Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: The Agartala Doctrine: A Proactive Northeast in Indian Foreign Policy, Subir Bhaumik

Snehashish Mitra

(Snehashish is a research assistant at Calcutta Research Group and can be reached at

In the annals of history, today’s northeast region (NER) of India has been a frontier region without any clear cut boundary or borders. Territories were marked by a few kingdoms like the Ahoms, Koch, Manipur and Twipperah (today’s Tripura), while ethnic demography was equally influential in controlling resources. Until the dawn of independent India’s rule, the region witnessed frequent border shifts & orientation, while internal reorientation has continued through formation of new states and autonomous councils as a response to security centric agendas and aspirations of autonomy along ethnic cum indigenous lines. As per the design of partition in 1947, the NER shares borders with multiple nations of southeast Asia. Therein the foreign policy of India holds multiple ramifications for the northeast region. With options of India being limited on the Western front due to unfriendly Pakistan, unstable Afghanistan and turbulent middle-east, India has recently focused on expanding bilateral ties with the eastern neighbours; though northeast India didn’t figure in India’s Look East policy in the 1990s, around 2008 it has started to gain importance in the imaginaries of India’s geopolitics as it aspires to shift from security centric governance to trade centric governance in the northeast.   Tripura deserves a special mention with regards to its proactive nature in engaging with its immediate foreign neighbour . Thus the choice of the book title by veteran journalist Subir Bhaumik has in a way acknowledged Tripura’s role by including Tripura’s capital Agartala within the title.

‘The Agartala Doctrine’ brings together a myriad range of articles which encompasses the local dynamics of the region by focusing on Assam and Bhaumick’s own inputs on Tripura, and stretches out to the multiple dynamics of foreign policies, sub-regional bodies like ASEAN, BIMSTEC etc.[1] Bhaumik  introduces the readers by giving a critical overview of India’s recent foreign policy and how domestic politics also play a pivotal role considering West Bengal and Tamil Nadu’s stance on international issues. Bhaumik then goes into the detail of Tripura’s tryst with migration, insurgency, ethnic autonomy and relation with Bangladesh and aims to formulate few guiding principles of India’s foreign policy drawing from Tripura’s experience. Bhaumik locates the success of the Tripura’s decision making in the past and hence roots for the ‘Tripura Line’ for appropriate response of India’s foreign policy which is actively pursuing the Eastern neighbours.

The first section includes two essays; the one by senior journalist Samir Purakayasta discusses the different issues of illegal migration from Bangladesh into Assam and their implications. It discuses the line system, Liaqat-Nehru pact, Bangladesh War and the Assam Accord 1985, all of which have inextricable link with migration in Assam. The perception of migration in Assam has led to unkind reception of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) involving swapping of enclaves. The author rightly points out that it is imperative to locate the illegal migrants through National Register of Citizens (NRC) and enhance the transit facilities through Bangladesh to open up new avenues of communication and exchange for landlocked northeast India. The other essay of the section by Bangladesh’s foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan emphasizes on the shared destiny of India and Bangladesh and gives a comprehensive list of suggestions for both the nations. Sobhan cites the importance of the North Eastern Region: Vision 2020, prepared by the DONER[2] Ministry in the context of subregional cooperation in South Asia.
The second section takes up the internal environment of northeast India and how it has negotiated with India’s Look East policy.  Laldinkima Sailo points at the deficiencies of northeast India’s infrastructure and how it impediments the region’s ability to unleash its full potential in almost every sector. Sailo points out the renewed interest to open up the trade routes which existed prior to the 1947 partition. Apprehension however remains as in how the opening up of the economy would in turn affect the indigenous communities of the region and their involvement in trade. Sailo goes into the strategic compulsions of the Indian state which has influenced the governance of the northeast region. Shashi Tharoor’s essay seeks to unravel the dynamics behind India’s Look East policy and the regional groupings like BIMSTEC & BCIM[3]. Tharoor’s description of the historical linkages between India and Southeast Asian nations is particularly enlightening. The essay focuses on India’s tie with further east, such as Japan and South Korea and how they have over the years been involved in different infrastructural projects in India. Tharoor cautions against opening the Stilwell road as China is yet to recognize Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India and flooding of Chinese goods in Indian market is already a reality, he rather emphasizes the need of reorienting internal infrastructures. The educational institutes like the IITs & IIMs[4] need to unlock the potential of sending the human capitals to southeast Asian nations. Sandeep Chakravorty’s essay goes into the subregional groupings in length and focuses strongly on the India-Bangladesh-Myanmar continuum.  He opines that the political turmoil around the Rohingyas in Myanmar does have the potential to hamper the bonhomie between the three nations. Chakravorty praises the initiatives taken by Mizoram to develop their infrastructure with the help of World Bank.

