Jaishankar’s visit to Manipur?


Lt Gen (Dr) K Himalay Singh & Jaideep Saikia
The unexpected visit of foreign minister, S. Jaishankar to Manipur recently has once again brought the spotlight back to the North East. It has transported the most “CI intervention resistant” state of the region into question, as also the manner in which India’s foreign policy in an upcoming general election year will play out into national focus.
Indeed, Manipur is important not only because it has long been heralded as the crucial lynchpin for India’s “Act East Policy” but also because it continues to be the last bastion of active insurgency in the nation’s northeastern appendage with dynamic cross-border linkages with India’s “inimical” neighbourhood. After all, the passageway that it provides to China as well as the continued presence of anti India belligerent groups in Myanmar would act as a stumbling block to India’s unity in diversity.
B.G. Verghese during the course of inaugurating one of Jaideep Saikia’s books “Frontier in Flames: North East India in Turmoil” had stated that “That there is no point “Looking East” unless you actually “Go East”. Six years later, in 2014, the “Look East Policy” was rechristened by the Narendra Modi government as India’s “Act East Policy”. In so doing he sought not only to infuse a fresh spirit of cooperation with South East Asia but counter Chinese designs to stymie India’s growth engine by way of the North East that was looking up after decades of neglect. However, closer to a decade has passed since the “paradigm shift” was initiated, but the policy has not been translated on ground. There has been neither an effort to “Go East” nor engineer a tectonic shift across the core sectors of what constituted Modi’s “Four Cs” of “culture, commerce, connectivity and capacity building”. The late lamented B.G. Verghese’s dream of “Going East” was all dressed up but was not going anywhere. Or, rather it had nowhere to venture into. The gates that would have shipped Indian goods via the North East which in turn too would have resonated commercially to the hum of the transportation and the attendant frills that would have accompanied it had been shut. If the pandemic halted even the “Free Trade Regime” between India and Myanmar, the 1 February 2021 military takeover sealed the fate of any movement between the two countries. Operations against the Indian insurgents that had “reluctantly” been undertaken in the past by way of Op Sunrise-I and Op Sunrise-II would no longer be undertaken by the Myanmarese army as of now. In return the Indian insurgent had to join hands with the junta to quell the rebellion that had erupted after the 1 February 2021 putsch. The Coordination Committee or CorCom that comprises one of the most important insurgent grouping in the South Asia has three active clusters in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Sagaing regions, and are periodically hitting out at Indian interests with impunity.
However, it is also heartening that the foreign secretary of India visited Naypyidaw almost at the same time as the presence of the foreign minister in Manipur. Was it a coincidence? Diplomacy of the Indian kind, gingerly inherited from its colonial masters, did not live too much room for speculation!
Jaishankar did have an enjoyable outing in Manipur and even attended the ongoing Sangai Festival in Manipur. He also interacted with the faculties and students of a few universities of the state on 26 November 2022. During the interaction hour, the most important question to the foreign minister was about the future of North East India in the light of “Act East Policy with a focus on Indo-Pacific”. The foreign minister claimed that peace has returned to the region and that progress awaits Manipur and the entire region.
There are many challenges in the Indo-Myanmar Border. Reports indicate that the National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar which is in exile and its armed wing the People’s Defence Force (PDF) continue to trouble the Myanmar Army particularly in the Sagaing region which strategically borders India. Another report also suggests that certain armed groups belonging to Manipur are aligned with the junta while a few groups have affiliations with the PDF. This is a very dangerous situation for the region given the fact that these groups are based on ethnic lines and their support bases are in Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. The ongoing talks between New Delhi and the various insurgent outfits in the region, as and when concluded, are bound to have powerful ripple effects in the borderlands as well.
Another report suggests that the NUG has called for discontinuation of support to the Government of Myanmar by India. In the backdrop of many thousands of Rohingyas, Chins (numbering close to 1-2 Lakh) are already in the region as well as in far off places such as Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir after their entry in 2021.
Recent reports emanating from Bangladesh and the Arakan region seems to suggest that certain armed Chin rebels have fled towards Mizoram. This is a matter of concern. Has the “Free Movement Regime” (which allows people on both sides of the border to move across the international border without any passport or visa) between India and Myanmar served India’s security interests?
Coupled with the above, the Chinese presence in Myanmar including the unveiling of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor in their desire to exploit seaports in the Bay of Bengal further complicates the security challenges for India. In their quest for warm water ports, the Chinese are believed to be supporting the Arakan Army while being a staunch supporter of the Myanmar army on the other hand.
The question now is what is India’s policy towards these challenges in the border region and how does it hyphenate with the Act East Policy? As of now, India’s flexibility of options vis-a-vis Myanmar is extremely limited in the light of the developments. Does it ape the China way of diplomacy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds? This approach could be a long term investment to engage any future dispensation.  Or is it in India’s interests to support a democracy in the fragile state? Risking thereby any potentially adverse fallout in the near term, in its efforts towards the Act East Policy as well as in its relations with Myanmar Govt?
Jaishankar’s visit to Manipur, therefore, is of interest to the security watchers in the region. It is also being discussed, as to which way is India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy going?
Lt Gen K. Himalay Singh is an Indian army Veteran and Jaideep Saikia is a conflict theorist and author