Misplaced priorities: On the scrapping of the Free Movement Regime between India and Myanmar

The free movement regime between India and Myanmar had more benefits than costs

February 19, 2024 12:30 am | Updated 12:30 am IST

A nation is defined not by the borders that demarcate it but by the people who live in it. This is not just an abstract adage but a vision of nation-building and sustenance, especially for a country that emerged out of colonial rule. The idea of neighbourly relations and borders was tied not just to the interest of national security for the post-colonial nation-state but also to the interests of the people in border areas and their imagined histories. When Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the “Free Movement Regime” (FMR) in place in Indian States bordering Myanmar from 2018 would be scrapped and that the India-Myanmar border be fenced, he was decidedly negating this idea. The ostensible reason for this demand and the need for fencing is because the porous border has served as a conduit for narcotics, besides helping insurgent groups in the north-east to establish bases within areas in Myanmar where the junta’s writ is relatively non-existent or weak. But these reasons are not convincing in themselves. Most insurgent groups have weakened substantially and successive Indian governments have been able to neutralise their threats through force or peace efforts, ongoing or completed. Besides, the drug trade is enabled not only by the border’s porosity but also by the relative lack of strong law enforcement with the cooperation of residents.

That the demand to scrap the FMR has been most vociferously endorsed by one section of the currently conflict-prone Manipur but has also been fervently opposed by Nagaland and Mizoram should provide a hint about the sentiments of the people in these States. Myanmar is in the throes of a civil war with civilians from its western regions and States such as Sagain and Chin State seeking refuge and humanitarian relief in neighbouring Mizoram and Manipur. The Mizos of Mizoram and the Kuki-Zo community in Manipur feel a kinship with the Chin community and have been organising relief for the refugees. The opposition to the FMR has come from Meitei majoritarian forces in the Imphal valley who have raised the bogey of Chin refugees entering Manipur as a case of illegal migration. The institution of the FMR, as a formalised regime of the movement of citizens across the sparsely populated border to within 16 kilometres of it, for trade and commerce, was a nod to India’s Act East policy. This was also an expression of the will of people of the region who share ethnic relations but are divided by colonially drawn boundaries. The reversal of this regime and the humongous exercise of fencing a border situated in rugged mountains and forests is a case of misplaced priorities and needs reconsideration.

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