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Insurgency, Drug Trafficking & Christian Terror in the North-East

January 24, 2022 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

The fact that the lucrative cross-border business of drugs and arms smuggling in the North-East has been happening with the connivance of many insurgent outfits operating in the area can no longer be overlooked. This now brings us to the tangled web of the illegal narcotics trade which continues to be one of the major reasons behind the nagging problem of insurgency in the North-East. It is because drug trafficking is still one of the major sources of funding for the insurgent groups active here. An adverse consequence of this has been the spread of HIV/AIDS in nearly all states of this region as explained in a few of the above paragraphs.

So, when and how did it all begin? The struggle for freedom against the British rule in the North-East was equally against the colonial policies as much as it was against the imposition of a foreign faith, which was not accepted and welcomed by the people of these areas initially. The life histories and struggles of freedom fighters like U Kiang Nangbah and Togan Nengminja Sangma from Meghalaya, Ropuiliani and Pasaltha Khuangchera from the Lushai hills (present-day Mizoram), Rani Gaidinliu and Haipou Jadonang from Nagaland, etc. are proof enough of this fact. The story of the arrival of Christianity in these regions and with it, the gradual decline of Dharmic faith systems through different tactics that were adopted by the Christian missionaries, is going to be a subject that will be dealt with in due course of time through a series of articles.

But, the truth is that several age-old traditions, customs and modes of worship of the people saw the end of the day after the coming to the scene of the Church. The zawlbuk (similar to a gurukulam) system that was earlier prevalent in Mizoram before the coming of Christianity, can be understood as an apt example of the same. Societal tensions and frictions among different groups and communities of people became quite common since the late 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s. The 1940s saw the beginning of the struggle for independence in Nagaland and Manipur. This struggle was largely peaceful in nature and their demands had not yet gravitated towards seeking separation from the Indian Union.

It was in the early 1960s when groups of Naga and Manipuri insurgents were reported to have gone to China via the Kachin Corridor for free-of-cost arms training under the PLA, aided by Pakistan’s ISI. Insurgency in Nagaland began soon after the rebels converted into Christianity within just a few years after India’s Independence. They declared an armed revolt under the leadership of Zapu Phizo, an Angami Naga who had become a Christian by then. Their war cry was ‘Nagaland for Christ’. As written by Murkot Ramunny in the book The World of Nagas, it was a Christian missionary named Michael Scott who helped in providing weapons and all other required provisions to these Naga rebels so as to wage a war against the Indian state.

Under the pressure of the Baptist missionaries led by Nehru’s blue-eyed boy, Mr. Verrier Elwin, the secular Congress Government at the Centre under Nehru accepted all the demands of these rebels. From this time onwards, the war in the North-East was going to prove deadly, because along with arms, drugs soon came into the scene, and they both became entangled with the politics of the Church in due course of time. Even after the formation of Nagaland, these Christian rebels kept on fomenting rebellion against the country demanding a separate Naga country (Nagalim). 

Soon thereafter, the first sparks of insurgency flew off in Mizoram towards the late 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, after the devastating Mautam famine had just ended. At that time, Mizoram was just another district of Assam, and its food shortages that initially began with the flowering of bamboos, were ignored by the Central Government as “exaggerated” and “local superstition”. The Church played an important role in extending help and support to the innocent and gullible hill people at this moment of crisis. The Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF) was subsequently formed under Laldenga, who is still adored in Mizoram as one of the state’s mightiest heroes. In 1966, the Mizo National Front (MNF) began as an underground movement for the setting up of an independent Mizo nation.

It was because of the complete laxity on the part of the newly independent Indian Government during the Mautam of 1958 that alienated the Mizos and was largely responsible for the MNFF eventually turning against the Centre and the Indian state. Thanks to Nehru’s abdication of his responsibility towards the North-East, the Church was the primary beneficiary of this mess. Myanmar came into the picture from the 1970s onwards when the responsibility for the training of the different insurgent groups of the North-East and providing them with supplies of arms and ammunitions was taken over by the Burmese rebels. It was during the same period when insurgency began in Assam in the form of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) movement as a protest against illegal immigration from Bangladesh, before it transformed itself into armed militancy that sought separation of Assam from the Indian Union.

