By Ashis Biswas
There has been a mixed diplomatic response from various foreign countries attending the recent G20 sessions in different states of India’s lush-green Northeast.
Most among the attending foreign ministers and diplomats preferred discussing local/regional development and tourism-related matters. This was in consonance with the generally agreed upon format of the G20 sessions, as explained earlier by the Government of India, the host.
The lone exception was Germany, as it referred to the internal developments in Nagaland and called for an urgent settlement of the issues pending between the local people andthe Government of India.
German Consul General Mr. Manfred Auster praised the “maturity of Indian democracy” in allowing a reference to “Nagaland peoples’ demands” in his speech, adding that people abroad were familiar with such matters from media reports. He advised the Government of India and Naga organisations to arrive at a lasting solution to the Nagaland problems, based on fair, balanced dialogue. He added that “conflicts like the war in Ukraine should be avoided”, and that the territorial integrity of all countries/states must be respected.
There were definite political underpinnings to Auster’s apparently none-too-controversial comments about the sensitive issues involved in the long-ongoing talks on Nagaland matters. It could be inferred that his words of ‘advice’ had little to do with the agreed upon official framework of the G20 summit programmes.
Previously, Delhi had insisted that 2023 G20 meets would not be the forum to discuss or comment upon complicated international conflicts like the Ukraine war, or political issues pertaining to the attending countries’ domestic situations.
However, major Naga organisations and civil rights groups utilized the occasion of international diplomats’ presence to express their strong criticism of the Indian army corps stationed in the state as well as the Government of India’s policies. They pressed for international intervention to help the larger Naga cause. In a joint statement, local bodies like the Naga Students’ Federation, Naga Mothers Association, the Naga Hoho, and Christian-backed human rights groups’ spokespersons demanded immediate global diplomatic censure, providing details of human rights violations and suppression of democratic norms by the Indian government.
Intriguingly, neither the state nor the central Indian authorities chose to respond to the German consul’s comments, there being no Northeastern media reports about any words from official spokespersons. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphu Rio deplored what he described as a revival of entrenched tribalism among a section of Nagas in a different context. There was hardly any response from India’s External Affairs Ministry either, even days after the joint Naga statement, issued during the first week of April.
Observers found this to be significant. Relations between India and Germany have not been particularly cordial of late, especially after German Foreign Minister Ms. Annalena Baerbock had unexpectedly called for a revival of the long-discarded ‘UN plebiscite formula to settle the Kashmir dispute’ some time ago. Indian media analysts as well as politicians, cutting across party affiliations, had slammed her for her apparent lack of knowledge about the present status of Indo-Pak consultations on the Kashmir situation.
The German government had not strongly reacted to such Indian criticism at the time.
However, by publicly calling for a lasting peace in Nagaland from a non-political forum now, Mr. Auster served notice that Berlin would continue to express its views on internal matters of India, regardless of any possible negative diplomatic fallout. India-based analysts see this as a continuation of the general line presently pursued by Ms. Baerbock and the team she leads in foreign policy matters — following what is known as the ‘value-guided diplomacy’.
This approach, purely seen in terms of its immediate impact, is markedly different from the more placatory line employed by diplomats/ministers in the United States, United Kingdom or France, while discussing sensitive issues, including India-related matters.
Incidentally, Auster made no mention of the years of tortuous negotiations carried on by successive Indian governmental officials with leaders of various Naga groups of armed secessionists, like the two NSCN factions, and the considerable progress achieved so far. The German consul, similarly, had little to no appreciation for the largely peaceful situation prevailing in Nagaland in recent times, and the obvious improvements in the living standards of the common people in the state.
Nor was it clear if he indeed was aware of the complicated historical ties governing Nagaland and Manipur relations, or the controversial demand for creating Greater Nagaland, i.e., a larger territory for Nagaland by carving out more land from its immediate neighbouring states.
Incidentally, it is not just in India or Asia that German diplomats/ministers get involved in controversies. In Africa, Chad just ordered the expulsion of German Ambassador, Mr. Jan Christian Gordon Kricke, giving him a 48-hour notice. The charge against him is undesirable interference in local politics. Berlin authorities said they were studying the situation, adding that they could not understand the reasons for the ‘somewhat extreme’ Chadian decision.
Reverting to the nub of the G20 meetings, apart from the unplanned diplomatic sideshow in Nagaland, there is no question that much useful discussion took place within the slightly informal and relaxed local ambience of the Northeastern region. Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Sikkim authorities succeeded in showcasing the rich potential of tourism-related trade and business, with special attention paid to the development of arts and crafts, agro-processing and food-based products.
As can be expected, advanced countries expressed their intent in making investments in some areas of Nagaland, Mizoram and other states. Their offers varied: diplomats from Japan focused on encouraging/sponsoring public welfare-related projects like arranging water supply, sponsoring projects aiming to improve basic education, or generating power from garbage. Japan has also been very keen to make major investments in the infrastructure development schemes in the Northeastern region as a whole.
In recent times, in terms of developing regional trade and business, Thailand had proposed to sponsor and participate in agro-business and fruit-processing schemes in Assam and other parts of the Northeast. The emphasis was more in developing the small and medium enterprises (SME) sector in both countries, with special stress on the relative strengths of concerned economies.
However, a more substantive offer of investments came from Bangladesh, for Nagaland. Bangladesh delegates proposed to set up a paper-producing unit in the state, a proposal enthusiastically welcomed received by Chief Minister Rio. Bangladesh also sought to access bulk supplies of pulses from Nagaland.
Mr. Rio suggested that the closed-down Tuli paper mill at Mokokchong could be revived by Bangladeshi investors, apart from referring to the possibility of setting up new units.
Bangladeshi entrepreneurs were keen to invest in the NE-based trade in the past as well, expressing their preference for launching joint venture projects in Tripura. Dhaka had called for expanding and upgrading the border ‘haats’ and checkpoints with Meghalaya seeking to increase the volume of bilateral border trade and business.
Meghalaya authorities, responding positively, appealed to the central government to take special measures to step up bilateral trade and catalyse local economic growth.
All told, the G20 meetings, attended by 29 delegates from 20 countries augured well for the Northeastern region. There were preliminary talks on how to take things forward through follow-up programmes on the discussions conducted both at the B2B and B2G levels.
It was an added advantage for the Northeastern region and India’s neighbouring countries within the ASEAN bloc that some projects were already discussed in connection with the BIMSTEC initiative, or India’s Look/Act East programmes.
The proceedings ended on a positive note, with Japan announcing its intent to sponsor special connectivity schemes to link the Northeastern states more effectively with the Bay of Bengal coastline, through Tripura and Bangladesh. (IPA Service)