The recent spate of crimes in Delhi against people from Manipur has reminded us how unsafe our capital can be for people from northeastern India. It was only a few weeks ago when a prayer meeting was convened at Jantar Mantar to condole the death of 30-year-old Manipuri man Akha Salouni. Present at the rally was the mother of Nido Tania, the young Arunachali boy whose death shocked the nation earlier this year. Grieving at the loss of another son of the soil, her shrill question “ab aur kitno ko maroge” made us realise how little has changed since Nido’s death. Since Salouni’s death, national media have reported several other cases where people from the Northeast have been unfairly targeted and attacked in Delhi and Gurgaon.
But violence and crime in the Northeast have often featured prominently in newspapers and TV channels. Familiar stories revolve around the theme of
guns, power cuts, bad roads, insurgents and bandhs. The media is quick to headline attacks on railway stations, bandh calls by student groups, protests or lack of infrastructure. The region is perceived as a place where nothing seems to be going right. This leads to apprehension in most people about visiting the region. Even after a decade with a stable political and economic climate, most people in Delhi still ask if it is safe to travel to or establish a business in Assam.
Yet, an alternate story does exist, and it needs to be told. While attacks against Manipuri people in Delhi seem to be on the rise, Manipuri sportspersons brought medals to India at the Commonwealth Games. One of India’s most celebrated sportswomen, Mary Kom, has become a national icon and now the whole country will watch her story on screen when the biopic on her life releases in theatres. In Nagaland, the perception of Northeast India being comprised of primitive tribes has been turned on its head by the increasingly popular Hornbill Festival. In 10 years, this festival has grown from strength to strength and now, it has become a must-do on the annual holiday calendar of tourists. Assam, known to be the hotbed of the ULFA, has seen a rise in peace as most insurgents have surrendered. People who have taken a road trip to Kaziranga National Park in Assam have marvelled at the beautiful and serene landscape and the significant improvement in infrastructure.
Northeast India plays an integral role in relations between India and its immediate Saarc and Asean neighbourhood. The ministry of external affairs in the previous UPA government also took important steps to the bridge the region with Southeast Asia through the India-Myanmar-Thailand Asean trilateral. Also, in order to bring down the time and costs of freight transport, the MEA has been working on the multi-modal Kaladan port project, which will connect the port of Sittwe in Myanmar with Kolkata. Via a further road and inland water channel, the route is headed to become the primary link for movement of goods from and to Northeast India. The landmark Manmohan Singh-Sheikh Hasina land boundary exchange agreement has brought a pivotal change to the relationship which now needs to be taken forward by the BJP.
The BJP government has shown the willingness to continue with the UPA’s policies related to the neighbourhood. In the first two months, the MEA has scheduled trips to Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Growing interconnectivity with the neighbourhood can only be planned properly if the development challenges of the border states are accommodated. Trade and business play an integral role in the development of a region. Reports from major corporations, such as KPMG, E&Y and PriceWaterHouse Coopers have relayed the fact there is an immense potential for food-processing based industries and have harped on the need for improved connectivity.
It is only when we look at the assets being created within the Northeast that the country can draw a roadmap for the region that will take it forward. Northeast India is one of the four most biodiverse parts of the world. Therefore, we can build a world-class biodiverse island and have the best research and scientists work in labs set up in the states. The region has also been growing steadily at close to 9.4 per cent GSDP. More businesses have started to invest in the Northeast. Our society has always emphasised education and therefore, many students have sought greener educational pastures in the cities of Pune and Bangalore.
The Northeast is a progressive society, with a set of modern and liberal ideas. The current generation bears the mantle of taking the region forward in terms of development, investment and socio-economic progress. It is necessary for them to reject the popular message that is spread by the media and look within society to find individuals who have transformed their lives and have major accomplishments on the national and international stages. Keeping all these factors in mind, it is necessary for policymakers in Delhi to cultivate a regional perspective when they are planning the future of Northeast India. The media will have to play its own role in reinforcing that while several challenges exist in Northeast India, these are no different from any other state, but also that there exist several unique opportunities in the region, which, if properly harnessed, will lead to the Northeast playing a very strategic role and an economically significant one.
The writer is a member of the Lok Sabha