New Delhi: Tiny Tripura’s style of handling insurgency and building relations with Bangladesh should be taken into account by India’s foreign policy planners while dealing with neighbouring countries, says a senior journalist with considerable experience of reporting on eastern India.
“The Agartala doctrine is based on the critical role played by Tripura in India’s foreign policy,” said Subir Bhaumik, editor of “The Agartala Doctrine: A proactive northeast in Indian foreign policy”, at the New Delhi launch of the book organised on Thursday by the Society for Policy Studies (SPS).
“Tripura’s chief ministers played a proactive role in India’s foreign policy,” he said.
Bringing together a rich mix of perspectives from academics and practitioners from South Asia, the book, published by Oxford University Press (OUP), provides a window for all those interested in understanding India’s foreign policy vis-a-vis its neighbours.
According to the book, India’s border states, especially those in the northeast, are now considered crucial to India’s foreign policy in the South Asian region. It calls for a robust national doctrine to guide these states in tackling pressing issues and also helping them boost their economy by accessing opportunities beyond borders.
It constructs such a framework by exemplifying Tripura’s not-so-well-known influence on India’s foreign policy towards East Pakistan and then Bangladesh for more than half a century through the so-called Agartala doctrine.
According to Bhaumik, a veteran journalist and senior fellow with the Kolkata-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD), it was Tripura’s first chief minister Sachindra Lal Singh who told then prime minister Indira Gandhi to “kick out” Pakistan from East Pakistan.
“Without the role played by Tripura’s chief ministers, Bangladesh would not have been a reality,” he said.
Current Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s handling of the insurgency problem in Tripura is cited as another such example.
“I am commending Tripura’s handling of its insurgency problem as a national doctrine for India’s dealings with its neighbours,” Bhaumik said.
“Manik Sarkar tackled insurgency by raiding the camps of rebel groups across the border in Bangladesh,” he said. The camps included those of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF).
Last year, Tripura became the first state to remove the “draconian” Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) on its own with the logic that armed forces were not needed to tackle depleted ranks of local insurgents who could be dealt with by the local police.
Bhaumik said Sarkar did not want to have things in writing as the operations were secret and advocated the “doctrine of appropriate response” in dealing with neighbouring countries.
“We should have an appropriate understanding of our neighbours… Be nice to us and we will be extra nice,” he said.
Pointing out a little known fact that Agartala was only the third internet gateway of India after Mumbai and Chennai, he said landlocked Tripura was now looking to open a land-to-sea route via Chittagong port with the help of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh High Commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali, who released the book at the function held at India International Centre, stressed on connectivity to boost relations between India and his country.
“Historically, India’s northeast has been connected with East Bengal through rail routes and steamer ships as roads were not in good condition,” he said.
While rail connectivity continued till the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the steamer ship services got disrupted due to sedimentation of rivers, he said.
Observing that there was no lack of sincerity on Bangladesh’s part in boosting connectivity with India, Ali said work was on to restore rail links and efforts to start new bus services on the Agartala-Dhaka-Kolkata and Dhaka-Shillong – Guwahati routes were initiated during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in June last year.
“Prime Minister Modi’s Act East policy has taken connectivity to a new level,” he said, adding that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was committed to the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement signed last year.
Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary and chairman of Research and Information System (RIS) for developing countries, was of the view that economic development of the border areas was the surest way of ensuring security in the region and for that connectivity was the key.
He said the RIS was looking at connectivity through the northeast in three different aspects — how to connect northeast with the rest of India in a better way; how to improve connectivity between the northeastern states; and how to connect the northeast with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and China.