Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3


Analyzing 'Region Formation' in India's North East: Contextualizing The Look East Policy


Gorky Chakraborty

I Introduction

Creation and annihilation of ‘space’ is inseparable to capitalist mode of production, accumulation and domination. While some scholars state that in order to satisfy capitalism’s insatiable urge for cheaper raw materials, newer sources of labor and markets, it annihilate space by time1, others argue that it is only through the production of fixed and immobile ‘spatial-fixes’ in the form of space-time compression2 that capital’s circulation process is accelerated. Without entrapping our analysis to any one school of thought mentioned above, it can certainly be argued that capital’s surge for accumulation is multi-scalar where there is simultaneous dialectic interplay of annihilation and compression of space and time accordingly.

In this vein, it is observed that the recent phase of globalization has moved towards annihilating the production process from the state-centric territorial traps but in the process it has also given rise to regional formations facilitating compression. So space instead of being self-enclosed cartographic unit has become a liberated despatialized entity, whereby annihilation and compression occurs simultaneously. Thus, instead of the complete withering of the nation-states we observe the emergence of region-states for initiating the ways for capital’s urge for dominance and accumulation.

In this regards, scholars may argue about the complimentary and contradictory nature of these formations vis-à-vis capitals insatiable urge or may analyze whether the status quo of the existing cartographic space of nation-states will be maintained or will it bring about a new phase of deterritorialization and subsequent reterritorialization or may even question as to whether despatialization for enhancing profits remain limited to the economic sphere or will it reactivate the socio-cultural and ethnic fault lines which hitherto remained self-enclosed within the existing territorial limits of the nation-states?

Without attempting to settle these issues, we will try to carry it forward by restricting ourselves to understanding the process of region formation in India’s North East and then attempt to interpret the much hyped Look East Policy and the imperatives associated with it.

II Pre-colonial Frame

The pre-capitalist form of region in North East was rather a bio-region with clan boundaries, which, though occupied varying geo-spatial areas, was essentially non-territorial in nature. In the North East, such clans had multitudinous political formations ranging from republican, authoritarian and convivial systems that in turn corresponded to the state of economic formations. We can find two distinct economic formations in the region­­- the subsistence economy in the hills and the surplus-yielding economy in the valley areas. The nature of these two economic formations i) subsistence and ii) surplus virtually divided the region in two spatial entities – hills and plains. This followed the simple logic that smaller the surplus, less elaborate is it public authority and less extensive is its territorial space and vice versa.

There emerged three distinct yet interactive modes of production in the North East, namely: the Domestic, the Intermediary and the Capitalist. The Domestic mode of production was accompanied by shifting cultivation and forest gathering, with a communitarian ethos and the wet field agricultural economy generating limited surplus. The Intermediary mode of production was based on petty trade and small mercantile base created by surplus agriculture. The foothill areas were the sub-peripheral entry points for trade. The capitalist mode of production superseded such spaces and converted these into the colonial sites of accumulation.

History bears testimony to the fact that early trade in the northeast helped to mediate between the differentiated spaces created by domestic and capitalist modes of production but could not bring about structural changes in the economy. In the pre-capitalist phase trade and mercantile economy did not scale-up; it was based on barter system, limited goods; lacked monetization and an aggressive mercantile class. The stagnancy and immutability of the economy, warfare and luxuriant practices of the kings, nobles and their associates did also hinder the larger space creation for capital accumulation.

III Colonial frame

The Treaty of Yandaboo (1826) for the first time initiated the process of re-creation and de-creation of spaces. Later the colonials made series of regulations to re-define colonial space. They also made a distinction between the natural space of the hills of Assam and civilizational space of the British territory through the promulgation of the Inner Line Regulation of 1873. The similar distinction was made through the Scheduled District Act and Assam Frontier Tract Regulation. Things culminated in the visit of Simon Commission and eventual Government of India Act-1935 under which the tribal areas of the northeast were re-constructed as ‘Excluded Areas and Partially Excluded Areas’. Colonial trade and strategic interest led to re-structuring of the tribal constellations in North East. As a result of which, the Mizo chiefs were given ‘Boundary Paper’ (Ramri Lekha) that gave the chiefs the British-defined rights over certain territorial spaces and not beyond; the Kuki chiefs were given Settlement Rights and the Assam Chieftainship Act made and unmade the bio-spaces governed by the numerous chiefdoms. These were acts of structured sub-ordination by the British.

