Manipur Sangai Festival as a way to “Look East Policy” – The Sangai Express

November 13, 2022


Rikee Thangjam
This essay considers the possibilities of enhancing the links between India and Southeast Asian nations through a tourism festival. It explains how India originally became interested in Southeast Asia and how tourism could help Manipur thrive in the world. Manipur is a state in northeastern India. The state shares the national border with Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram and shares the international border with Myanmar. Different communities with different customs, religions, rich culture and traditions live in the state. The annual Manipur Sangai Festival in Manipur gets the attention it deserves. The question is whether it is possible to successfully implement the Look East Policy through the Manipur Sangai Festival?
Historical development
From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, trade between India and Southeast Asian countries was minimal as the two were found to have different trading tactics. Although India’s regional security and scientific and economic potential have improved somewhat, India failed to develop its relations with Southeast Asia in the 1970s. India was involved in the Gulf at the time and saw no need to devote diplomatic and economic attention to Southeast Asia. Due to the Gulf War and India’s ability to meet some of its oil needs in the mid-1980s, the importance of oil-rich nations in their foreign policy goals diminished. In addition, India was extremely concerned about the rise of Chinese powers, both military and non-military, which were a result of the development program and the transfer of advanced technology from the West (Ayoob, 1990). With the fall of the Soviet Union, India lost an important trading partner (Haokip, 2015). India was consequently under economic pressure to find alternatives. Southeast Asia, particularly ASEAN, appears to be an important realistic choice from the point of view of Indian policy planners (Ayoob, 1990). Awareness of Southeast Asia’s strategic and economic importance to India fueled India’s desire for regional cooperation with ASEAN (Haokip, 2015). In the post-Cold War era, India’s Look East policy was launched by the then-Narasimha Rao government in 1991 to deepen political ties, increase economic integration and build security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. Due to its proximity to Southeast Asia and China, the Northeast region appears to be an ideal arena for India’s efforts to look east. Societies are said to have unique ethnic and cultural identities more comparable to those of Southeast Asia and China than the rest of India. The Indian government’s initiative is the Look East Policy, which emphasizes Northeast India as an entry point to Southeast Asia (Haokip, 2015). In 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Look East Policy was superseded by the Act East Policy. This policy aims to strengthen economic cooperation, cultural ties and strategic ties with nations in the Asia-Pacific region through continued engagement at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels, paying close attention to the north-eastern states of India.
Development of tourism in Manipur
The Look East policy offers an opportunity to address the issue of market accessibility in the Northeast region. It offers a wide potential for the development of tourism in the region. Tourism can be established and promoted everywhere and is a sensible step for regional development. A powerful tool for socio-economic development is tourism. It creates jobs for both qualified and less qualified sections of the population. Expected economic improvement is one of the main drivers for an area to become a tourist destination. Tourism can encourage local governments to develop infrastructure such as water and sanitation systems, roads, electricity, telephone and public transport networks that can improve residents’ quality of life while facilitating tourism. (Lyndoh and Rani, 2008).
With its rich cultural and religious heritage as well as variety of natural attractions, Manipur offers room for expansion in the tourism industry. In the light of India’s Look East policy, Manipur and its tourism strategy are gaining importance. The government is actively pursuing a distinctive brand to promote Manipur tourism as a gateway to Southeast Asia (Lhouvum, 2016). The growth of tourism sector in Manipur is crucial to the prosperity of the state. The Look East Policy can be partially attributed to the tourism industry (Nongthombam, 2014).
In order to introduce Manipur as a tourist destination, the Manipur Tourism Department held the Sangai Festival. The festival is an annual tourism festival held in Manipur in the month of November from 21st to 30th November. The festival was formerly known as Manipur Tourism Festival and was renamed Manipur Sangai Festival in 2010. The festival is named after the state animal, Sangai, the antlered deer. This festival is a sign that the people of Manipur care about their relationship with nature, culture and tradition. In this festival, Manipur displays its culture, arts, crafts, music, indigenous sports, hand weaving and handicrafts, attractive natural scenery, adventure activities and organized stalls from different parts of the states, from other states of India and from other countries for buying and selling area, the food, clothing, handlooms and handicraft products.
Why did the Sangai Festival develop?