The third section brings up China’s role and involvement in the grid of India’s Look East policy. Baladas Ghosal in his essay portrays the different moves of geopolitics between the two nations based on India’s nuclear testing, Look East policy and India’s maritime cooperation with USA-Japan. Resource extractions also emerges as issues of contention if one observes China’s reaction to India’s oil exploration activities in South China Sea with permits issues by Vietnam. Binoda Mishra and Patricia Uberoi give exhaustive details of the BCIM Economic Corridor which is supposed to serve as the only direct overland link between China and India. Mishra opines that it’s important to integrate Bangladesh, northeast India, Myanmar & Yunan province of China that were integrated economically & culturally few decades back. The perception of relative gain is pivotal in determining India’s role in BCIM, according to Mishra. Bertil Lintner’s essay highlights the geopolitics competition between China & the Western powers in Myanmar, the influence of which will be significant in shaping the regional environment of India’s northeast though Look East. Lintner explores the USA’s reaction towards the Look East policy and the subsequent Indo-USA navy drills in the Andaman islands. The essay covers the political journey of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and the levels of negotiation between her and the military junta. The troika of China, USA and India heavily determines the political fate of Mayanmar and Linter has prudently delved into the details of the troika’s implications. The essay by Chinese research scholars Chen Lijun & Kong Can provides China’s outlook towards regional cooperation, especially on the BCIM question. The essay envisions that with proper coordination among the nations, the BCIM regions can prosper immensely in the coming days; it emphasizes that the markets and borders should be opened up, mutual understandings can be deepened by exchange of education, tourism, health care etc. What marks the essay apart from the other essays on China in this section that it absolutely bypasses the geopolitical complexities of the relations among the BCIM countries; liberalizing the different aspects of economy and border seems to be the panacea in the Lijun & Can’s thesis. It might be the case that relative comparative advantage of China on different sectors over its immediate neighbour has led to downplaying the issues of border conflicts and geopolitical equations.

The fourth section investigates how states have shaped Chinese, Russian & USA foreign policies. Jabin T Jacob in his essay deals with how Chinese states of Yunnan & Xinjiang have influenced China’s foreign policy. Jacob does a comprehensive enquiry into the state structures of India & China and the level of autonomy the states of the respective countries possess in foreign dealings. The comparison of Gujarat with Guandong gives a comparative provincial experience and the increasing importance of sub-nationalist actors in Indo-China interactions & exchanges. Aditi Bhaduri in her essay deals with the tate’s role in erstwhile Soviet Union and later Russia; she focuses on the issue of federalism in foreign policy & points to the need of balance between national & local concerns. In a similar line Edward Downie presents the role of states in USA’s foreign policy. In the concluding section Subir Bhaumik lobbies for multi-alignment with the powers of USA, China & Russia rather than non-alignment for India. How India positions itself in the geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia would determine its ability to exercise strategic autonomy in the global arena. It’s imperative that the states of northeast India develops a close relationship with its neighbouring countries, like Tripura has done with Bangladesh, in order to reduce the dependence on the faraway states like Gujarat or Maharashtra for both manufactured goods and markets for the products of the region. In this regards, Bhoumik asserts, that it’s vital to tap the Chinese markets, which would attract manufacturing units in northeast India.

The Agartala Doctrine gives a sense of the reality of foreign policies of India with regards to its eastern neighbours. It exhibits the challenges & opportunities that need to be considered in formulating and executing of India’s further agendas. Economics apart, the policies would also have an impact on the issues of insurgency in northeast. Therein, ‘The Aagrtala Doctrine’ gives the reader with the ground to top level approaches to the issues and basic guidelines to the states of India on how to influence the foreign policy of the nation, much like what Tripura has been successfully practicing since independence.


[1]  ASEAN –Association of South East Asian Nations, BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
[2] DONER – Ministry of the  Development of the Northeast Region
[3] BCIM – Bangladesh-China-India –Myanmar
[4] IIT – Indian Institute of Technology, IIM- Indian Institute of Management 

No comments: