Author name: 
Jaideep Saikia, Terrorism and Conflict Analyst and author/editor of several books. He has served the Govt. of India as an Expert on North East India in the National Security Council Secretariat and the Govt. of Assam in security advisory capacities.
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If there is a veritable Achilles Heel in India then it is truly the 22 Km long Siliguri corridor that connects the North East to the rest of India.  In his book Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, John W. Garver writes thus: The Chumbi Valley points south towards the Siliguri corridor. The distance from Yadong to Siliguri is only a bit over one hundred kilometres. The Chumbi Valley is full of strong PLA bases, and the road between Yadong and Lhasa is one of the funnels through which could be poured the PLA strength normally concentrated between Shigatse and Zedang. Despite the fact that Indian security planners have always acknowledged the importance of the Siliguri corridor, the Doklam impasse of 2017 squarely brought the issue of security of the “Chicken’s Neck” back into India’s national security debate. Strategically located cheek-by-jowl to the Chumbi Valley which Garver calls the single most strategically important piece of real estate in the entire Himalayan region, high tables of Indian policy making, government aided think tanks and even private enterprises have—of late—begun a course of serious deliberation on the matter. The willowy passageway that is Siliguri Corridor is the only conduit that mainland India has to the strategically positioned North East, the severance of which would sound the death knell for India’s security. After all, if the Chinese road-building exercise had not been halted by what has now come to be known as Operation Juniper—so termed because of the profusion of Juniper trees in Eastern Tibet—and the Peoples’ Liberation Army of China had had access to the Jampheri Ridge, it would have provided the Red Army an overlooking vista all the way to the Siliguri Corridor.

 

If the continual show of belligerence by the Chinese—whether in Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan or Bhutan’s Doklam—brought forth fears of threat to the corridor, the apprehension that a pincer move by the Chinese and the then East Pakistanis in the late nineteen-sixties was even greater. Indeed, it is the considered opinion of the author that the threat to the “Siliguri Corridor”, too, was one of the considerations that led India to embark on the “liberation of Bangladesh” campaign in 1971. Inhospitable terrain that characterises most of the North East and inappropriate connectivity with the rest of India, and, indeed, within the region itself, has always hindered not only the economic development of the region, but has also contributed to the socio-political apartness that bedevils the borderland’s association with mainland India. Indeed, were stock-taking exercises to be undertaken in order to unravel even the reasons for unrest, strife and insurgency in the region, the resultant that would entail would have it that the severance of the pre-independence umbilical cord has been an important motivation.

 

The lack of connectivity has also kept the rest of India from full-bodied investment in the enchanted frontiers, as also from undertaking occasional visitations that would have brought the heart of India closer to  its captivating appendages. Therefore, even as 90 percent of the country’s meritocracy governs the North East by fiat from New Delhi, neither caring to visit the frontiers that they are hell bent on protecting, nor to understand the woes of the region, the nonchalance translates into dissonance, and finally to protestation, anger and insurgency.

 

Indeed, the physical development of the North East could have not only brought in keen business linkages with the rest of India, but would have, projected it both as an attractive investment and tourist destination and lowered the barometer that registers the security calculus. For most parts, the region has been viewed as a defence zone that has to be closely guarded and militarised. The experience of 1962 seems too recent for the mandarins in Raisina Hill.

 

But, gratefully the perception seems to be changing and the accent seems to now be on enhancing infrastructure and connectivity in and with the North East. New Delhi is sketching a plan by which all North East state capitals would be brought under a comprehensive railway and air network. While the focus on improving the road network in the region would be in the almost inaccessible bordering areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, railroad connection with an  ambitious blueprint of Rs. 17,000 Crore to link all the state capitals within a period of six years has been earmarked. Indeed, apart from tenuous connectivity between a few places in Assam and Nagaland, the rail network continues to be almost barren. The story is not dissimilar in the air sector—the reportedly not-fully-serviceable Pawan Hans helicopter crash in the inaccessible ravines of Se La that took the life of one time Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Khandu Dorjee has added to the problem. But, there has been some positive movement in the aspect as well, with the government deciding to set up a green field airport in Itanagar, even as another one is on the anvil for the capital of Nagaland, Kohima.

 

The air network in the region would also receive a fillip if the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region’s (DONER) plan to launch a dedicated regional airline for the region were to ever get off the ground. Indeed, despite subsidies from the government there has been little or no response from private airliners for the project. At any rate, DONER’s proposed roadmap has suggested in its “Vision Document” the need for air connectivity and has identified specific goals for key sectors for both infrastructure and connectivity. The ministry has sanctioned Rs. 703 Crore to the North East for the improvement of the arterial roads and has finalised another project at an estimated cost of Rs 1,500 Crore to build 522 km of roads in the region.

 

But the icing on the cake—were it to be even brought to the birthday table—should involve a robust plan by the NITI Forum for the North East. It should have a definite focus on better connectivity in the region, with superior accent on developing better linkages with the neighbouring countries that border the North East. Indeed, although the Forum in its deliberations in the very first meeting in Agartala on 18 April 2018 had also stressed on connectivity in the North East, the proposals have largely remained unattended to. The expectation to look beyond the earlier plans and take forward the connectivity ramification to a chequer board that involves linkages between the North East and the neighbouring countries has been emphasised time and again. Indeed, in the words of the late B.G. Verghese, in his inauguration speech during the release of one of the author’s books Frontier in Flames: North East India in Turmoil in February 2008 in the India Habitat Centre, the “Act East” would never achieve fruition unless one actually “Goes East.” Thirteen years have passed since Verghese’s sage words of caution but the focus of the NITI Forum for the North East to put the North East right at the centre of the country’s Act East Policy has largely been on paper than on the road. There has been, however, enthusiasm with the plan for a rail link to Chittagong port in Bangladesh, and upgrading the Guwahati airport in order to help the region to conduit the abutting countries together.

 

The much-talked of transit rights via Bangladesh to North East India has also witnessed considerable attention in the interest of the North East. If only there was sensitivity for development and integration as there is for security, New Delhi would have utilised the good offices of the friendly dispensation in Dhaka to consent to a course of action that would have not only brought the enchanted frontiers closer to the Indian heartland in every sense of the word, but would have quite categorically called the “Chinese bluff” a la the Siliguri Corridor. Indeed, it would have amounted to a coup of sorts and  the periphery would no longer be considered to be a forgotten outpost, but a deep-seated atrium of a heart where it rightfully belongs and beats. However, there were some apprehensions expressed in Bangladesh that the transit route would be utilised to transport weaponry from mainland India to the boundary with China. This concern—voiced in the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (to the then Indian visiting foreign minister)—was certainly a proxy from Chinese concerns in Dhaka that are attempting to raise strategic questions about genuine and bonafide Indian trade and other such deployment to the North East. Indeed, were even armaments to be thoroughfared via Bangladesh (if the transit right is to be accepted!), the expression should be bilateral and not as stand-in (read: China) for someone else.

 

But, the fact of the matter is that India should make it clear that Bangladesh has nothing to fear from giving India transit rights to access its land-locked North East. Indeed, New Delhi should make a statement that were Bangladesh to provide connectivity to India through its territory; it is Bangladesh that stands to gain in terms of market access to the North East and much of the illegal trade that flourishes in the India-Bangladesh border would become legitimate.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.