Manipur Sangai Festival as a way to ‘Look East Policy’

Rikee Thangjam
This essay considers the possibilities for improving connections between India and Southeast Asian Nations through a tourism festival. It will go through how India initially became interested in Southeast Asia and how tourism might help Manipur thrive in the world. Manipur is a State located in the North Eastern region, India. The State shares State border with Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram and shares international border with Myanmar. There are various communities living in the State which have diverse customs, religion, rich culture, and traditions. The annual Manipur Sangai Festival which takes place in Manipur receives the requisite attention. The inquiry is that is it feasible for successful execution of the Look East Policy through the Manipur Sangai Festival?
Historical Development
From the early 1950s to the early 1970s trade between India and Southeast Asian Nations was minimal as both are found to have different trading tactics. Even though there is some improvement in India’s regional security and its scientific and economic potentials, India could not flourish its relationship with Southeast Asia in the 1970s. India was involved with the Gulf at that time and did not see the need to lavish diplomatic and economic attention to Southeast Asia. Due to the Gulf war and India’s ability to meet some of its oil needs by the mid-1980s reduced the relevance of the oil rich Nations in its foreign policy goals. Further, India was extremely concerned about the rise of China’s powers, both military and non-military, which was an outcome of the development programme and the transfer of advanced technology from the West (Ayoob, 1990). India lost a significant trading ally with the fall of the Soviet Union (Haokip, 2015). India was consequently under economic pressure to find alternatives. Southeast Asia, in particular ASEAN, seems to be a significant realistic choice from the standpoint of India’s policy planners (Ayoob, 1990). The realization of Southeast Asia’s strategic and economic relevance to India drove India’s desire to have regional cooperation with ASEAN (Haokip, 2015). In post-Cold War, India’s Look East Policy was established in 1991 by the then Narasimha Rao administration to deepen political connections, increase economic integration, and build security cooperation with Southeast Asian Nations. Because of its vicinity to Southeast Asia and China, the North Eastern region seems to be an ideal setting in India’s endeavour to look East. The societies are said to have unique ethnic and cultural identities that are more comparable to those of Southeast Asia and China than to the rest of India. The initiative made by the Government of India is the Look East Policy, which emphasizes North East India as the entry point to Southeast Asia (Haokip, 2015). In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Look East Policy was succeeded by the Act East Policy. This policy’s goal is to strengthen economic cooperation, cultural links, and strategic relationships with Nations in the Asia-Pacific region by ongoing involvement at bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels, while giving much attention to North Eastern States of India.
Development of Tourism in Manipur
The Look East Policy provide a chance to address the issue of market accessibility in the North Eastern region. It offers a wide range of potential for developing tourism in the region. Tourism may be established and promoted everywhere, and it is a sensible move for regional development. A strong tool for socio-economic development is tourism. It creates jobs for both the skilled and less skilled segments of the population. The anticipated economic improvement is among the main drivers for an area to offer itself as a tourist destination. Tourism may persuade local Governments to develop infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, roads, power, telephone, and public transportation networks, which can enhance inhabitants’ quality of life while also facilitating tourism. (Lyndoh and Rani, 2008).
With its rich cultural and religious heritage, as well as its variety of natural attractions, Manipur has room for expansion in the tourist industry. In the light of India’s Look East Policy, Manipur and its tourist strategy acquire greater significance. The Government is actively pursuing a distinctive brand to promote Manipur tourism as the entrance to South East Asia (Lhouvum, 2016). The growth of the Manipur tourist sector is crucial for the State’s prosperity. The Look East Policy may excel in part attributed to the tourism industry (Nongthombam, 2014).
To introduce Manipur as a tourist destination, the Manipur Tourism Department brought on the Sangai Festival. The festival is an annual tourism festival which is held in Manipur in the month of November from 21st to 30th. The festival was earlier referred to as Manipur Tourism Festival and in 2010 it was renamed as Manipur Sangai Festival. The festival is named after the State animal which is brow antlered deer, Sangai. This festival is a sign that populace in Manipur is giving efforts in its relationship with nature, culture, and tradition. In this festival, Manipur shows its culture, art, craft, music, indigenous sports, handloom and handicraft, attractive natural landscape, adventure activities and organized stalls from various parts of the States, from other States of India and from other countries as a buy and sell section which include food, clothes, handloom, and handicraft products.
Why did the Sangai Festival develop?
