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North-East India & the War Against Drugs, Guns and Missionaries

February 22, 2022 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

Leaving aside all benchmarks of what I would say ‘political correctness’, we need to understand the real reasons behind the never-ending insurgency in North-East India. Is there any correlation between the beginning of insurgency here and the simultaneous decline of Sanatan belief systems? The subsequent rise of secessionist movements in the North-East with the gradual popularity of a foreign religion in the post-Independence era needs to be understood in this context. It is not to be forgotten that insurgency and secessionism have worked in tandem in this region of the country by first psychologically distancing and then separating people away from their own kinsmen and eventually the entire country.

History has been a proof of the fact that whenever Dharmic religious beliefs and faith systems have declined in any area, region or country, separatists soon begin to have a free run. We all know what happened after Sudan was partitioned to create a new Christian country called ‘South Sudan’. For several years, Christian priests from the USA had been converting poor Muslims in South Sudan into Christianity. As soon as the population of Christians in South Sudan reached 90%, the Church demanded an independent Christian state separate from Sudan. South Sudan continues to be ravaged by severe internal turmoil and political instability even today. Indonesia was also partitioned to create a small Christian country of East Timor, where the Catholic Church is the dominant religious institution. 

So, the most pertinent questions that arise here are – Who are the real enemies responsible for creating instability and unrest in the North-East, especially the hill states, where a significant chunk of the population identifies itself as Christian? Will Bharat be ever able to defeat these forces detrimental to the security and the safety of her citizens? The North-East is an indispensable and inseparable part of the philosophical and spiritual entity called Bharatvarsha and as well as Bharatiya itihasa. The Mahabharata is dotted with several references to Raja Bhagadatta of Pragjyotishpur and his elephant Supratik, who fought on the side of the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. The Yogini Tantra and the Kalika Purana too, have numerous descriptions about the land of Ma Kamakhya as the major centre of Tantric-Shakti Parampara in Poorvottar Bharat.

But, despite always having been an integral part of Bharat, what were the real factors that led several states in this region to resort to a path of armed rebellion against the Indian state just a few years after India’s Independence? Immediately after Independence, special constitutional provisions were enacted for these states in the name of protecting their “unique tribal culture”. Can we deny the linkage between the rapid growth of Christianity and the subsequent decline of Dharmic faiths in this regard? The reasons behind the introduction of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) System in the North-East under the aegis of the Congress Party led by Nehru, cannot be separated from the context of the rapid growth and proliferation of the Church.

Nehru’s step-motherly attitude towards this region and the suspicious activities of the British missionary Verrier Elwin who was appointed by Nehru as the Anthropological Adviser to NEFA (present-day Arunachal Pradesh), were, to a large extent, responsible for the rise of insurgent movements, fed by a well-nourished network of drug cartels. Soon, this enchantingly beautiful part of the country came to be identified with a toxic combine of drugs and guns that soon became entangled with the religious proselytization mission of the Church. Thanks to the legacy of Nehru, much of our energies and attention remained focused on Islamic jihad in Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of the Partition.

This is, however, not to downplay the Kashmir question in the larger context of the country’s national security, which has also been equally about saving the Hindu civilisational heritage of the land of Rishi Kashyap. But, in the meanwhile, the pot kept boiling in the North-East, unknown and unheard to many in the rest of the country. This war was going to prove too insidious and deadly to be tackled by the Indian state in the years to come. The argument that we are fed repeatedly by the Leftist academia is that the North-East is a land of ethnic heterogeneity and increasing polarisation along ethnic lines has been chiefly responsible for the rise of insurgent movements and other conflicts.

But, is this really the truth or just another sugar-coated academic narrative to divert our attention away from the real problem? Are the conflicts among the various vanavasis residing here real or manufactured? The problem is multi-layered and it has been expanding with time. Much of the credit in this respect goes to the academia and the so-called “intellectual” class for providing legitimacy to the idea that each linguistic and “tribal” group in the North-East is a separate sub-nationality. Their ideologically-motivated “academic” writings have played a key role in providing a nascent cover-fire to insurgent movements like ULFA-I and NDFB in Assam, NSCN in Nagaland, MNF in Mizoram, etc.

Now, let us analyse the multi-dimensional nature of this problem in detail:

Insurgency and Infiltration from Bangladesh

Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been severely impacting the demography of states like Assam and Tripura in the North-East. Over the years, the demographic pattern in the entire North-Eastern region of India has been changing rapidly. Assam and Tripura are not the only states to have witnessed some of its worst consequences. The other states in the region too, are now beginning to face the heat. If any change of Government takes place in Bangladesh in the near future, in all probabilities, the jihadi elements will have a free run there and it would pose a serious security threat to the North-East. In the most adverse of circumstances, if the jihadi elements and the Maoists manage to establish a strong base here with the help of the illegal migrants, China would then directly come into the picture.

There are several reasons to believe that the insurgent outfits of the region are remote-controlled by Chinese agencies. Of late, issues such as demographic change and attempts by Islamist organisations like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JUMB), Popular Front of India (PFI), and Maoist groups to gain a foothold in the region have complicated the matters further. It is now common knowledge that China has always had a vested interest in fuelling disturbances in the area by providing support, both military and moral, to forces that are inimical to Bharat’s sovereignty and integrity. Suspicious activities of China, whether it is in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim or Bhutan, are a clear proof of the fact that it can move to any extent to secure a strategic advantage over India at whatever cost.