In order to oppose and fight the Indian state and the Government, the insurgents needed weapons. Initially, they used to procure them by snatching personal arms from complacent and ill-trained police and village guards. Very soon, they became better organised and began to raid isolated police outposts, often in connivance with corrupt policemen and administrative officers sympathetic to their cause. The struggle intensified and the insurgents required more sophisticated weapons so as to pose a formidable challenge to the state machinery. This was when they needed huge amounts of cash and quite predictably, illicit trade in narcotics eventually emerged as the best source to raise funds as and when they required.

We need to remember here that in the past, North-East India had never been a producer of narcotics; whatever little was produced was meant for local consumption only and not for illicit trade. Illegal trafficking of banned drugs and narcotics is only a phenomenon that began here in the post-Independence era. It was also aided, in part, by the increasing spread of Christianity and the subsequent decline of Dharmic faiths, thanks again to the cunning machinations of the Congress Party led by the Nehru-Elwin duo. Unlike other insurgent movements, e.g. the LTTE in Sri Lanka, etc. that are deeply involved in illicit drug trade, the insurgent outfits of the North-East have been relying on other means to raise funds.

E.g. soon after its formation in April 1979, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) went on a rampage to rob banks and extort money from the owners and managers of tea gardens and as well as the cash-rich oil companies to buy arms from the Kachin insurgents of Myanmar. In the hill states of Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, the insurgent groups routinely collect taxes from each household, government contractors and employees, private firms, transporters, shopkeepers and businessmen, and even government officials including ministers, so as to finance their requirements of arms and ammunitions. The proceeds of these extortions from the local populace have also been used by the leaders of several insurgent outfits to amass huge properties, both in India and abroad.

But, the situation on the ground changed rapidly with the entry of illegal narcotics into the picture and their clandestine trade that brings in the easy flow of raw cash which has helped keep the insurgency going. So, how and when did it all begin? Well, in order to answer this question, we need to revisit history, while taking into account the specific geographical complexities of this region that have also played a role in facilitating illegal trade of narcotics for several decades now. It all began with the assistance that was being offered by the American Christian missionaries to the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai Shek’s defeated nationalist forces, which had retreated to Taiwan by May, 1949.

It was after the capture of Yunnan by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that stragglers from the defeated KMT fled to Myanmar. A part of this force under Chen-Wei trekked down to a place called Mong Pong in the extreme southeast of the Shan state of Myanmar and established contacts with Taipei. Their declared intention was to regroup with some 5,000 other KMT remnants, who had fled to Laos and thereby re-conquer Chiang’s lost provinces, beginning with Yunnan. Chiang therefore decided to reinforce them. This was the period of the beginning of the Korean War when North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in June, 1950 backed by China as a result of which America made an entry into the war.

America was yet not involved with the KMT in Myanmar officially. But, special covert operations were started to interfere with Communist activities in South-East Asia. American missionary assistance was offered to the KMT forces by air from their bases in Taipei and Bangkok. Encouraged by the Americans, the KMT made two abortive intrusions in Yunnan in 1951. But, the expected rebellion inside Yunnan failed to materialise despite American support. In August 1952, another attempt was made but that too, failed. This now compelled the KMT to stand firmly against the Communists in Myanmar. The operations required huge finances.

The KMT was now controlling the Trans-Salween highlands where high quality opium grew. The opium farmers of Yunnan flooded these highlands in order to escape Mao Zedong’s ban on opium cultivation in China. Ironically, however, the opium traders were all Chinese men of wealth and influence. The KMT began to impose opium tax on the farmers regardless of the type of crops that they cultivated. With the encouragement of the KMT, poppy cultivation now spread to the hills including those areas bordering India’s North-East. The American missionary-sponsored secret war continued till January 1961, when the Burmese army backed by the PLA took over control of the KMT base at Mong Pa Lio and drove them to Laos.

