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The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) & the North-East: Facts vs. Propaganda- PART – 1

February 4, 2022 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

Before going into the AFSPA debate in the North-East, let us first understand the linkages between illicit trafficking of narcotics and arms smuggling vis-à-vis insurgency and organised crime. To think that insurgency in North-East India can be dealt with by only repealing AFSPA, without tackling the twin menaces of narco-terrorism and arms smuggling is too naïve a supposition. It is common knowledge that illegal trade in narcotics and arms is extremely profitable, for it generates billions of dollars in the black market, which then becomes a major source of funding terrorism, insurgency and organised crime, having international ramifications.

Black money has given rise to money laundering, which has become far too easier with international borders becoming more and more porous. Traffickers have been able to exploit the loopholes in the international financial system so as to disguise the ownership, purpose, source, and the final destination where and in whose hands the drug money lands. This now brings us to the geographical dimensions of the illegal narcotics trade in the North-East. The two major centres of drug production in Asia are the infamous Golden Crescent comprising of Afghanistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Central Asian Republics, and which border India in the North-West; and, the Golden Triangle encompassing Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos PDR, which flank India’s North-Eastern frontier.

The Golden Triangle is one of the oldest and most notorious routes for the supply of narcotics to Europe and other parts of the world. Myanmar enjoys an enormous lead over other opium-producing areas of this region; hence, the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’ is also known as the main opium producing region of South-East Asia. A sharp increase in the production of opium has been registered in Myanmar since 1989 after the disintegration of the Communist Party of Burma in the month of April of the same year. It remains the main producer of illicit opium, accounting for nearly 95% of the total opium produced in the region.

The ex-soldiers of the Party were reported to be actively involved in the drug trade. The Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army) had neither the ability nor the will to deal with the situation. Moreover, the leniency exercised by the military junta of Myanmar with respect to cases of drug trafficking in its rebellious ethnic states, contributed to the further expansion of the drug trade, spreading its wings to the neighbouring hill states of the North-East in due course of time.[1] It is because the states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh share borders with Myanmar. This Indo-Myanmar border that stretches to some 1,643 km is said to be the main transit point for drug smuggling into the North-Eastern region of the country.

Manipur’s proximity to the Golden Triangle which is known for high opium cultivation and drug trafficking, has made the state emerge as an epicentre for the trafficking of drugs, including banned ones. Illicit cultivation of poppy in North-Western India takes place in the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh, and along Myanmar’s borders with India in the North-East. Apart from poppy cultivation, India is a producer of Mandrax and other synthetic drugs like metamphetamines including the ‘ecstasy’ drug that is produced in huge quantities in Myanmar but have found significant markets in India.[2]

The states of Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland constitute the most important links in the drug smuggling trail. But, poppy cultivation is quite well-spread in Tripura too, although steps are being taken by the current government to tackle the issue. Ukhrul and Senapati districts of Manipur produce high-quality cannabis (ganja), which are moved in truckloads to states like Bihar and UP in the North, from where it is sent to Nepal before it reaches its final destination in Europe. In Mizoram, poppy cultivation is prevalent along its eastern border with Myanmar. In the region bordering Bangladesh, it is widespread in the district of Lunglei. Earlier, it was also cultivated in Behiang village and a few areas of Churachandpur and Chandel districts of Manipur. In Arunachal Pradesh, illegal cultivation of poppy is abundant in the districts of Tirap, Changlang, Lohit, and Upper Siang.

Another related problem is the illicit production of chemicals, which are required in the manufacture of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. E.g. acetic anhydride is required in the conversion of raw opium into heroin, which has emerged as one of the commonest forms of abusive drugs in South Asia. The village of Lungdai in Mizoram, located about 25km away from the state capital Aizawl, has emerged as one of the hotspots for easy access to heroin. Acetic anhydride manufactured in India is smuggled through different routes in the North-East to Myanmar and Pakistan. The ease of logistics has therefore led to the setting up of oil refineries in many places along the Indian border. This therefore helps us explain the reasons behind an increase in the supply of heroin into Nagaland and Manipur through Mizoram in the recent years.

Mizoram shares a 250-mile international border with Myanmar which is largely unguarded, with about 10 miles of free-movement zone on both sides which can mainly be attributed to the close cultural ties among its people. Its proximity to the Golden Triangle, which produces a vast majority of the world’s heroin, has made it a major trafficking route in the supply of heroin out of the region. Immediately after the coming to power of Assam CM Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma in May 2021, a war on drugs and drug mafias was started by the Government of Assam. The ‘Golden Triangle’ is a prime concern especially for Assam because on a daily basis, drugs worth crores of rupees are getting pushed into Assam from where it goes to other parts of the country, crippling the next generation, both physically and mentally.

