The North-East in India’s Look East Policy

India’s Look East Policy seems to offer huge potential and developmental scope for India’s North Eastern Region. However, there is an absence of sincere dialogue between the North Eastern states and the center, resulting in an obvious gap between policy and implementation.

Editorial Note: While this paper was originally written in 2010, it brings about important perspectives on the developments of India’s internal and foreign relations. For this reason, we found merit in publishing this previously unpublished paper, even though it does not account for developments post 2010.

By Sabina Yasmin Rahman, 15th May 2013 

In the year 1991-92, under the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, India launched its “Look East” Policy (LEP), an active economic policy of engagement with Southeast Asia to be implemented as an official initiative in achieving two objectives: the encouragement of trade links with individual partners and to provide foreign employment for India’s own expanding work force. This paper is an attempt to critically analyze the various underpinnings of this policy and study the impact it has been able to make so far with special reference to the context of the North-east of India.

Backdrop of the Policy:

With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and the onset of the era of globalization and economic liberalization, the need to secure international trade and encourage foreign investments was felt strongly by nations all over the world. The 1990s was a period seeing rapid economic development and growth of Asian countries, especially in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia came to be recognized a region with vast economic potential and the Indian sub-continent was fast emerging as an economic and political force to be reckoned with. This is when the Indian leadership came up with the concept of “Look East”. India sought to create and expand regional markets for trade, investments and industrial development. It also began strategic and military cooperation with nations concerned by the expansion of China’s economic and strategic influence. Thus, from the very start, India’s strategy has focused on forging close economic and commercial ties, increasing strategic and security cooperation with emphasis on historic cultural and ideological links.

According to Eric Koo Peng Kuan (2005), “The origin of the ‘Look East’ policy arose from political consciousness, focusing primarily on forging mutually beneficial ties between India with South East Asia and Japan. At the end of World War II, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried to engage Asia by supporting anti-colonial struggles, advocating pan-Asianism, and a new international order based on not choosing sides during the Cold War. It can also be said that the ‘Look East Policy’ for India is an indirect expression of wishing to return to a continuation of India’s historical behaviour.” However, India’s border defeat by China in 1962 became a setback of India’s foreign policies and was viewed as an unimpressive military and diplomatic performance record from the South East Asian (SEA) perspective. Moreover, India’s pro-Soviet attitude alienated it from other SEA countries, culminating in the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971, which earned India even more distrust. Until the 1990s, ASEAN and Japan in general did not share high opinions about India, with not very attractive impressions of a corrupt government and a population yielding generally poor work ethics and sloth, resulting in low quality products and services- a perception that India was determined to change.


North Eastern Region (NER) in India’s LEP:

The ‘Look East’ policy was a major shift in terms of India’s policy prioritization because up till then, India never really had a concrete strategy to create an economic hub in its North Eastern Region by exploring the trade and commerce prospects with its ASEAN neighbors. Since this point onward, the government, especially the ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region (DoNER) decided to take certain initiatives in order to reinvent the economy of the North Eastern Region (NER) by relying heavily on central funding. Initially, when India launched this policy, the thrust was not set toward the geographical proximity between its NER and Southeast Asia. According to Yogender Singh, Research Officer of Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, the lack of adequate physical connectivity between India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia- an outcome of skeptic mindset of the Indian policy makers- is one of the most important factors that hindered the possibilities of garnering regional economic complementarities. He further examines that there has been increasing realization on the part of the Indian policy makers, especially after the inclusion of Myanmar into ASEAN as full member in 1997, that development of physical connectivity between NER and Southeast Asia is a prerequisite to utilize the opportunities provided by LEP. This has led India to lay greater emphasis on enhancing connectivity through all the possible modes of infrastructural development like land routes, railways, air connectivity, waterways, energy infrastructure development both in field of hydroelectric and hydrocarbon and telecommunication linkages. As a result, India has initiated certain bilateral projects and also become party to some multilateral projects, aimed at enhancing connectivity between the Northeast and Southeast Asia. The important ongoing and potential infrastructure projects in this regard are Moreh -Tamu–Kalewa Road, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Trans Asian Highway, India-Myanmar rail linkages, Kaladan Multimodal project, the Stilwell road, Myanmar-India-Bangladesh gas and/or oil pipeline, Tamanthi Hydroelectricity project and optical fiber network between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. However, these existing possibilities for the process of enhancing connectivity between India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia is not an easy task; there are geographical, technical, political and security challenges that might limit or stunt the process of infrastructural development.

