India Insight

Permit-free visits for foreigners to India’s Unexplored Paradise?

December 28, 2010

INDIA CHINA BORDERFor the first time in half a century, India plans to let foreigners visit all of its troubled north east without special permits, opening up the picturesque region that New Delhi hopes will be its gateway to Southeast Asia, local media have reported.

If the proposal goes through, it will open up the eight north eastern states that remains a mystery even to many Indian, a region so unexplored that India’s tourism board sells it as “Paradise Unexplored.”

It could also give a fillip to the local economy, which now largely is sustained on federal handouts, creating jobs and boosting incomes in the states where separatist movements have tapped into resentment over lack of development.

Seven of these states are linked to the mainland through a narrow strip of land, called the Chicken’s Neck, that runs between China and Bangladesh. Foreigners need permits to go to every state except Assam, the most developed in the region, and even Indians need passes to go to some places.

For decades, the government has restricted access, worried about the influence of Christian missionaries and other outsiders on the native cultures of the tribespeople of the region and as it tried to keep a lid on rebellions. Foreigners can travel only in groups of at least four and must be accompanied by an approved guide.

New Delhi and Beijing dispute the boundary between them in this region and both claim the Indian-controlled state of Arunachal Pradesh. But there have not been any recent military clashes between the two nations, which fought a short war in 1962.

Many rebel groups are in peace talks with the government and except for Assam and Manipur, the states are largely peaceful. Observers say that popular support for violent groups is fast declining. India has also mooted a “Look East” policy, using the region as a gateway to economically and strategically important countries like Myanmar and Thailand.

The risk of insurgency remains and how the government deals with insurgents will determine how the liberalisation will be welcomed. But it is clear that the opening up of this sensitive region signals India’s increasing confidence in dealing with internal faultlines.

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