High in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese forces stare each other down in the midst of the most intense standoff between the two nations in the last three decades. Though the territory is unique and unfamiliar to many, the situation is commonplace; aggressive Chinese expansionism, motivated by nationalistic furor, is being carried out under the guise of obscure territorial claims. This kind of behavior from Beijing is nothing new; the same can be said of New Delhi’s response. Put in concert with the continuing freeze in India-China relations and the broader geopolitical competition between two rising powers, the Doklam standoff seems quite neatly (albeit worryingly) laid out. But however compelling this narrative might be, it is a mistake to view the conflict only through the prism of India-China competition and ignore the underlying Indian domestic politics of this current crisis: the challenge of Northeast India. Understanding the larger context of the Northeast’s importance to India highlights just what is at stake here for the nation.
The basic facts of this dispute are now clear, even if the precise geography is not. In June, Indian forces crossed an established border between the state of Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region in reaction to China building roads through territory claimed by both China and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Besides a longstanding commitment to guiding and defending Bhutan’s interests, much has been made of India’s larger domestic motivation in this conflict. Chinese expansion in the area pushes the country ever closer to the Siliguri Corridor or “Chicken’s Neck,” a narrow strip of land that serves as the only connection between Northeast India and the rest of the country. Despite it being perhaps the primary motivating factor in a dangerous and complex crisis, little attention has been paid to the region of the Northeast itself. Understanding its unique situation is key to understanding the forces behind Doklam.
Northeast India is quite used to being ignored. Comprising eight states and some 40 million people, the Northeast is a breathtaking landscape of incredible diversity; yet it is often pushed to the side or forgotten about in both national and international debates. There are several reasons for this. Politically, the region only controls 25 seats in the Lok Sabha, the directly elected house of India’s Parliament. Its states’ economies are still highly agrarian and suffer from chronic underdevelopment. Geographically and culturally, it is quite isolated from the government and the rest of the polity. As a result, identity in the Northeast often has much more to do with tribal affiliation than with nationality.
Even so, the Northeast is a region of immense economic promise, both for India and for Asia at large. The working population, for now concentrated mostly in the agrarian sector, is nonetheless highly literate and continues to grow along with its different states’ economies. Though the region’s terrain is difficult, it is abundant in natural resources. In fact, the Northeast’s greatest potential sources directly from its geography. As a critical connection between India and Southeast Asia, it may become a hub for cross-regional commerce and form the linchpin of Modi’s Act East policy.
Development in the region to this end has been complicated by a number of factors. Owing to the strangled border arrangement and the harsh terrain, it has been difficult to move resources and people efficiently to and from the Northeast. Free trade pacts with Nepal and Bangladesh (as have been agreed upon in previous SAARC summits) could amend this issue somewhat, but progress on those agreements has stalled for now. The region’s largest issue has more to do with its population than its geography. Strong tribal and ethnolinguistic identities have led to a myriad of insurgencies and separatist groups that have grappled with government forces since the Northeast became part of India. These groups are an integral part of India’s apprehensions regarding the Siliguri; were a conflict to break out and China to cut off the Northeast, insurgents would certainly take advantage of the situation to try and separate entirely. With Chinese support, India fears that they may very well succeed.
Yet this fear betrays an underestimation of the people of the Northeast and their commitment to India’s national project. Voter turnout in Northeastern states consistently falls well above the national average. There is a strong tradition across the region of political and civic engagement, and it is home to many of India’s most renowned political activists. The largest threat to India’s security in the Northeast region is not insurgent and separatist groups or Chinese invaders but rather its own anemic policies. By making a real commitment to fixing the most pressing issues in the region through economic development and governance reforms, India could further its broader security interests in safeguarding the Northeast. Developing the Northeast will do more for Indian security than can be accomplished by any number of the troops and weapons it is currently marshaling against Chinese forces. In time, the region could move from being one of India’s most pressing liabilities to being its strongest asset, providing a bulwark against Chinese hegemony in both the Himalayas and Southeast Asia.
Challenging times lie ahead for India. While the conflict at Doklam continues with no clear end in sight, none of the possible outcomes will immediately solve India’s China problem, its Siliguri problem, or its Northeast problem. Longer term, however, through a proactive approach to Northeast policy, India could eventually kill three birds with one stone.
Gaurav Kalwani is a researcher in the Stimson Center South Asia Program.