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Ethnic Conflict a hurdle to Act East Policy

by Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh
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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. Residents in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur are beginning to pick up the pieces, after some of worst witnessed in the state in decades. As of 1st September, over200 individuals have lost their lives, 357+ churches burned, 6000+ houses burned while 60000+ individuals have been displaced. The recent outbreak of violence in Manipur has opened a Pandora box of possibilities. Thousands who evacuated after clashes erupted on May 3 between the Meitei’s and Kuki. Yet, the road to normalcy in Manipur is a long one as mutual distrust continues to prevail, compelling many to stay away from their homes in fear of a resurgence in the fighting. Violence erupted on 3rd May after the Kuki tribe and other hill communities held a rally to protest against the Meitei’s demand for “Scheduled Tribe” status. This would give the Meitei’s benefits that the hill tribes enjoy under this status, including reserved quotas for government jobs and college admissions. Such a classification for the Meitei’s would also allow them to own land in their hills.
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.
The Meitei community, who make up 53 per cent of the state’s 3.2 million population, is mostly confined to the valley districts that form around 10 per cent of Manipur’s area. Less than 40 per cent of Manipur’s people inhabit the hilly terrain that covers 90 per cent of the state. Non-tribals, including the Meitei, cannot buy and own land in the hill areas, a move aimed at protecting marginalised tribal communities. There is no such restriction on tribals buying land in the valley. This grouse, together with the rising population in the valley and inadequate economic opportunities, are driving the Meitei’s’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status. The Kukis and other hill tribes worry that the Meitei’s, who are politically and economically more influential, could acquire greater control over their ancestral forest land and its resources. Such concerns have been aggravated by recent government actions to drive out hill tribes from protected forest areas, along with a campaign to stop illegal poppy cultivation, which poor hill villagers resort to for extra income. Added to this potent mix are allegations of illegal immigration from Myanmar. Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh claimed in May that Myanmar immigrants are responsible for deforestation, poppy cultivation and a drug menace in the state. Myanmar refugees belong to the same ethnic group as the Kukis and other hill tribes in the region. Broad-brush attacks have targeted all Kukis as “immigrants” and “foreigners”, deepening tensions.
The violence has undercut the BJP’s attempt to restore peace and stability in the north-east, and lay the groundwork to further India’s Act East Policy and promote greater cooperation with the Asia-Pacific region. 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. 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 Act East Policy’s focus on connectivity and economic growth might unintentionally obscure the importance of ethnic identities. There is a danger of marginalizing local communities as development projects and investments floods Manipur, possibly escalating ethnic tensions.
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. Two roads which connect India with Myanmar pass through areas dominated by Manipur’s hill tribes. These roads remain vulnerable to closures due to violence, as seen recently, undermining India’s Act East Policy. Delegations from Myanmar and Thailand have often complained about insurgency and extortion along these roads as a deterrent to greater connectivity and trading links with Manipur. “The recent violence does not help at all, as it portrays a negative image of Manipur to other parts of South-east Asia.”
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 marginalizing. 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.
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 grassroots 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 grassroots players. Building forums for discussion and negotiation can promote understanding among parties and aid in reaching agreements.
(Writer can be reached at:[email protected])

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