The former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had India’s LEP in mind when he proposed the holding of an India-ASEAN car rally in the ASEAN-India Bali summit of 2003. Some of the rationales behind such an event according to him were, “to draw dramatic attention to our geographical proximity…draw commercial interest in infrastructure…promote tourism and development”. On the occasion of the first India-ASEAN car rally on 23rd of November, 2004, in Guwahati, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh mentioned that the country was rediscovering age old ties. During his visit to the Northeast in November 2004, Dr. Singh described the NER as the “gateway” to India’s engagement with the Association for South East Asian Nations and with the sub-regional grouping, BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand- Economic Cooperation). According to Dr. Suvrokamal Datta, if the concerned governments, especially that of India, Burma, and Thailand, and the local authorities of these countries are serious about their intentions then these new initiatives are indeed going to bring about desirable development in various spheres for India. However, the NER is still in a state of limbo in terms of it economic development, and most debates on the development scene of region centre around relation between economic development on one side and conflict, insurgency, counter insurgency and widespread unrest on the other. Already much has been spoken and written on whether peace must precede development or success brought by development would pave the way for the resolution of all conflicts. Now, an answer to such a situation cannot be easy and yet a lot depends upon what India as a sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic, republic perceives as ‘development’, keeping in mind the diversity that exists in the unity that the country is so proud of.

Till now India’s policy of strengthening ties with the eastern neighbors have been confined to counter insurgency efforts where the LEP is being used as a means to drive out ‘insurgents’ taking shelter in neighboring countries like Bhutan and Myanmar, without sincere political negotiations. Such negotiations as various scholars have rightly pointed out must involve the civil society and all the contending parties, as an exclusive negotiation with any one might antagonize the other. Moreover, it is crucial to realize by now that a militaristic approach to insurgency would not result in healthy and lasting solutions. So far, the role of the North-eastern states has been negligible, and the LEP seems to be dictated by the central government. Besides, the huge amounts of grants and subsidies have not generated any substantial economic growth, but given rise to an age of rampant corruption and the current glitch of the Indian polity, namely, “Kleptocracy” or ‘the rule of thieves’, a term used by Bezboruah (2009), who highlights the various projects that exist on the papers but benefits none except for the ones who manage to steal the government allocated funds to fill their pockets. The most popular schemes for such siphoning business are the different government plans for guaranteeing rural development under NREGA. Although it does not take special skills to deduce that this kind of extensive corruption takes place due to negligent State machinery, Bezboruah clearly states that siphoning of money has remained so easy year after year, despite mandatory audits because this is precisely what the providers of the funds want; they too are the beneficiaries of this systemic corrupt order. Further, with special emphasis on the necessity of improved governance and the centre’s notion of economic justice, he says thus:

“The difference in the Northeast is that in addition to this form of kleptocracy, there is also the input of terrorism (commonly referred to euphemistically as ‘insurgency’) to make the game a little more exciting. In fact, in the Northeast, where there has been so little of industrial activity in the last 30 years, people have managed to turn terrorism into an industry. It got started as a cottage industry, but has now become a medium-scale industry of sorts. If we give it a few more years, we shall probably see terrorism turned into a heavy industry. This is what happens when the benevolent Centre keeps on giving huge dollops of grants to States even when the States fail to show any performance or even to establish convincingly how and where the money was spent. Contractors in flood-prone Assam who build embankments that collapse unfailingly every year are engaged year after year with no punishment of any kind because they have godfathers among the ministers who protect them. The fact that they cause a great deal of human misery and some deaths every year seems to be of no consequence at all. The blue-eyed boys remain in place, quite immune to the laws of the land for cheating, fraud, causing injury and damage and even for murder.”

There is therefore a school of thought amongst various scholars and intellectuals that what the centre must be doing is ensuring that people are provided with manual and cerebral skills which will enable them to be self-reliant, and not crippling their potentials by providing opportunities to amass easy wealth in the form of huge grants which vanish unaccounted for. What the region requires is an opportunity to generate its own economy for its own sustenance, an opportunity that is not offered in its entirety by the paternalistic attitude adopted by the Centre towards this region. It is not merely act of chance, therefore, that such an approach bears striking similarity with the one adopted by the Imperialists when they try to extend their authority over a territory as their colony and disempower its natives, so that they can never become the masters of their own land or their own fate, and have to constantly return to colonizers for their survival as colonial subjects. Thus, the situation that one is made to witness is not so much of postcolonial as it is “Neo-colonial”, where the foreign administrators are replaced by indigenous administrators but the colonial attitudes and exploitative regimes continue.

