Great Game East
Rudyard Kipling made the term “the Great Game” famous, using it to describe the central Asian hot spot made up of Afghanistan, north-west Pakistan, western Tibet (or south-west China, depending on one’s leanings) and the surrounding nations. There is, however, another region that has been besieged for generations: northern Burma, northeast India, eastern Tibet (or south China), and the south east Asian countries.
Bertil Lintner has spent over 20 years covering this region as a journalist and a chronicler, and the fruit of those labours is this remarkable book, Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier. As Lintner points out, while everyone talks of Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan, few realise that one of the longest insurgent movements has been by the Nagas, who for decades have refused to accept India’s sovereignty. Other groups too have opposed India vehemently and were ably aided by China — motivated by wanting to spread communism and keep New Delhi’s attention away from Tibet — and what was formerly East Pakistan. After the birth of Bangladesh, support depended upon Dhaka’s relations with New Delhi, which at present are good.
Since the 1950s and 1960s, much water has flowed down the Brahmaputra, Irrawady and the Mekong, and since the 1980s, slowly but surely, India has succeeded in weaning away the rebels from the gun. Most of the North Eastern factions have statehood, which has ensured their local participation in politics.
Lintner has identified two reasons for India’s success. First, no single ethnic tribe dominated the region. For instance, Nagas claim parts of Manipur and Myanmar as part of the greater “Nagalim”, but as Lintner shows, Nagas account for only 10 to 20% of the population in most villages and towns. It is perhaps thanks to the presence of the much-maligned Indian Army — stationed in the North East since Independence to thwart the rebels — that the tribes did not turn upon each other. Everyone knows what happened when Yugoslavia broke up, showing there are limits to giving every tribe their own homeland.
The second reason, and here Lintner is fulsome in his praise, is the fantastic work done by RAW (Research & Analysis Wing). RAW does not figure in popular imagination the way KGB, CIA, Mossad, MI6 (of James Bond fame) or even the ISI do, but Lintner presents it as a successful external espionage agency that has drawn upon strategy from as erudite as the teachings of the ancient statesman, Chanakya. RAW wore the rebels down, split them into competing factions, lured them into with the carrot of political power and hit them hard (via the army). According to Lintner, this is why today the rebels from the North East are flirting with democracy.
However, much as India can take pride in its success, politics is a daily battle. Every day, new voices emerge, new issues arise, and the equations change. Consequently, Lintner has some concerns. First, as trade grows and makes the the region prosperous, there will be greater demand for a share of the fruits of success. India and China share a long border and many buffer states. Lintner doubts that China will seek to claim Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh by force, but warns against Chinese goods that are already flooding India’s North East. Unless India can push its economic agenda in this backward region, it may grow closer to China.
Lintner has another concern: the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. He points out that Coco Islands, which belongs to Myanmar and where China is reportedly building naval structures, are just a few miles north. The game, clearly, is not yet over.