Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Northeast India in Indian Public Diplomacy

India's Northeast remains a distinct cultural unit within India. The land, its people, languages, customs, cultural practices have lot in common with countries of Southeast Asia like Thailand, Myanmar etc. For example, Thai language, culture and customs are studied, preserved, promoted & practised extensively by the Ahom tribe - a dominant ehtnic group - in Assam. There are museums, cultural centres dedicated to such pursuits. Similarly, if you go to Moreh in Manipur you can just "walk over" to Myanmar at certain hours during the day when the borders are opened for sometime. Some Naga tribes are in Myanmar and not in Nagaland. Apart from similarities in physical appearances - the Mongoloid features - there are also similarities between languages and dialects of Northeast India to Southeast Asia. If you look at dietary habits, cuisines of Northeast are very "unindian" (Indian food for most people is Punjabi - tandoori chicken, paneer tikka or the occassional Masala Dosa!) There are some shared dishes and styles of cooking with Southeast Asian countries which one won't find in the rest of India. Besides, Tinsukia in Assam is 24 hours away by road from Bangkok but 40-50 hours away by train from New Delhi! Cultural alienation from the rest of India is not surprising. Coupled with the irrelevance of Northeast in Indian electoral politics, it feeds into the growing discontent in the region leading to militant movements against the Indian state.
Despite the similarities between India's Northeast and Southeast Asia, people to people contact between the regions remain minimal. This was recognised at the policy level by former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao during whose tenure India started its "Look East" policy to spread India's influence towards the east. This was also a strategic move to counter a rising China rapidly growing in influence in Myanmar, Nepal & Bangladesh. While trade ties and strategic ties have grown manifold people to people exchanges are not as frequent as they should have been. The direct Air India flight "Narmada," started from Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at Guwahati to Bangkok has been scrapped. No international flights operate between India's Northeast to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia remains low when it comes to 'mindshare' and Northeasterners look towards Delhi or Kolkata for ideas and inspiration. The media (TV programmes especially) rarely have content about/from Southeast Asia. Very few students from Northeast prefer to go for higher studies in institutes such as Asian Insititute of Management at Manila or Bangkok Institute of Technology, similarly very few students come to universities in Northeast from say Myanmar or Cambodia. The history curriculum in Indian schools too seek to downplay the links with Southeast Asia and talk about the region's evolution vis-a-vis North/South India and emphasise the ties with mainland India instead. Cultural exchanges remain few between the regions. A Cambodian/Thai cultural or food festival in Guwahati makes more sense than one in New Delhi. Similarly, ICCR and other such organizations should also strive to promote India's Northeast in these countries. It is yet to become a trade and cultural hub of India for Southeast Asia. The road to India's Northeast is still via New Delhi.
India's public diplomacy will do well to aggressively promote people to people contacts between these two regions. Instead of stage managing or institutional showcasing there should be an attempt to promote spontaneity and embed popular conciousness with ideas about each other. The government should actually make it easier for the Northeast to reach out to Southeast Asia and vice-versa. Cultural similarities between the regions should be effectively leveraged, and in the long run, this will only facilitate Northeast India's development & progress.
-- Madhur


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