Using Ethnicity to Connect and Establish People-to-People Linkages
in Southeast Asia as part of India’s Act East Policy


A Seminar

1 July 2019

  The Centre for Development and Peace Studies (CDPS) organized a day-long Research Seminar titled, “Using Ethnicity to Connect and Establish People-to-People Linkages in Southeast Asia as part of India’s Act East Policy” on 1 July 2019. The Seminar was organized in collaboration with the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Gauhati University. The Seminar was part of a Research Project undertaken by CDPS to analyze the historical and ethnic linkages existing between India and the Southeast Asian region, with special focus on India’s Northeast; and to analyze as to how ethnicity may be used to connect people across borders in the Southeast Asian region.
Picture: Mr. Gautam Mukhopadhaya, IFS (retd), delivering the Keynote Address

The Seminar was inaugurated by Mr. Gautam Mukhopadhaya, IFS (retd), former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, who also delivered the Keynote Address. In his address, Ambassador Mukhopadhaya said that the Act East Policy is slowly opening up opportunities for Northeast India and the people here have to grab these opportunities. He spoke extensively about the border haats along the international borders with countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh, saying that these haats are needed to strengthen people-to-people contact. While speaking about indigenous languages, he said that languages are a storehouse of knowledge and experiences, which is stored in form of folktales, proverbs, etc., and these needs to be preserved and protected. He also spoke about the various initiatives undertaken by the Indian government under the Act East Policy for integrating the northeastern region of India with Southeast Asia.

Mr. Ravi Capoor, IAS, Additional Chief Secretary, Industries & Commerce Department, Assam, said that Northeast India and Southeast Asia shares the same DNA and it has been evident from ancient times. He stressed on the point that the issue here is ‘re-connecting’ the region, as these two regions were already connected during the earlier times. He said that trade between the people of these two regions is the biggest engine of growth for people-to-people contact. He outlined various initiatives taken by the government like the UDAN scheme, medical exchange, etc. to connect the people of Northeast India and Southeast Asia. He presented the ancient maps of the region and the present connectivity efforts to re-link the area through these routes. In the end, he emphasized that the people of Northeast India has to take advantage of its geo-strategic location and come up with entrepreneurial ideas to wholly benefit from the Act East Policy.

Picture: Mr. Ravi Capoor, IAS, addressing the Seminar

Dr. Sangeeta Gogoi, Head, Department of History, Mangaldoi College, gave a historical perspective on the relations between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. She showcased the similarities shared between the various tribes of the region in terms of culture, traditions, language, handlooms, etc. She spoke about tribal migration and the routes taken by various tribes to enter Northeast India.

Dr. Rajen Singh, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Manipur University, said that there are three factors that can enhance people-to-people linkages in the region – Trade and Entrepreneurship; Pilgrimage; and, Healthcare. He said that with greater cross-border trade and increase in the number of people involved in this trade, there would be enhanced co-operation between the citizens on both sides of the border. Promotion of religious tourism in Northeast India was another aspect which can increase flow of people according to him. He also spoke about how more and more people from Myanmar are now coming to Northeast Indian states like Manipur for medical reasons and increase in healthcare infrastructure can further increase this number.

Dr. Buddhin Gogoi, Principal, Margherita College, Tinsukia, had led a team of researchers, under the guidance of CDPS, as a part of this Research Project. He gave an overview of the experiences he and his team had during the field survey done among the tribes like Tai Khamyang, Tai Phake and Singphos.

Picture: Prof. J. N. Phukan, eminent scholar and historian, taking part in the discussions

The Seminar was also addressed by Prof. J. N. Phukan, eminent scholar and historian; Mr. Walter Fernandez, Senior Fellow (Professor), North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati; Mr. B.K.Das, President, CDPS and former MD, Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL); Dr. I.S. Mumtaza, former Head, Department of History, Gauhati University; Dr. Vikas Tripathi, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Gauhati University; Mr. Sushanta Talukdar, senior journalist; and various other participants including research scholars from various Universities.

Earlier, during the Inaugural Session, Mr. Wasbir Hussain, Executive Director, CDPS, welcomed the guests and gave a brief overview on the work done by CDPS as a part of the research project. Dr Nani Gopal Mahanta, Registrar, Gauhati University & Director, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Gauhati University, too spoke on the occasion. Mr. Arunav Goswami, Assistant Director, CDPS, made a presentation on the overall findings of the research study. He gave a brief summary of the various measures recommended by CDPS to enhance people-to-people contact in the region.

  Below are some of the major points that came up during the Seminar and were discussed and agreed upon:
  • Several ethnic languages, which are spoken in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh as well as across the international border, are today facing the danger of extinction. These include the language of tribes like Tai Turung and Tai Khamyang. Unless the Government takes urgent steps to revive and protect these languages, there may not be anyone speaking these languages on the Indian side.
  • Languages can be preserved and protected by undertaking measures like creation of a language nest, where older speakers of the language can take part in teaching the young children. Language engineering tools like language translator and transcription tools too may be used.
  • Manuscripts of the tribes in Northeast India can be digitized for its preservation.
  • Government may establish a Language and Cultural Cell, headquartered in a state capital of Northeast India. This Cell may work towards preservation of language, culture and traditions of various tribes in Northeast India.
  • Opening up of Consulates of Southeast Asian nations in Northeast India and direct air connectivity between these two regions is necessary for enhanced people-to-people contact.
  • Shared history and shared ethnic languages can help bring the people together, which can be used to further improve the relations within the Southeast Asian nations.
  • Universities in Northeast India may develop courses on shared history, migration and ethnicity in Northeast India and Southeast Asia. These courses may be promoted across educational institutions in Southeast Asian countries and the interested students can be offered scholarships to undergo these courses.
  • There has to be more trade, cultural and educational exchanges between the two regions.
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