The World Bank describes the conditions of this region as a low-level equilibrium of poverty, nondevelopment, civil conflict, and lack of trust in political leadership. The history of the NER as a frontier, and the negligence of the policy makers to contradictions rooted in this context, explains the shortfalls of democracy, development and peace. Historically, there was a peculiar dynamics in the relations between the non-state spaces of the hills in this part of the world with the labor-starved low land states, which provided the grounds for a world of multiple languages and cultures which were different and yet in close proximity with each other. The transformation of the non-state spaces into state-controlled spaces gave way for many of the conflicts pertaining to the Northeast of India. This transformation has provoked varied forms of resistance, and the exceptionally diverse ethnic landscape of this region has created a politics of sorts, with multiple competing agendas. In addition, this region has seen substantial immigration from other parts of the subcontinent which makes managing indigenous-settlers tensions a priority. Cross-border migration has continued besides interstate migration from other parts of India, and the partition of the country in 1947 did not seem to suddenly alter the logic of a frontier and snap the flow from one densely populated area to a relatively sparsely populated region, once open to new settlements but now separated by an international border.

Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies have become a part and parcel of daily life. Apart from counterinsurgency operations, the Indian response has included massive infusion of development funds and variety of ill-perceived and unscrupulous designs for conflict management and resolution, one of them being Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA),  1958, which gives sweeping powers to the security forces engaged in counterinsurgency operations, including immunity against prosecution if any suspect is killed. This law has lead to numerous extra-judicial killings and uncountable atrocities in different parts of the North-east. It violates international human rights norms, and is vehemently criticized by national and international human rights organizations. According to Sanjib Baruah (2009), these are the measures or “certain authoritarian trappings that India’s democratic institutions have acquired in order to maintain a permanent counterinsurgency capacity.” The aforementioned law today provides the legal framework for counterinsurgency operations against numerous armed rebellions in this region. The law has been amended a number of times to accommodate changes in the names and the number of states, and it now applies to the whole of North-east (It was repealed in some parts of Manipur in 2004). The protests against the AFSPA raise serious doubts about the claim that the fight against insurgencies in the North-east was being won. It is certainly more difficult to claim that the triumph was over the battle for hearts and minds of the people. The “naked protest” in Manipur which was widely reported must have made many Indian citizens wonder. Feminist writer, Butalia wrote: “…how humiliated, how violated, how angry must a woman feel to think that this is the only way she can make people listen?” However, such sentiments were not enough to get the Indian establishment to re-conceptualize its policy toward the North-east. As Baruah mentions, “For India, the display and use of military power has become a routine way of asserting State sovereignty in the North-east.”

The reality is, therefore, in sharp contrast to the popular national narratives of “India Shining” – a slogan that celebrates India’s democracy, high economic growth rates, and a new found recognition in the global arena. While India and China remain strategic rivals, India’s “Look East” policy has included significant rapprochement with China. Since 1993, India began holding high-level talks with Chinese leaders and established confidence-building measures. However, it is important to reiterate here, that India never perceived a threat emanating from the Asia-Pacific except China. India’s defence capabilities are formidable and its economy is also one of the fastest growing, and it is the only country in this region that can match up to China in terms of its size and military power. In 2006, China and India opened the Nathu La Pass for cross-border trade for the first time since the 1962 war. However, China’s close relations with Pakistan and border disputes in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have threatened the improvement in bilateral relations. Security becomes a very important consideration according to the realist perspective of India’s Look East strategy. A successful Look East Policy is thereby also required to provide India with ammunition to thwart China’s projection of power in the regions conceived as being crucial for India’s national interest. India’s insecurity with regards to China is another reason why counterinsurgency operations refuse to cease in the NER. There is a dominant viewpoint amongst political pundits that India and ASEAN has a common aim of Chinese containment in the Southeast Asian economies, due to which India should strengthen its relation with this grouping. However, with the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which succeeded the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) the liberal thinkers seem to feel little differently. According to C.S. Kuppuswamy, “…there is no point in creating an impression that India is in competition with China. This is unnecessary and counter productive. The economic potential of this region should be a more compelling factor than this subsidiary aim.” The extended LEP builds on the same understanding that there is no benefit in antagonizing China, and thus, in contradiction with the geo-strategic attempts to counter Chinese influence, there have been parallel attempts to normalize relations with China and explore possibilities of cooperation.