By now, the KMT’s decade-long presence in Myanmar had created a thriving narcotics industry, which it continued to exploit from its bases in Thailand and Vietnam. When KMT stragglers had trekked to Myanmar in 1949, Rangoon was at war with six different insurgent outfits. At that time, almost no opium grew in the areas of the rebellion, and none of the rebels dealt with any form of trade in narcotics. But, towards the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, nearly all insurgent groups depended in some measure or the other on the drug trade to finance their armies. The dark clouds of insurgency were now beginning to engulf several states of the North-East, but Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland in particular.

Drug addiction was also on the rise here in the entire decade of the 1980s, when opium cultivation in Myanmar and other areas of the Golden Triangle was at its all-time high. Until the end of 1983, morphine was commonly used by drug users in the North-Eastern states, particularly Manipur. But, the trend changed suddenly, and the number of heroin addicts leap-frogged ahead of all other narcotic drugs from the early part of 1984 onwards. In 1990, the first case of HIV/AIDS was detected in both Manipur and Mizoram. In Manipur, the first HIV positive case was reported from the blood samples of October, 1989 among a cluster of Injecting Drug Users (IDUs).

From then onwards till now, the epidemic has been continuously spreading its tentacles, especially among the young population in these states, the most common reason being intravenous drug use. The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the HIV infection rate in Manipur alone increased from 0% to 50% in just one year during 1990-91. This shot up to 80.70% in 1997 (Morung Makunga, Minister of Health, Government of Manipur, speaking in the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs Panel on Drug Abuse and HIV/AIDS, New York, June 9, 1998. [Courtesy: Free Press, Imphal]).

Creation of artificially manufactured racial and ethnic divides has been a time-tested tool of the Church to achieve its evangelical designs. In this process, every trace of native culture is being eroded and finally eliminated first through subtle means and if such means do not work, then violent methods are being resorted to. Coincidentally, the period beginning from the mid-1980s and throughout the 1990s when one after the other hill state in the North-East was coming under the influence of the Church, also saw the beginning of ethnic clashes among different vanavasi communities who were living here together since ages. Insurgency soon began to cast its pall over the comparatively peaceful states of Meghalaya, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh.

A new phenomenon that came to be witnessed in many parts of North-East India in the 1990s was the taking up of arms by several ethnic communities and raising the demand for autonomy within the Indian Union. More and more number of armed militant groups means more influx of arms and weapons to the region. Its proximity to Myanmar is noteworthy in this context. In Manipur, clashes broke out between the Kukis and the Nagas on the one hand and the Kukis and the Paites on the other. Mizoram was undergoing a direct conflict between the newly-converted Christian Mizos on the one hand and the Buddhist Chakmas and the Hindu Reang community on the other.

Tripura, in the meantime, witnessed conflict between the vanavasi (‘tribal’) population on the one hand and the non-vanavasis (non-tribals) on the other, led by the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) that seeks to secede from India and establish an independent Tripuri state. In an article titled Hindu Genocide in Tripura Aravindan Neelakandan has clearly written that the Baptist Church of Tripura is not just the ideological mentor of the NLFT, but it also supplies the NLFT with arms and ammunitions for the soldiers of the holy crusade. The religious institutions of the Jamatiyas of Tripura who have resisted Christian conversions have been the foremost target of the rebels of the NLFT.

The NLFT has been responsible for mindless killings and unimaginable violence against Hindus during the long period of rule of the Left Front in Tripura which, however, were never reported in any media. In April 2000, the secretary of the Noapara Baptist Church in Tripura, Nagmanlal Halam, was arrested with a large cache of explosives that he had purchased with “love offerings” and “gifts to further the message of Jesus Christ” (http://news.bb.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/717775.stm). Halam later confessed that he had bought the arms illegally and was supplying explosives to the NLFT for the past two years to bring about the Kingdom of Jesus on the earth that would be ruled with a military hand.