According to Manipur Tourism Policy 2022, Manipur can be the gateway to Southeast Asia. The goal of such a policy is to maximize Manipur’s tourism potential by attracting people and attracting investment for the growth of hotels, restaurants, transportation, communications, heritage sites, homestays and business ventures. These advances will support job growth and generate income. The local population sees tourism as a possible source of boosting the economy and state jobs (Nongthombam, 2014). Here one can watch the state government enact policies to capitalize on its top tourist destination. The role of the state government is important in developing tourist attractions. A tourism location can only grow with government support. The state government is therefore committed to the development of the quarter. The need for the importance of such an action cannot be overstated. Tourism development of Manipur is in the hands of Manipur Tourism Department. The department organized various events to promote tourism. One such event is the Manipur Sangai Festival.
In order to promote economic growth and connection with other countries, the state began to take an interest in Manipur’s indigenous characteristics. The origins of the various indigenous games of Manipur could be traced in the ancient literary works and other chronicles. A local sport is Sagol Kangjei, a game in which players on pony horseback attempt to hit the ball into the goal with long-handled hammers. There are now two ways to play the game, namely the traditional Manipur form and the International version or Polo. In the 19th century, the British learned the intricacies of the game of Sagol Kangjei from Manipur, and as a result of their skillful refinement, the native game was called polo and spread to other parts of the world. As part of the Sangai Festival, the Manipur International Polo Tournament is organized by the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA). The main goals of the tournament are to preserve the Manipuri pony and stop its extinction, to spread the sport domestically and to promote Manipur as a polo tourist destination. In addition, it offers polo players from all over the world the opportunity to participate in the festival by playing Sagol Kangjei. Countries like Australia, Germany, Thailand, France, United Kingdom and United States all participate in the international polo competition. Other indigenous sports include yubi lakpi, which literally means snatching coconuts. The coconut acts as a ball and must be through the goal line to count as a goal. Hiyangtannaba, which means boat racing. This sporting event has been held since ancient times. Here the rowers wear traditional clothing and headgear. Mukna is a traditional Manipuri style wrestling. Thang Ta is an indigenous martial art form in Manipur. These indigenous games and artworks are organized at Manipur Sangai Festival. The roots of the old traditional games that people played back then became known to the world. It could be seen as a means of preserving or promoting indigenous sports.
Participation of Southeast Asian nations
Southeast Asian countries undoubtedly participate in the Manipur Sangai Festival. The then Prime Minister of the Mandalay and Sagaing regions of Myanmar attended the 2013 edition of the Sangai Festival as a guest of honor. On the second day of the event, the Mandalay Art Club presented art from Myanmar. The then CM of Mandalay U Ye Myint explained that they had brought traditional arts organizations and cultural groups to participate in the event and that it was a well-intentioned trip to Manipur, India to promote the relationship between Manipur and Mandalay. At the 2018 edition of the Sangai Festival, the Princess of Thailand Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and the Thai Ambassador attended the festival. At the 2019 edition of Manipur Sangai Festival, eight Ambassadors and High Commissioners from Southeast Asian nations i.e. Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Brunei and Singapore attended the festival as honored guests. In his speech, the Ambassador of Myanmar Moe Kyaw Aung said on behalf of all guests:
Cultural and traditional links between Manipur and ASEAN will inevitably provide opportunities to enhance people-to-people contacts…. The existing connection of road, rail and air would also further strengthen existing links of cultural tourism, trade and investment, and economic ties between us.
Why do you think delegates from ASEAN nations attended the Sangai Festival? What is the intended motive for their actions? Indeed, an important factor may be the recognition by Southeast Asian nations of the importance of the region. The Southeast Asian delegates attending the 2019 Sangai Festival emphasized the importance of India’s Northeast, where Manipur could play a crucial role. They focus on improving physical connectivity between India and ASEAN, market links between India and Myanmar and between India and Thailand. At that time, the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway projects were under construction and a possible extension of the Trilateral Highway project to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is to be considered. Manipur is critical to this physical link project due to its location and would help turn this connectivity link into a growth corridor by working together between India and ASEAN via land borders and air links.
This reflects that both India and Southeast Asian nations are looking to deepen ties. (continued P 9)

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