersects with the Act East Policy objectives. Manipur shares a 390 km border with Myanmar, which poses as a gateway for the South Asian Corridor and the geopolitical location of this region can serve to enhance India’s partnerships with both the West and the East through its connectivity and possible trade routes.
Manipur, regarded as a critical entry point into Southeast Asia, making it an important component of India’s “Act East Policy.” Nonetheless, due to protracted ethnic tension in Manipur, India’s northeastern state, India’s ambitious goals of establishing connectivity with Southeast Asia and other regions may face obstacles. In the long run, any instability in the Northeast region of India poses a significant challenge to India’s strategic interests. If the unrest continues, it may impede India’s determined efforts to strengthen ties and economic cooperation with nations in its eastern sphere.
The Act East Policy: Goals and Objectives
The Act East Policy, which was launched in 2014, aims to strengthen India’s ties with its eastern neighbours, particularly the ASEAN nations. It aims to boost trade, investment, cultural exchanges, and connectivity. The policy seeks to transform India’s northeastern states into regional cooperation hubs, leveraging their strategic location and potential to facilitate trade and cultural exchanges.
The Ongoing Manipur Ethnic Conflict: A Complex Landscape
Manipur, often referred to as the “Land of Jewels,” is home to diverse ethnic communities, each with its distinct language, culture, and traditions. However, the state has experienced a complex ethnic conflict stemming from demands for autonomy, identity recognition, and territorial claims. Manipur comprises of three main communities, vis a vis, Meitei, Naga and Zo (Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zomi-Hmar), Different communities vie for recognition and representation, leading to tensions and clashes which has been long standing ever since the kingdom of Manipur was merged into the Indian Union. The conflict has also been exacerbated by issues related to land, resources, and political power. Ethnic Violence have erupted on May 3rd and has been going on since then. As of 1st September, 134 individuals have lost their lives, 357+ churches burned, 4550+ houses and 275+ burned while 45000+ individuals have been displaced. The recent outbreak of violence in Manipur has opened a pandora box of possibilities.
The colonial creation of Northeast India is home to a cross border community in which certain ethnic groups are living in modern India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. In a dynamic and fluidic space which the Zo people (Zomi-Kuki-Hmar-Mizo) occupy, where kinship and familial ties cut across several state territorial boundaries, ethnic strife, riots and conflict may yet prove to be fertile grounds upon which national security concerns like political security which signifies protecting the sovereignty of the Government, various kinds of external pressures and the political system are threatened. Instability in this dynamic landscape of the Northeast, and the consequent collapse of law and order might thwart India’s very own interests with its bilateral relations with adjoining nations around the conflict zone especially Manipur and the Northeast Region. In a joint letter to Governor Anusiya Uikey, 21 Parliamentarians from the Indian National Developmental, Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) parties who visited relief camps in Churachandpur, Moirang, and Imphal during a two-day tour of the State in July stated, “It is established beyond doubt that the State machinery has completely failed to control the situation for the last almost three months.”
Interplay between Act East Policy and Ethnic Conflict/
The Act East Policy’s focus on connectivity and economic growth might unintentionally obscure the importance of ethnic identities. There is a danger of marginalising local communities as development projects and investments flood Manipur, possibly escalating ethnic tensions.
Manipur and Myanmar are neighbours to the east and have a shared history, economy, and culture. The Act East Policy aims to increase cross-border cooperation, but in order to do so, it must navigate the complexities of the ethnic conflict such as the historical marginalising Hill Tribes in Manipur and land issues and make sure that all communities stand to gain from such cooperation.
The Act East Policy’s improved connectivity can promote cross-cultural dialogue and interpersonal interactions. However, the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur, which might pose a threat to India’s security threat internally and externally remains a setback for India’s aspiration in exerting its dominance in the South Asian region. For instance,without stability, it becomes impossible to carry out infrastructure projects aimed at enhancing connectivity or to guarantee the unhindered flow of traffic along existing transportation routes. This should be handled delicately to prevent widening gulfs and unintentionally igniting conflict.
Strategies for Harmonizing Act East Policy and Conflict Resolution
The socioeconomic improvement of marginalised communities must be given top priority in development initiatives. This can be done by proportional representation of local communities in decision-making since they are the grassroot player and making sure that their issues are taken into consideration.
To find ways to end the ethnic conflict in which India pays a hefty sum, the Indian government needs to actively engage with all grassroot players. Building forums for discussion and negotiation can promote understanding among parties and aid in reaching agreements.
Behiang village, in the Churachandpur district of Manipur, has been identified as the “second corridor to Southeast Asia.” It can be a trading point for products such as betel nuts, cigarettes, and food. However, during my July 2022 visit, I learned that the local chief was concerned about needing more policy consultation. To fully develop Behiang as a crucial Southeast Asian link point, the government should emphasise its strategic relevance while protecting indigenous peoples’ rights, customs, and culture. It’s important to respect the diversity and heritage of Manipur’s ethnic communities while fostering cultural exchanges. Instead of minimising these differences, programmes should be created to celebrate them.
The Act East Policy holds the promise of strengthening India’s bonds with Southeast Asian nations while fostering stability and prosperity in its northeastern regions. However, instability poses hurdles for connectivity and development projects. To ensure success, resolving the intricate ethnic conflicts in Manipur is imperative. A comprehensive approach by the Indian government, prioritising inclusive development, conflict resolution, cultural sensitivity, and cross-border cooperation, is essential. This critical endeavour ensures the region’s long-term prosperity by safeguarding cultural heritage and managing conflicts that threaten to marginalise or displace smaller indigenous populations. Large-scale projects like the Act East Policy should prioritise inclusive, sustainable development while respecting the cultural and environmental heritage of all stakeholders.
*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.