The second mode of spatial re-definition was conversion of common property resources through the twin instrument of res nullius and lex loci. Draining out the incredible resource endowments of the region and accessing to south China’s natural wealth were the major targets of the colonials. This converted bio-spaces into British-defined territorial spaces.

The third mode was artificial demarcation of forest areas through the ‘Reserved’ forest which denied natural right of the forest dependent communities over the commons. The Assam Forest Regulation, 1891 created certain type of ‘spatial enclave’ with administratively defined forest boundaries that prohibited entry of tribal and forest dependent people. Such ‘spatial enclave’ was created in different hill areas of the region at different points of times depending upon the exigencies of colonial expansion. The Assam Forest Regulation, 1891 denied acquiring of right of people except by succession or under a grant of contract in written and made or entered into, or on behalf of, the Government of some persons in whom such rights or power to create such right was vested when the proclamation was published, and on such land no new house shall be built or plantation formed, no fresh cleaning for cultivation or for any other purpose of trade or manufacture except as hereinafter provided. Both the Land Acquisition Act and the Forest Regulation Act defined space to fit in with colonial region formation and thereby changed the hitherto use and ownership patterns.

The fourth mode was Land Revenue administration. The Assam Land Revenue Regulation was promulgated in 1896. In the hills, Hill House Tax was imposed through the Chin Hills Regulation. Whereas most part of Assam came under the Ryotwari system, some areas were brought under the Permanent and Temporary Settlements. The Regulation was brought into force in Cachar, Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgong, Sibsagar and Lakhimpur and with certain exceptions in North Cachar Hills, Garo Hills District, Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Naga Hills and Lushai Hills districts. The Regulation was brought into force in the tract transferred from the Mokokchung sub-division of the Naga Hills district to the Sibsagar district. There were however subsequent modifications in the Regulation. Rights over land were converted from natural right to acquired right. In Tripura the Chakla Rosanabad areas was brought under the Zamindari system and the King of Tripura, the tributary of the East India Company, was accorded Zamindari rights in Chakla Rosanabad. The state of Manipur followed the Assam Land Revenue Regulation and Ryotwari system was thereby followed there.

The fifth mode was road and infrastructure building that also de-constructed and re-constructed space and in the process of which many a people and villages went into oblivion only to be recreated in historical research.

Revenue interest of the colonials squeezed the community space through individualization of rights that prolonged in the postcolonial era too. There were great roles of administration, institutional power, warfare and forcible annexation in re-definition of space. However, it is to be understood that the colonial de-construction and re-construction of space was not a one stroke affair rather it was a process that depended on colonial requirements and the associated incremental market opportunities.

Similarly, in 1913-14, the British administrator, Sir Henry McMahon, drew up the 550-mile long McMahon Line as the border between British India and Tibet as Britain sought to advance its line of control and establish a buffer zone around its colony in South Asia. In the same light, in 1914 British India brought some tribes of Assam under North-East Frontier Tracts comprising of two sections: the Central & Eastern Section (comprising the erstwhile Dibrugarh Frontier Tract, created in 1882, and some more areas in south) and the Western Section. The Central and Eastern Section was subsequently renamed as Sadiya Frontier Tract, while the Western Section was renamed as Balipara Frontier Tract. By The North Eastern Frontier Tracts (Internal Administration) Regulation, 1943, Tirap Frontier Tract was created by amalgamating certain areas of Sadiya and Lakhimpur Frontier Tracts. In 1946, Balipara Frontier Tract was further divided into two administrative units: Sela Sub-Agency and Subansiri Area. A combined outcome of these was de-creation of the bio spaces and incorporation of these spaces into the colonial space.

IV Liberal Frame

The post-colonial Indian state viewed North East through security and threat prism due to its long international border. The mega project of spatial re-structuring was confronted by countervailing ethnic spaces some of which symbolized ‘rebel consciousnesses’. This created (i) hiatus between the two spatial realities- nation and ethnic and (ii) a dyadic face-off between the dominant integrationist view of the Indian state and the ethno-spatial view of the emerging regional elites. The region was viewed as a cartographic space of the grand polity of India whereas the contesting bio-regional and ethno-cultural spaces countervailed such view. Partition of the country in 1947 and eventual overnight refugee formation gave a sudden shock to the people whose bio-spaces were divided by international boundaries. Whereas as kinship units their affinities died hard across the borders, partition divided them spatially. Things took more serious turn when the Post -1971 Bangladeshi refugees sought for space and cognition in certain parts of the northeast.