Several Chinese and Pakistan-based agencies are allegedly a part of this syndicate trying to smuggle drugs into India. Many drug lords based in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata have reportedly invested huge funds in the operations through the ‘Golden Triangle’. Earlier, Afghanistan was said to be the biggest source of drugs. But, since the distance with Myanmar via the border in the North-East is shorter, the drug traders have created a stronger network with the help of insurgent groups and other dealers based in different parts of the country. The supposed involvement of Islamic students’ organisations in the new wave of narco-terrorism is a very serious issue especially in a region like the North-East which is fighting different wars at several fronts, all at the same time.[3] This has also made the task of completely wiping out the drug empire very challenging for the police despite putting in their best efforts.    

During a face-off with a drug trafficking gang on October 25, 2021, a team of the Assam Police led by Additional Superintendent of Police Dhruba Borah arrested an insurgent named R.K. Hopingson in Nagaon district of Assam. Hopingson had sustained a bullet injury and authorities caught him with drugs worth Rs. 2 crore. His arrest subsequently unearthed a connection between a terrorist organisation based in Nagaland and narcotics smuggling in the state. According to the police report, Hopingson belonged to the Naga insurgent group NSCN (IM) and his rank was that of deputy kilonser (deputy minister). He revealed many sensational details about drug smuggling, which he had confessed to being a part of since 2012.

Several kilometres of the Indo-Myanmar border are still open and international drug dealers based in Myanmar are taking advantage of this area so as to sneak narcotics into India. Through this open border, drugs worth several hundred crores of rupees are smuggled on a regular basis from Myanmar, and it is from there that insurgent outfits like the NSCN (IM) help to facilitate the trade across Assam and India. It would be too infantile to say that these outfits operate in isolation and do not receive any form of funding from other external agencies. An Intelligence Report had earlier mentioned that North-East India and Bangladesh are facing a serious threat of narco-terrorism as drug smugglers have changed their routes for the purposes of shipping and dealing. As per the Report, the insurgent leaders involved in the syndicate have been using the Indo-Bangladesh border in their recent trades.

Now, let’s come to the debate on AFSPA with respect to the situation in the North-East. Successive Governments that occupied the reins of power in the post-Independence era are to be equally blamed for fomenting insurgency in the North-East as much as the Indian media which has very shrewdly manipulated the real picture to mislead the general public in the rest of the country about the real situation here. Narratives such as ‘Government of India’s excesses against indigenous people’, ‘Repeal AFSPA’, ‘ethnic conflicts in the North-East’ etc. have been woven by an elite coterie of academics in order to divert people’s attention away from the real problem and present a camouflaged version of the truth. If the Indian Army is the real villain according to a section of “academics” and human rights activists, then what would be their take on the numerous military offensives launched by various insurgent groups in the North-East time and again against the Army?

The heinous acts committed by these militants from time to time must be condemned in the strongest possible terms by all and the Government should intensify counter-insurgency operations against those involved in these and any other anti-India activity including arms and drugs smuggling. The dangers are several and one-stop solutions like ‘Repeal AFSPA’ cannot do justice to the cause. These are too simplistic propositions that must not be implemented without proper discussion and debate. While discussing about the demerits of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), some of its merits in tackling insurgency and maintaining the unity and integrity of this country in the face of several challenges, especially in states like Punjab and Mizoram, cannot be ignored.

It is quite interesting to see that those who have always been demanding a repeal of AFSPA on the ground of ensuring the safety and security of Naga civilians and as well as for overall peace and development in the state, have never bothered to ask the Naga insurgent groups to first lay down arms and surrender. The Indian Army is a very convenient and easy target. There must be no doubt about the fact that the larger good of the state could be ensured not by repealing any law, but only when the insurgent outfits, especially in Nagaland, finally choose the path of dialogue and reconciliation instead of armed militancy. Isn’t the real conflict in the Christian-dominated hill state of Nagaland that also shares an international border with Myanmar being trivialised, by demanding a repeal of AFSPA every time a conflict between the civilians and the security forces breaks out?

The AFSPA, in force in certain parts of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, besides Nagaland, allows the Army and the paramilitary forces to conduct raids, and arrest anyone, anywhere without any prior notice or arrest warrant. It gives powers to the security forces to conduct search and seize operations on the receipt of intelligence inputs about any looming danger. In this context, it is important to understand the Act and the background in which it was introduced in the North-East, before repealing it. No doubt, the AFSPA confers a significant amount of extra-judicial powers on the army operating in a counter-insurgency theatre. But, why is this so? Let us first examine the issue with reference to a few Sections in this Act:

  1.  Section 4(A) – it allows army officers, junior commissioned officers, and non-commissioned officers (all ranks except the jawans) the power to shoot, or order to shoot, and to kill for the following offences – acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons carrying weapons, or carrying anything which is capable of being used as a firearm or ammunition. In order to justify the invocation of this provision, the officer need only be “of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order” and only give “such due warning as he may consider necessary.”
  2. Section 4(B) – it empowers the Army to destroy any property if it is an arms dump, a fortified position or shelter from where armed attacks are made or are suspected of being made, if the structure is used as a training camp, or as a hide-out by armed gangs or absconders.
  3. Section 4(C) – under this, the Army can arrest anyone who has committed, is suspected of having committed or of being about to commit, a cognisable offence without an arrest warrant and use any amount of force “necessary to effect the arrest”.
  4. Section 4(D) – it allows the Army to enter and search without a warrant, with the purpose of making an arrest, or recovering of any property, arms, ammunitions or explosives which are believed to be unlawfully kept in the premises. This Section also allows the use of any amount of force necessary for the search.
  5. Section 5 – it states that after the Army has arrested someone under the AFSPA, that person must be handed over to the nearest police station with the “least possible delay”.
  6. Section 6 – it establishes that no legal proceeding can be brought against any member of the armed forces acting under the AFSPA, without the permission of the Central Government.

Now, these are special powers under AFSPA[4] that must be retained, for they have been conferred on the Army to tackle home-grown terrorists. The Army needs them to operate in places like Nagaland and Manipur. But, according to the ‘Repeal AFSPA’ lobby, these are the Sections under AFSPA which give the Army unbridled powers to kill civilians and rape women and young girls at its own whims and fancies, while offering them protection from being prosecuted for their crimes. But, is this really the truth? Well, howsoever offensive or ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘draconian’ may these Sections appear to be, but the necessity of them in the special context of the North-East cannot be overlooked. The AFSPA is viewed in the North-East as the main reason behind the killings of so many civilians by the armed forces over the years in the name of insurgency.

The oft-repeated narrative is that the armed forces have, with impunity, misused the AFSPA as a repressive tool to enforce a reign of state-sponsored widespread terror on the citizens of the North-East, disrupting every peace process, and hence, AFSPA must be repealed. The loss of several innocent lives over the years has been attributed to the brutality and disproportionate force used by the law-enforcement authorities, particularly the Indian Army. But, an important question that arises here is – Is it really AFSPA that has led to so many killings and deaths in the North-East, especially in the post-Independence era? We must not forget that during this period, Christianity became the predominant religion, pushing the local faith systems of the vanavasi communities into almost near extinction.

Is the demand for repealing AFSPA being used by a certain section of ideologically motivated “academics”, human rights “activists”, writers, lawyers, etc. to advance their own political agenda? This is the same lobby that has always been at the forefront of labelling the AFSPA as “draconian”, “unconstitutional” and various other fancy-sounding academic vocabularies, so as to make their demand of ‘Repeal AFSPA’ sound genuine and legitimate enough. The aim is to portray the Indian state as a monster and the Indian Army as a force that has been forcefully occupying places like Nagaland under AFSPA to kill common civilians and rape women and girls.

Why has this lobby been hypocritically silent on the various anti-social activities such as kidnappings and extortion drives led by the different insurgent groups in these states, or the doubtful intentions of China with respect to Arunachal Pradesh and the Brahmaputra? The other part of the story is certainly not to be missed. Despite all its drawbacks, the role played by AFSPA cannot be ignored with respect to maintaining relative peace in this region that is located geo-strategically along the international border with Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar. A flawed argument that is being put forward by opponents of the AFSPA is that the Act has not led to insurgency being contained in Nagaland and other areas of the North-East where it is being implemented.

But, would it really have been possible to wipe out terrorism from Mizoram without the AFSPA in place and the accompanying tough measures that were taken by the security forces under this Act to deal with the unimaginable horrors of the Mizo National Front (MNF)-led insurgency? If Nagaland is still a part of India despite the horrors of the insurgency perpetrated by several forces that have been inimical to the flourishing of Dharmic faiths, it is because the Army has played a very important and crucial role in preventing the terrorists here from taking over and proclaiming a separate Christian state of Nagalim! The same holds true for the Kashmir Valley and other states and regions where the AFSPA is in force. These aspects must be taken into consideration while debating on the pros and cons of the AFSPA.

There is no AFSPA in force in Meghalaya. But, IED bomb blasts and attacks on Hindu religious places of worship by Christian evangelical groups have become quite commonplace at frequent intervals in different areas of the state. It raises several uncomfortable questions with respect to the real problem in these states which is certainly not AFSPA. It is not to be forgotten that insurgent groups such as NSCN (Khaplang)/NSCN (K) and NSCN (Isak-Muivah)/NSCN (I-M) do not just demand a separate state but a separate Christian-dominated state of Nagalim or Greater Nagaland. In fact, the slogan of the NSCN (K) is “Nagaland for Christ”, which has gradually paved the way for the demand of a separate state with a separate Constitution and a separate flag of its own, leading to never-ending friction with the Indian state and the Indian Army in particular.


References:

[1] Brig. (Dr.) SP Sinha, “Northeast: The Role of Narcotics and Arms Trafficking”, Indian Defence Review, May 10, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. Kumar & S. Ram, Violence and Terrorism in North-East India (Delhi: Arpan Publications, 2013), pp. 65-81.

[4] The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958; https://www.mha.gov.in


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