The Siliguri Corridor and the North-Eastern States

All you need to know about the strategic importance of North-East India

The Northeast India comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. It accounts for 7.9% of total geographical area of the country and 3.77% of total population of India. It is one of the most bio diverse regions in the world with a forest cover of over 65%. However, the region accounts a little over 2.5% of India’s GDP. The Brahmaputra River makes it one of the most fertile lands and gives the country access to resources like uranium, coal, hydro-power, forests, oil and gas.

Northeast India is important in terms of the nation’s defence architecture. It is the gateway for India to the Southeast Asia and beyond. However, over the past few decades, several issues have boiled up in the region and threatens the national security of the country.

Let’s have a look in detail about the issues in Northeast.

The North-east states are connected with the rest of India via the “Siliguri Corridor” also known as the “chicken’s neck” – a narrow strip of land that is less than 27 km (17 mi) wide at its narrowest point. The region is bordered by Nepal from the North-West and Bangladesh from South and South-East and extends from the Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Terai areas of West Bengal towards the North East. The region is heavily guarded by the Indian Army, BSF, Assam Rifles & West Bengal police due to its strategic importance – it is the hub of the rail and road network connecting the North East.

During the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the Chinese made advanced into the Indian Territory and the unpreparedness of the Indian army was blamed on for the failure. But India learnt some major lessons after the war and it has enhanced the Indian army’s capabilities and preparedness in the region. The 1967 Nathu La conflict and the strategic outmaneuvering along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh in 1987 are examples of Indian Army’s befitting reply to the Chinese.

In 1991, India initiated the “Look East policy”, an effort to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia. This was to counterweight the strategic influence of the Chinese in the region. In 2014, PM Narendra Modi announced ‘Act East’ policy, an upgraded version of the ‘Look East’ policy. It will serve as a platform for deepening and strengthening the relationship with ASEAN and the East Asian economies.

Some analysts say that the reason behind the current Doklam plateau standoff between India and China is because of the strategic vulnerabilities of the Siliguri Corridor. By constructing a road in the Doklam region, the aim of the Chinese is to shift the tri-junction to Gamochen (currently at Doka La). If the Chinese extended their reach to Doklam Plateau, they would be easily able to cut of North East from the rest of India by attacking this region.

India will be in the same state of that of Pakistan in 1971. China has the ability to delink the North-East from the rest of India, just like how India help to create the sovereign independent nation-state of Bangladesh by delinking the former East Pakistan from West Pakistan.

The bigger question is whether the North East problem only a geographical issue ? Unfortunately, it’s not. There are historical reasons – most of the traditional tribes are largely of Tibeto-Burman/Mongoloid stock and closer to Southeast Asia than to South Asia. They are ethnically, linguistically and culturally very distinct from the other states of India.

The Naga insurgence known as the mother of the Northeast insurgencies, is one of the oldest unresolved armed conflicts in the world. It started in 1952, and the government sent in the Army to crush the insurgency and, in 1958, enacted the Armed Forces AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Power Act). It was the first time since independence that Indian Army was deployed to manage an internal conflict. However, the issues still remain unresolved.

In 1963, India granted statehood to the Naga people but the demand for independence has not vanished. Several conflicts and talks have taken place to resolve it. On 10th June 2015, India conducted surgical strikes against terrorist camps along the Indo-Myanmar international border in response to the attack on the Indian Army on 4th June 2015.

Arunachal Pradesh has been the hotbed of conflict between India and China. The Chinese claims the region and they had occupied the region in 1962 during the war. However, they withdrew from the region due to the lack of incentive and international pressure. In 2017, China had renamed six places in Arunachal Pradesh in an apparent retaliation against the Dalai Lama visit to the region.

Assam is another state that has witnessed conflicts. Illegal migrants from Bangladesh, drug smuggling and other criminal activities has led to many riots and conflicts in the region. Insurgency fuelled by demands of the Khasi, Synteng and Garo people for an independent state affects Meghalaya.

Another major issue is the “Gorkhaland issue” that has been brewing for few decades. The Gorkhaland Movement is focused in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal and demands the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland due to differences in ethnicity, culture and language. Gorkhaland is a strategic location due to the “Siliguri Corridor”. In 2017, the West Bengal government tried to crackdown protests conducted by pro-Gorkhaland supporters and it eventually lead to unrest in the region.

The unavailability of skilled labour and the lack of infrastructure in the NE region poses a further problem. In fact, there are also demands that a separate time zone be created for the North East. The Government has a huge work to be done in terms of resolving the complex issues. The present government is coming up with hydro-electricity and infrastructure project to improve development in the region. On 29th May 2017, the government inaugurated India’s longest 9.15-km river bridge connecting Assam and Arunachal Pradesh near the China border. The bridge can bear the weight of a 60-tonne battle tank and will provide a road-link to various strategic locations in the region and make civil and military movement easier.

India will have to continue to monitor the region for conflicts and try to resolve issues through dialogue and talks. India will have to protect the strategic Siliguri Corridor and monitor the Chinese influence and presence in the region. The Indian Air Force must be prepared for any attack or operation in the region (The IAF was not deployed in 1962 war). India must take steps to ensure Bhutan’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and neutrality.

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