Post-1947, North East Frontier Tract became a part of Assam state. In 1948, Sadiya Frontier Tract was bifurcated into two districts: Abor Hills district and Mishmi Hills district. In 1950, the plain areas of these Tract’s, (Balipara Frontier Tract, Tirap Frontier Tract, Abor Hills district and Mishimi Hills District) were transferred to the Assam state government and the rest became one of the Tribal Areas within Assam (under Part-B of the table appended to paragraph 20 of the sixth schedule of the Indian Constitution). In 1951, Balipara Frontier Tract, Tirap Frontier Tract, Abor Hills district, Mishmi Hills district and the Naga tribal areas were together renamed as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in 1954. It was divided into six frontier divisions: Kameng (formerly Sela Sub-Agency), Subansiri (formerly Subansiri area), Tirap (formerly Tirap Frontier Tract), Siang (formerly Abor Hills district), Lohit (formerly Mishmi Hills district) and Tuensang. On 1st December 1957, Tuensang was separated and attached to the newly formed Naga Hills District to form Naga Hills-Tuensang Area. The administration of NEFA was placed under the Ministry of External Affairs with the Governor of Assam acting as agent to the President of India. In 1965 the administration of the agency was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Consequently, in 1965, the five frontier divisions (Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Lohit, and Tirap) became five Districts. A Deputy Commissioner became the administrative head of these districts in place of a Political Officer. In 1967, an Agency Council was constituted for better administration. Till 1972, it was constitutionally a part of Assam and was directly administered by the President of India through the Governor of Assam acted as its Agent. In 1972, the North-East Frontier Agency was promoted as Union territory and was placed under the charge of a Chief Commissioner. It got statehood in 1987. The other Constitutional spaces that were created through grants of statehood; Autonomous District Councils; Autonomous State; Autonomous Territory and so on.

In the economic front, different programmes and schemes for development extended the space associated with Intermediary mode of production as more and more community space (which may be referred as ‘lived space’) got entangled in this exercise of nation building. These came under the purview of market forces and exchange relationship. But this transformation of space from a ‘lived’ to ‘used’ entity generated tension and conflict, as those associated with this transformation did not belong to the in situ community. This could be exemplified by the presence of Bangladeshi/Nepali farmers in different parts of the northeast region.

On the other, the emerging elites of North East India had plethora of imaginations about the spatial status of their own. The ethno-spatial movements of the Naga, Khasi, Mizo, Bodo and the Kuki groups are classical examples. These can be broadly classified under the integrationists, isolationists, pan-ethnic, and the trans-territorial categories. Now that there was a great transformation from the pre-capitalist bio-space, territorial politics became volatized in the region. The accidental proximity of the two regional spaces- India and northeast India exposed the paradox of discordance.

V Post-liberal Frame

The ‘Look East’ policy viewed northeast as a strategic point through which India could really look east farther towards Southeast Asia and sought closer economic and security ties with maritime southeast Asia. This policy was initiated in the context of liberalization. Re-creation of region was necessary for pioneering trade and market niches through the northeastern region towards the Southeast Asia. Globalization thus ‘unbounded’ the region and simultaneously ‘narrowed’ down its vision to market expansion.

On the other hand, there emerged continuous struggle of various ethnic groups for re-drawing the territorial boundaries according to the imagined spatial blueprints. This created a deadlock. While the Indian state liberated its economic space it was not adequately responsive to the latter. Market economy demanded a highly centralized state as a support institution that discarded any imagined blue-prints. The question of region-formation thus got entrapped in a paradox: de-territorialization and a centralized state. The dissenting views of subaltern region formations added on to this paradox and added further criticality to the spatial spread of capital.