According to Manipur Tourism Policy 2022, Manipur can be the gateway to Southeast Asia. The goal of such a policy is to maximize Manipur’s tourism potential by enticing people and attracting investments for the growth of hotels, restaurants, transportation, communication, heritage sites, homestays, and business ventures. These advancements will support employment growth and generate income. The local population sees tourism as a possible source for boosting the State’s economy and jobs (Nongthombam, 2014). Here, one may observe how the State Government enacts policy to benefit from its major tourist destination. The role of the State Government is important in building up tourist attraction sites. A tourism location can only grow with the assistance of the Government. The State Government is therefore getting involved in the local area’s development. The need for the significance of such an action cannot be overstated. Manipur tourism development is at the hands of the Manipur Tourism Department. The Department organized various events to promote tourism. One such event is the Manipur Sangai Festival.
To promote economic growth and connectivity with other countries, the State began to take an interest in the indigenous features found in Manipur. The origins of the different indigenous games of Manipur could be traced in the ancient literary works and other chronicles. One indigenous sport is Sagol Kangjei, a game where players are on the back of the Pony horse trying to hit the ball into a goal using long handled hammers. There are now two ways to play the game, that is, traditional Manipur form and the international version or polo. In the 19th century, the British learned the subtleties of the game Sagol Kangjei from Manipur, and as a result of their smart refining, the indigenous game was called Polo and spread to other areas of the world. As a part of the Sangai festival, Manipur International Polo Tournament is organized by Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA). The main goals of the tournament are to preserve the Manipuri Pony and stop its extinction, spread the sport in its own country, and promote Manipur as a polo tourist destination. Additionally, it provides a chance for polo players from across the world to participate in the festival by playing Sagol Kangjei. Countries such as Australia, Germany, Thailand, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States all take part in the international polo competition. Other indigenous sports include Yubi Lakpi which literally means snatching coconut. The coconut acts as a ball and needs to be through the goal line to count as a goal. Hiyangtannaba, which means boat race. This sporting event has been held since ancient times. Here the rowers wear traditional clothes and head gears. Mukna is a traditional Manipuri style wrestling. Thang ta is an indigenous martial art form in Manipur. These indigenous games and art are organized in the Manipur Sangai festival. The roots of the ancient traditional games played by the people back then were familiarized to the world. It might be seen as a means of preserving or promoting indigenous sports.
Participation of Southeast Asian Nations
Southeast Asian countries are undoubtedly taking part in the Manipur Sangai Festival. The then Chief Minister of Myanmar’s Mandalay and Sagaing regions attended the 2013 edition of Sangai Festival as the guest of honour. On the second day of the event, Myanmar art was presented by the Mandalay Art Club. The then CM of Mandalay U Ye Myint stated that they have brought traditional arts organizations and cultural troupes to participate in the event and that it was a well-intentioned trip to Manipur, India, to foster the relationship between Manipur and Mandalay. In the 2018 edition of the Sangai Festival, Princess of Thailand Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Thai Ambassador attended the festival. In the 2019 edition of Manipur Sangai Festival, eight Ambassadors and High Commissioners from Southeast Asian Nations, that is Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Brunei, and Singapore, attended the festival as guests of honour. As a representative of all the guests, Ambassador of Myanmar Moe Kyaw Aung in his speech says that:
Cultural and traditional links between Manipur and ASEAN will inevitably provide opportunities to enhance people to people contacts…. Through existing connectivity of road, rail and air, existing linkages of cultural tourism, trade and investment and economic relations among us would also be further strengthened.
Why do you think delegates from ASEAN Nations attended the Sangai festival ? What is the intended motive for their action ? One major factor may indeed be Southeast Asian Nations’ acknowledgement of the region’s importance. The Southeast Asian delegates who attended the Sangai Festival 2019 highlighted the significance of India’s North East, where Manipur may play a crucial role. They are focusing on the physical connectivity enhancement between India and ASEAN, market linkages between India and Myanmar and between India and Thailand. At that time, the highway projects of India-Myanmar-Thailand were on the move for construction and possible extension of the Trilateral Highway project to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam was said to be under consideration. Manipur is crucial to this physical connection project because of its location and would aid in turning this connectivity link into a corridor for growth by collaborating between India and ASEAN via land borders and air connectivity.
This reflects that both India and Southeast Asian Nations are trying to heighten relationships.   (Contd P 9)