India’s Look East Policy: Prospects and Challenges for Northeast India

Date01 December 2015
AuthorThongkholal Haokip
Published date01 December 2015
Subject MatterArticles
India’s Look East Policy: Prospects
and Challenges for Northeast India
Thongkholal Haokip1
The disruption of old trade routes by colonial rulers, the Partition of 1947 and India’s import substitution
economy deprived northeast India of its natural markets. Of late, there has been much talk about the
potentials of India’s Look East policy in transforming the region. The inclusion of the northeastern
region as an important component of this policy in 2003 is dubbed as the new paradigm of development
in the Northeast. The policy envisages the region not as the periphery of India, but as the centre of
a thriving and integrated economic space. Thus, many people see it as an excellent opportunity to
integrate not only with mainland Indian economy but also with its neighbouring countries in the east
and even beyond. In contrast, others view this policy as an extension of India’s imperialism in a new
form in that the Northeast will only provide a bridge between the rest of India and East and Southeast
Asia. The main argument of such critics is that India is more concerned with the eastern neighbours
and not its northeast. The article, while recognizing ‘borders’ as crucial in attempting to address the
problems of the Northeast, assesses the prospects of ‘Looking East’ through this region and the
challenges posed to it by post-colonial territoriality and other domestic problems. The integration
of the Northeast economy with the neighbouring countries is basically implemented through the
security-centric border management, wherein the opening of borders is limited to border trade
points and fencing the rest of the erstwhile open borders. This increasing restrictive regulation and
bureaucratic formalities on movement of people and goods across borders distort the traditional cross-
border economic dependence and erode social ties with ethnic kins on the other side of the border.
The article also explores the possible community–geography trade-offs in such borderlands.
India’s Look East policy, sub-regional cooperation, northeast India, Sinophobia, territoriality
Initiated in 1991,2 the Look East policy is a paradigm shift in India’s perspective of the world.3 It is ‘not
merely an external economic policy, it is also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s
1 Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
2 The earlier draft of this article was presented at the national seminar on ‘Look East Policy and North-East India: Achievements
and Constraints’, 26–27 March 2010, organized by North East India Council for Social Science Research, at Shillong.
3 Launched in 1991 but officially mentioned for the first time in the Annual Report of the Ministry of External Affairs in 1996, the
Look East policy has its genesis in the end of the Cold War following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, the real genesis of the
Look East policy is traced to the initial years of Indian independence. For details about the evolution, see Haokip (2011, p. 239).
Studies in Indian Politics
3(2) 198–211
© 2015 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023015601742
Corresponding author:
Thongkholal Haokip, Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi 110067.

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