Manipur’s chief minister Nongthombam Biren announced to a visiting Myanmarese delegation on 11 June that the north-eastern state remains “safe and productive” for business and investment. It was in the capital Imphal at a conference titled Connecting India’s Northeast with North West Region of Myanmar: Road map for all-round Prosperity. It was co-organized by the government of Manipur, the ministry of external affairs, and the New Delhi-based hard-right policy think-tank, India Foundation.
Biren’s upbeat pitch projected one of the weakest economies in the region, with appalling infrastructure, great corruption, and an immense concentration of army and paramilitary forces to offset Naga, Meitei, Kuki and Zomi rebels. Indeed a state to which the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, is applied, except for some areas of Imphal—but which is “sanitized” with Kashmir-like checks before the visit of “VVIPs”.
In some ways, it was reminiscent of the time India’s Congress-era tourism minister, H.K.L. Bhagat, ensconced by anti-terrorist commandos wielding state-of-the-art assault weapons, assured a group of overseas tour operators in New Delhi, that India was safe. It was the mid-eighties.
Or the time Jammu & Kashmir’s chief minster Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, similarly ensconced, invited businesspersons and analysts over Christmas in 2003 to assure us all was well. I counted a dozen army checkpoints on the drive up to Gulmarg from Srinagar, besides numerous heavily armed patrols and army outposts. Biren of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has similar security accoutrements. In Manipur, which I visit frequently, checkpoints are legion and rough handling of citizens routine.
Even so, from the perspective of agenda, the conference was an indicator worth highlighting. Manipur is in several ways a live project for the eastward push for both national politics and national business, with a pitch of shared prosperity offered to the state’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious people who harbour a very strong sense of ethnic identity and sense of nation—their individual nations.
In the same way Assam was electorally won by pressing the case for security of the majority population allied to development, the underpinning of logic in Manipur has, since 2017, been a hammering away at potential benefits of the so-called Act East Policy, with Manipur as the overland bridgehead to Myanmar and beyond.
Better infrastructure has remained the wishful blueprint, and the subject of numerous promises made by several senior BJP officials during election stump speeches for local and national elections.
Perhaps as importantly, both public and private sector organizations have eyed Manipur for its potential hydrocarbon reserves, and other minerals. A few companies also conducted prospecting exercises, as this column has earlier noted, but abandoned them in the face of extortion by rebel groups, mostly Naga in this case. A “productive” Manipur, therefore, is predicated on a “safe” Manipur.
While the first is wishful thinking and, to be fair, such thinking is the conceptual basis of any manner of progress, to transform it to self-fulfilling prophecy of a “safe” Manipur is trickier. It will be entirely absent, like infrastructure promised for several decades, unless Naga peace talks conclude successfully (Manipur has vast Naga homelands) and the peace process begins with half a dozen Meitei rebel groups, which seek to represent Manipur’s largest and most influential ethnic group—one to which Biren belongs.
Manipur is in several ways a project of the India Foundation, an institution associated with India’s current national security apparatus. Indeed, within days of Biren’s assuming his post as the chief minister, an India Foundation fellow, Rajat Sethi, was appointed Biren’s adviser. Sethi’s Twitter account records the adviser’s admiration of BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, who oversees northeast India for the party.
Although it reflects an organization that doesn’t shirk from marrying public policy with politics, a track-two effort of this sort through an organization in which senior BJP officials, including Madhav, and legislators hold key positions, brings policy heft. Especially, as in the case of Manipur, the government is for the time BJP-led. But the ask in Manipur, as in the rest of north-east India, is way beyond optics.