Northeast India - a region affected by geopolitics


By Samrat Choudhury

It is easy to forget when you’re in Shillong that Tamabil in Bangladesh, across the border from the border post of Dawki, is closer than Guwahati. In Guwahati itself, there is a history of decades of anxieties and tensions centred around “Bangladeshis”, though in actual practice this term has often meant harassment of Bengalis regardless of citizenship.

However, there is little awareness of the fact that Assam has only two short stretches of border with Bangladesh, and both at distant extremities of the state. It does have a long international border very close to its capital, however - with Bhutan. The distance from Dispur to Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan is about the same as that from Dispur to Shillong.

Certain places loom large in our mental maps because of frequent travels, or the ways they are reported in the news. However, the inaccuracies of our mental imaginings do nothing to change the hard realities of geography.

In the case of Northeast India, which is surrounded by international boundaries – with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China – the mental distance in the public mind of certain places is one that is sustained only by a failure to appreciate the extent to which the region was and is affected by geopolitics.

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The current boundaries of what constitutes Northeast India date to 1947 or later. Before that, the region was a part of a wider geographical area that included what is now Bangladesh. The region emerged on the map with the Partition of India, and the separation of Burma from the British Indian territories which preceded it in 1937. The foreshadowing of its territorial extent was contained in the first law passed for what is now Northeast India.

Passed in 1873, it is called the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation. As the name implies, it was a law meant for the territories that constituted what was then, under British rule, considered the eastern frontier of Bengal. This was the law that brought into existence the Inner Line Permit. The concept of “outside” and “inside” was then the exact opposite of what it is now. British-administered territories were the ones that did not require a permit to visit – they were inside the Inner Line. The outer limits of the frontier generally lay beyond the Inner Line, in the unadministered territory. It was not a clear line of a border; it was more of a vague and shifting zone of transition.

The easternmost section of this frontier was what is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Much of it was, even as late as 1900, a blank on the map of the world. There were no roads, and travel was on foot along jungle paths that followed the course of the great rivers that flow into the Brahmaputra. The local tribes, especially the Adi, who were then known as the Abor, were hostile to outsiders and often greeted visiting expeditions with deadly attacks. The British left them largely alone until events elsewhere forced a change in policy in the first decade of the 1900s.

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The British Indian empire was then concerned about the expansion of Tsarist Russia to its north; they feared that Tibet would fall to Russia. Imperial power had weakened in China, and the Qing dynasty was collapsing. The year after it fell in 1912, Tibet, which had been under Chinese suzerainty, declared independence. The British decided that the time was right to fix the external boundary between what is now Northeast India, and Tibet. An expedition called the Morshead-Bailey expedition was sent up the Brahmaputra valley through Arunachal in 1913 to trace the Himalayan watershed.

Their findings became the basis for the maps that were drawn up and presented at the Shimla Conference of 1914 where Sir Henry McMahon obtained the assent of the Dalai Lama’s representative on the line that bears his name. The McMahon Line became the boundary, still disputed, between India and Tibet. China, which was represented at the conference by “Monsieur” Ivan Chen of the short-lived Republic of China government, still does not accept this boundary. Ivan Chen left the conference before its conclusion, and headed to Calcutta, from where he took a ship back to China.

The port of Calcutta historically offered the easiest route between Tibet and China. Even when the Chinese eventually recovered control of Lhasa with the signing of the Seventeen Point Agreement in 1951, the Tibetan representatives who struck that deal with Mao’s China returned home via Shanghai to Calcutta, from where they proceeded to Gangtok (Sikkim) en-route Tibet.

These interesting little tidbits of history are still relevant. The Chinese have a clear ongoing interest in the port of Calcutta, which is the only Indian city that appears on Chinese maps of the Belt and Road Initiative as part of the Maritime Silk Route. The Chinese would benefit geopolitically from having an outlet to the Bay of Bengal. Traditionally, Calcutta was that outlet, for Tibet, while Chittagong in Bangladesh, on the other side of the Sundarbans Delta, was the port for land-locked Yunnan.

The Chinese refer to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet, and it appears on Chinese maps as their territory. They have not shown interest in the past in actually annexing that territory, even after their swift military victory in 1962, when Tezpur in Assam had to be evacuated by the Indian government. Their cartographic claims are however expanding, and becoming more insistent. The core of the Chinese territorial claims in Northeast India centres around the Tawang Tract. The latest Chinese maps now extend those claims into neighbouring areas of Bhutan.

This brings the Chinese border, as they imagine it, to around 200 km from the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati.

The writer, an author and journalist, is a former editor of major broadsheet newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.