Few months later after this incident in the same year, a Hindu spiritual leader named Shanti Tripura was executed in cold blood by ten evangelicals of the NLFT. They justified the assassination by claiming that they feel “marginalised” in front of the existing majority, indirectly referring to those Hindus who refuse to convert. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/899422.stm; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/953200.stm). An active participant in the insurgency of North-East India, the manifesto of the NLFT clearly says that it wants to expand what it describes as the ‘Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ’ in Tripura. It is currently designated as a terrorist organisation by the Government of India.

The organisation and functioning of the NLFT has served as a model for other evangelical Christian terrorist outfits, such as the Manmasi National Christian Army (MNCA) which was charged with forcing Hindus to convert at gunpoint in the year 2009 (http://www.assamtimes.org/social/3112.html). Seven or more Christian radicalised youths belonging to the Hmar vanavasi community, all dressed in black with a red cross on their back, along with arms, assault weapons and rifles, had visited Bhuvan Pahar in Silchar of Assam’s Barak Valley and pressurised the local population (around 700 Hindu families, and also consisting of a significant section of non-Christian Zeliangrong Nagas) to convert to Christianity.

When the locals refused, the rebel leaders desecrated their temples (around 8) by painting symbols of crosses on the walls with their own blood, claiming that it represented their living ‘warrior God’. Later, the Sonai Police, along with the 5th Assam Rifles, arrested 13 members of the MNCA, including their Commander-in-Chief. Guns and ammunitions were also seized. It may be noted here that Haipou Jadonang, the Hindu Naga leader and freedom fighter, had worshipped Bhagwan Vishnu and another local deity called Tingkao Ragwang at a cave in the Bhuvan Pahar. Hence, this cave is considered as a sacred spot by the Zeliangrong Nagas who worship Bhagwan Vishnu as the chief deity of welfare and all-round prosperity of men and other living beings in the universe. In the Zeliangrong Naga religious pantheon, Vishnu is known by different names such as Monchanu, Bonchanu, Bisnu, Buisnu, etc.

In Assam, the 1980s was also the period of the beginning of the movement for a separate and ‘sovereign’ Bodoland in the areas north of the Brahmaputra, under the leadership of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), an armed Christian separatist outfit, that was first formed in the year 1986 led by Ranjan Daimary. This marked the beginning of insurgency in the Bodo-dominated areas of Assam, which have substantially impinged upon the territorial rights of other communities in Assam. It was reported that during the 1990s, the NDFB established 12 camps along the Assam-Bhutan border.

The Bodo Accord of 1993 attempted to bring to an end years of arson, violence and instability, and also sought to identify areas where the Bodo population exceeded 50% as ‘Bodo Areas’. These areas were to be brought under the direct administration of the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC). However, an adverse consequence of this provision has been the recurring organised ethnic cleansing in those areas where the Bodos do not yet constitute 50% of the population. The failure and subsequent collapse of the BAC notwithstanding, Bodo leaders, drawn either from political or community-based organisations or insurgent factions, have participated in these movements. Their targets have mostly been the security forces and those vanavasi communities who came from outside Assam, to work either in the coal mines or as workers in the tea plantations.

Between 1996-1999, several deaths were reported and large-scale internal displacement of population occurred due to prolonged ethnic clashes between the Bodos and the Santhals on the one hand, and the Bodos and the Oraons on the other. Since the time of its inception, the NDFB has categorically opposed the settlement of any population of non-Bodo communities in the Bodo-inhabited areas. It had unleashed large-scale attacks against the Santhals, Mundas, and Oraons settled in different areas on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, during the 1996 Assam Legislative Assembly elections that subsequently led to the formation of the Adivasi Cobra Force, a rival militant group.    

References:

  1. Ramunny, Murkot. (1988). The World of Nagas. Northern Book Centre, New Delhi.
  2. Sinha, SP. (2009). Lost Opportunities: 50 Years of Insurgency in the North-East and India’s Response. Lancer International.

(A special note of thanks to Jaideep da for enlightening me on several angles of the drug issue in Manipur).

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