At the meso level, region formation was driven by the logic of economic rationality whereby region was conceived as natural economic zones engulfing the ‘space’ of more than one nation state. Thus we found emergence of different regional groupings, apart from SAARC and ASEAN (India became full dialogue partner of SAARC in 1997), in the market economy frame. These include BISTEC (later re-constituted as BIMSTEC). Nepal and Bhutan also joined this block and it was re-named as ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative’ for a multi-sectoral, technical and economic cooperation in 2004. The Ganga-Mekawng Cooperation (GMC) included India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

The other sub-regional groupings included the South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) comprising Bangladesh, seven northeastern sates, West Bengal, Nepal and Bhutan; South Asian Business Forum under South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation; and the Kunming Initiative for integrating the resource rich areas of Yunan province of China, northern Myanmar, North East India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan into Asian communication network. Space reconfiguration under market economy in reality thus went well beyond the South to the Southeast Asia and North East India came to implicate in both these regional spaces.

VI In Lieu of Conclusion

Space, instead of being self-enclosed cartographic unit becomes a liberated despatialized entity under globalization that annihilates space by time or deterritorialization but simultaneously there is also space-time compression which is leading to newer region formation or reterritorialization. In case of trade, this phenomenon is amply reflected, where there has been certainly more openings in terms of global trade under WTO regime yet it is also simultaneously evident that reconfiguration of regions for trade are happening within the WTO regime itself. The regional dominos therefore becomes the tool through which the big global players facilitate their dominance and accumulation in the global market. It is in this context that the emergence of region-states without the withering of the nation states becomes important. If we consider the Look East Policy from the above view point, certain criticalities emerge, whose resolution seems pertinent for the Policy to attain its desired objectives.

The Look East Policy primarily aimed at prioritizing market interest through trade whereby the state policies were geared towards global financial players for attracting Foreign Direct Investments, so that the resource endowed North East India spearheads economic growth and leads to the forward market integration with the immediate South East Asian region, an opportunity that was suddenly lost during the post colonial era. To attain this desired objective the cultural affinities of the people in the North East and its immediate neighbors were sought to be highlighted, which it was believed would augment the economic imperative of trade promotion. But in reality since the cultural affinity of the people in the region and their proximate neighbors became trade policy assets, it remained entrapped within the precincts of state rather than embedded within the society and therefore failed to deliver the expected dividends.

The desired forward market integration of the region with South East Asia as envisaged in the Policy was sought to be implemented through connectivity and infrastructure development but existential reality suggest that this is inseparably linked with security environment of the region at large. So rather than trade, trade-related securitization is often found to occupy the center stage at all the regional forums associated with the region.

The complementarity assumption between regional trade and global trade needs to be demystified and analyzed properly. It is observed that both in the Indo-China and Indo-Myanmar borders brisk business is done not with in-situ produced industrial goods from the North Eastern region but from those produced either in mainland India and/or outside India. So although it is a truism that the region is richly endowed with natural resources and has huge potential yet North East has yet to make a mark in the regional trade other than acting as a conduit in the entire process.

Lack of common market denies the producers in the region with the benefits of minimizing the cost of production and shifting resources to more efficient products. Similarly, inter-state movement of natural person is highly problematic considering the problem of influx associated with the region. Moreover, the uneven levels of development, limited taxation power of the states and lack of connectivity in the region pose threats towards proper economic development and participation in regional trade.

Domestic reforms in laws, regulations and institutions got limited to liberalization of quantitative restrictions and high subsidization policies of the states. This resulted in restriction of North East and its products to international competition, on one hand and on the other did not expand regional integration which hampered the growth of common market at both the intra-state and inter-state levels. So trade creation as thought about in the Look East Policy did not materialize.

On the contrary, this brought about opportunities for the global market players to take full advantage of liberalization in quantitative restrictions and policy subsidies given by the states in the region. While the regional trade initiatives could not go beyond the mechanisms of Preferential Trade Agreements and/or Free Trade Agreements under the present arrangements, there also due to the lack of in-situ produced industrial goods from the region, North East remains a mere pathway for trade with the South East Asian region and securing the pathway remains the sole priority of the Indian state. Such a scenario might lead to resecuritization, associated along with the countervailing backlash from the region.


1. ‘Annihilation of space by time’ is an expression used by Marx to illustrate capitals globalizing dynamics whereby the world market is referred essentially as a historical product and a geographical expression.

2. ‘Space-time compression’ is an expression used by Harvey for arguing that it is only through fixed and immobile configurations of territorial organizations that capital’s circulation process is accelerated temporally and expanded spatially.


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             Roy, Kumar, Asok, Whither North East? (New Delhi: Om Publications, 2010)

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