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Time to ‘Act South’

Though it may seem far-fetched at first glance, Sri Lanka and the North-east have several things in common.

Rangan Dutta | Kolkata |

To many in the North-east, even a hint that the Easter terrorist outrage in Sri Lanka and its development experience might hold some lessons for the region would appear far-fetched as the situations seem so very different and Sri Lanka so far away. The North-east is landlocked and striving to build social and physical infrastructure for economic development while addressing ethnic unrest across the region.

Sri Lanka, on the contrary, is an emerging diversified economy with a steady growth and a per capita gross national income of US$ 4,265. It occupies the 71st position on the UN Human Development index, which is the highest in South Asia. Its location at the centre of sea routes connecting West Asia and the Indo-Pacific region accords the country an enormous strategic importance.

However, a perception emerged in a consultation with Austin Fernando, Sri Lankan Ambassador, which was organised by the Ambassadors Economic Forum of the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry at New Delhi recently under the guidance of the Forum’s convenor, KV Rajan, distinguished diplomat and a former Indian Ambassador to Nepal. Fernando said that developments after the 21 April Easter attacks, which left 258 dead and over 500 injured, hold important lessons and provide opportunities for broadening India-Sri Lanka cooperation in security and diverse development activities.

The PHDCCI is unique because of its stand that industry and business development must be seen as a part of the regional geopolitics and not in isolation because then only private sector initiatives in the neighbourhood could yield tangible and sustainable results. From this broad perspective, the North-east in general and Assam in particular, and Sri Lanka appear to have much in common.

First, the North-east is connected on land through the Siliguri corridor with the rest of India. On the other hand, Sri Lanka, though an island, is separated from Peninsular India by an equally narrow patch of sea.

Second is diverse ethnicity and presence of “geopolitical minorities” or ethno-lingual religious groups dominating some regions, even when they are “minorities” in the population as a whole like the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka and Bengalis in the Barak valley districts in Assam.

Third, both Sri Lanka and Assam experienced massive demographic changes caused by migration of labour from the neighbourhood following introduction of tea and jute in Assam and tea, coffee and spices in Sri Lanka and other forms of “extractive” activities by the colonial state. The presence of Tamils in the plantations added to the Sinhalese-Tamil divide after Sri Lanka attained independence in 1948 as the Sinhalese viewed them as “Indian Tamils” and “illegal migrants” much like the “Bangladeshi” is seen in the North-east. Thus the citizenship of “migrant Tamils” was a thorny issue of the Indo-Sri Lankan relationship right from 1948 and India agreed to the repatriation of such Tamils in phases.

In both Assam and Sri Lanka, an “official language policy” triggered the divide and in the latter, led to Tamil militancy and the demand for “Tamil Eelam”, an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. A hard-fought 26- year-long civil war ensued and after its end, unresolved issues of autonomy of Tamil regions, even when about 800,000 Tamils left Sri Lanka for India and other countries, remain. In the Northeast, “tribal identity movements”, which got a huge boost from the language policy of Assam, led to reorganisation of the region in 1971and eventually into seven states though statehood demands of several Assam tribes like the Bodos are still unmet.

Finally, both Sri Lanka and the North-east, especially Assam, have large Muslim populations with cultural and linguistic links with the Muslims of South India and Bangladesh respectively. The transfer of Goalpara, Sylhet and Cachar — three populous districts — to Assam when the province was carved out of Bengal Presidency in 1874 and introduction of jute cultivation in lower Assam, explain the current demography. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, though Muslims form only nine per cent of the population and are not a “geopolitical minority group”, they have significant presence in trade and industry

In this backdrop, the Easter outrage, for which the global terror group, Islamic State claimed responsibility, produced a “shock and awe” effect in Sri Lanka given the fact that the Muslims — mostly Tamils — didn’t identify themselves with the cause for a Tamil homeland and the armed struggle that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched in 1983 ended with its defeat in May 2009. Next, the evidence that a home grown outfit, National Thowhith Jamath, committed the attacks at three churches and four luxury hotels and that the radicalised Muslim youth of wealthy families were involved, contrary to the conventional view that the poor among the Muslims are susceptible to such influences, hardened the resolve of the Sri Lankan state to eradicate the menace.

From this perspective, Assam is placed in a more difficult situation as it has a porous land border with Bangladesh, which is an Islamic Republic where radical Islam is getting stronger in the districts adjoining Assam and the North-east. Recent media reports of growing influence of the banned outfit, Hizbut Tahir in Chittagong, disclosure of its plans for cocktail bombing in Dhaka, dissemination of incrementing materials in the border areas and its possible links with the IS and Bangladesh-based terror groups like Jamaiatul Mujahideen are security concerns for Assam as the contagion could easily spread as it did in Sri Lanka.

Thus, to deny these groups any political space, an early resolution of the citizenship and NRC exercise in a just, fair and transparent manner is a strategic need for stability and progress of Assam and the North-East. The recent decision of the Centre to assist Assam to set up 1,000 tribunals to deal with the citizenship cases is a step in the right direction.

The Ambassador assured that despite the terror attacks, Sri Lanka’s economy is robust. He invited Indian investment in the country and asked for technological co-operation. There are interesting commonalities in the economies of Assam and the Northeast and Sri Lanka, and potential for technical cooperation in several areas. Foremost in tea — it contributes two per cent to the Sri Lankan GDP employing about a million people, the majority of whom are employed in “small tea holdings” producing tea leaves for factories owned by large estates and companies. To promote tea plantations in small holdings as a job creation and rural anti-poverty programme, Sri Lanka had set up a Tea Small Holdings Development Authority, which could be a model for the emerging tea-growing states of the region like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram apart from the major tea growing states like Assam and Tripura. Plantations in small holdings for production and sale of leaves to factories are already a part of the tea development strategy of Assam and the Tea Board. This could be an entry point for Sri Lanka and Northeast India economic cooperation and in this, the Tocklai Tea Research Insitute at Jorhat in Assam, the oldest tea research centre of the world, could play a lead role. Duty free entry of Sri Lankan tea to the Indian market as a part of the South Asia Free Trade Association could be another initiative for mutual benefit in terms of meeting growing demand for value added tea in India and thereby, promoting expansion of the Sri Lankan tea industry. It may be recalled that plants brought from the Assam Tea Planters Association in 1854 were raised in nurseries and transplanted in the first tea garden of Sri Lanka at Kandy.

The other potential areas of scientific and technological co-operation are in rice research, coffee, cinnamon, rubber and spices because developments in the North-east in these fields, though initiated quite some time back by the national-level Commodity Boards, have not picked up and hence, experience and technology sharing with Sri Lanka might be of great help for the region.

Similar cooperation in meeting challenges of climate change and natural disaster preparedness is needed for mutual progress; more so because when put in place, it would create durable institutional linkages the kind of which the Association of South East Asian Nations has been able to build in areas of higher education, collaborative research and development efforts. Finally cooperation in tourism is a promising area as presently Sri Lankan tourism attention hasn’t reached beyond Kolkata and Bengal. Collaboration with the North-east might enable Sri Lanka to attract tourists from the region. It is time to take bold initiatives in the North-east; not only to “Act East” but also to “Act South”.

The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India.