Besides, the above mentioned realist and neo-liberal perspectives of the LEP, there also exists a third dimension which can be explored for maximized positive impact, and that is the communitarian approach. According to Shibashis Chatterjee, “It requires a voluntarist account where the participants, particularly the people of India’s North-east states- from where the Look East vision should be actively launched- are not understood either as blind supporters of the policy or as uncritical recipients of oddly invisible benefits of statist wisdom, but are legally and politically empowered to look east for and of themselves.” Chatterjee emphasizes the relevance of the NER in the context of India’s LEP. It is clear that India is willing to pursue closer trade relations with its eastern neighbors, and this carries various prospects for the NER, provided the trade traffic moves through the land routes. However, roads and rail linkages in the east has remained subject to mutual fear of insurgency, terrorism and/or Chinese expansion, due to which most of India’s trade expansion with the Southeast Asia has taken place via seaports. Thus, once again NER has got marginalized and despite the potential, trade through the Manipur-Myanmar route has remained meager and insignificant to the regional economy. Moreover, the trade routes between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet are still closed in the absence of a border agreement, and links to Yunnan through Manipur, Mizoram or via Myanmar are not even in the sphere of discussion. It is seen that India has not been very keen at involving with China multilaterally, although it has been striving to improvise at bilateral fronts. At the multilateral level, India prefers the trans-national and regional initiatives like the Ganga-Mekong sub-region and BIMST-EC which do not include China, over BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Regional Economic Forum). Similarly, on the road building fronts too, there is reluctance in rebuilding the Stillwell Road that could connect the NER to the Yunnan-Northern Myanmar-Southeast Asia corridor. Therefore, Chatterjee points out, “So long as China is kept at a distance…steps towards cross border region building cannot gain momentum”.

However, it is not entirely true that the NER is a landlocked ‘state’ (Verghese 2001) and that the lack of access to the ocean is the main reason for the region’s unrelenting underdevelopment. Historically, this region was placed along the Silk Road, which was in use till the nineteenth century, and facilitated the spread of Buddhism from India across Asia, along with trade of silk and other commodities. Assamese towns like Hajo and Sualkuchi were important trading centers and pilgrimages for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Hence, Sanjib Baruah argues, “North-east region’s recent history as a remote, underdeveloped and troubled hinterland is neither inevitable nor unchangeable”. It is in fact, very necessary to give a ‘continental orientation’ to the LEP by providing direct roles to the North-eastern states. India can make use of the North-east’s history and culture as a ‘soft power resource’ (Chatterjee 2007). As Indians talk about Buddhism, Angkor Vat and the Ramayana in stressing their shared cultural affinities with Southeast Asia, it is a rare occurrence that they refer to the Southeast Asian roots of the Tai Ahoms (Saikia 2005, Chatterjee 2007) or the Khasis, and acknowledge that Balinese Hinduism and art forms are probably more close to Manipur than to those of the Hindi heartland. Therefore, it is necessary for the LEP to have a continental thrust and include a trans-national region-building vision if it wishes to become the pathway to NER’s peace and prosperity. According to Chatterjee, a genuine radical LEP, “calls for communitization of space as a zone of social communication”, and that seems beyond the capacity of IndianState to deliver.

As we realize that the LEP provides an invaluable opening for the NER to overcome its state of developmental and economic dormancy, it would also be helpful to view this policy as a vital opportunity for the Indian State to shed off its tendency toward parochial territoriality after years and years of marginalizing the region and committing atrocities on its people. The integration of the NER within a dense economic framework spreading over Myanmar to Korea through Bangladesh, Thailand and the new ASEAN states, “might ultimately help the marginalized region to transcend the historical tyranny of fixed borders and allow its inhabitants the fullest possible benefits in the process of economic exchanges qua the Look East move” (Chatterjee 2007). Thus, by investing on community building and soft border exercises, the LEP could envisage a successful economic transformation of the North-east. This vision of community formation is diametrically opposed to that of the realist discourse, and is unperturbed by the statist and the mainstream security deliberations. It is not hostile to the liberalist conception of space but it certainly places the thoughts of the community above those of the market. Till the Indian government is ready with a clear conceptual map of the policy, and reorganizes its priorities in terms of power, prosperity and community as it articulates its desired end, the Look East Policy would continue to be an unproductive tussle over approaches, depending on the policy makers from time to time.

The views expressed are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect InPEC’s editorial position. 

Sabina Yasmin Rahman is an M.Phil student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.


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