The hilly and mountainous topography of North-East India, especially those areas where accessibility is still not easy, has provided a fertile breeding ground for the growth of illegal dens of drugs and guns. But, most importantly, militant outfits operating in the region have been the prime beneficiaries of the porous and unguarded borders, especially with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Although there is a tendency in the academic circles to understand the problem of insurgency as internal, but its external dimensions cannot be ignored because of various compelling reasons. Existence of cross-border training camps for the insurgents who seek refuge in the neighbouring country after carrying out their operations, have become the sore points in the bilateral political relationship of India with Bangladesh on the one hand and Myanmar on the other.

The problem has assumed an international dimension, chiefly on account of the sophisticated routes being made use of by the insurgents to smuggle modern arms and weapons, banned narcotic drugs like heroin, etc. from both sides of the border adversely affecting human security in myriad ways.  Despite several crackdowns launched by the Government of Bangladesh in the recent past, various insurgent groups of the Northeast are still taking shelter in the neighbouring country either at their relatives or sympathisers places. Although these outfits do not have any full-fledged camps there and are not directly operating from there, but intelligence inputs have time and again suggested that members of these outfits are maintaining shelters mostly in and around the areas like Khagrachari, Bandarband, and Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and a few areas bordering Meghalaya.

A news report titled NE Insurgents Staying in Bangladesh But Not Operating From There: BSF published in Outlook on November 30, 2021, it was reported that most of the militants staying in Bangladesh belong to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah)/NSCN (IM), Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and remnants of the ULFA’s Drishti Rajkhowa-led group. Many of these militant outfits, including the Manipur-based PREPAK and United National Liberation Front (UNLF), etc. have described the North-Eastern region of India as ‘Western South-East Asia (WESEA)’. They have jointly given calls for the boycott of Independence Day (August 15) and Republic Day (January 26) celebrations in the North-East several times in the past, besides declaring these historic days as one of general strike in these states.

Insurgency, Drugs & Arms Smuggling

The deadly ambush that took place at Sehken village in Manipur’s Churachandpur district on November 13, 2021 between militants and our security forces, had led to the death of an Indian Army Colonel, Col. Viplav Tripathi of the 46 Assam Rifles, along with his wife and minor son. Four other personnel of the paramilitary forces were also killed in the gunfight that ensued. Col. Tripathi served as the Commanding Officer of the Khuga Battalion of the Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force in the country. He had earlier served in Mizoram until the transfer of his battalion for a four-month stint to Manipur in July, 2021 around the same time when the Assam-Mizoram border dispute took place.

During his tenure in Aizawl, Col. Tripathi was popular among the local people for many of his goodwill gestures and most importantly, the crusade that he had led against cross-border smuggling of both drugs and arms. It is said that Co. Tripathi bonded closely with the local people of Mizoram through his remarkable endeavours for their safety and well-being. His battalion conducted an anti-drug campaign named Ruihhlo Do: A War Against Drugs in several border areas of Mizoram beginning from January, 2021. Earlier, it was estimated that there are about 25,000 drug users in the state and according to the 2016-17 HIV Sentinel Survey conducted by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), Mizoram has an HIV prevalence rate of almost 20% among injecting drug users, which is the highest in the country.

In February 2021, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh declared a ‘War on the Smuggling and Trade of Drugs’ and also persuaded the people to take a collective pledge against illegal poppy cultivation in the state to combat the menace of drug addiction. The locals of Manipur, especially the youth, have been falling prey to drug abuse, making it an issue of public concern. Drug abuse is one of the main reasons for the increasing spread of HIV/AIDS in the state. The campaign was exceedingly well-received by the common Manipuri people, even those residing in the far-flung, hilly and remote areas.

Since then, the Government of Manipur has been undertaking numerous commendable steps to prevent cross-border trafficking of narcotics and large-scale opium cultivation in the state. Many farmers in Manipur cultivate poppy precisely for it being profitable. A remote village named Peh in the Ukhrul district of Manipur that borders Myanmar on the east has stood out as an example in this entire exercise as its residents began destroying illegal poppy cultivations which were planted on a large-scale within the jurisdiction of the village. The Col. himself had busted several drug trafficking cases along the Indo-Myanmar border, and also worked for the rehabilitation of insurgent groups into the mainstream. Several laurels and praise were received by his battalion from the locals.

He also undertook several measures to spread awareness in the entire state including the remote villages so as to ensure that the youth are guided in the right direction, to enable them to lead a life free from drugs and guns. In fact, a leader of the Young Mizo Association, an organisation that works closely with law enforcement agencies in fighting the drug menace in this region, said, “Col. Tripathi was a good friend of the Mizos. His enthusiasm about tackling the menace of drug trafficking and arms smuggling was remarkable. He has done commendable jobs during his tenure in Mizoram. His death is a great loss for the society.” After he moved to Manipur, Col. Tripathi invited the leaders of the Manipur unit of the Young Mizo Association for a tea party.

In Manipur too, he had busted several drug rackets and in one such daring mission that took place on July 27, 2021 (interestingly around the same time when the Assam-Mizoram border conflict happened), 377 gm of heroin along with a large quantity of weapons was seized by his team. He was directly supervising the anti-drugs operation in the area, a well-known hotspot for drugs smuggling. It may be mentioned here that the place where Col. Tripathi was posted and where the ambush took place is close to the borders of Myanmar. It has a history of several such attacks on military convoys in the past as well.

On January 21, 2013, four suspected militants were killed in an encounter with troops of the 39 Assam Rifles at Behiang village in Churachandpur bordering Myanmar. Later, PIB-Defence Wing had issued a statement saying that the militants belonged to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The militants were trying to infiltrate from across the border targeting the jawans of the Assam Rifles, when a fierce gunfight took place between both the parties. Shortly after Col. Viplav Tripathi’s death, the Assam Rifles published a statement where it specifically stated that “Col. Tripathi’s goodwill for the society will last an eternity.”

As mentioned above, 46 Assam Rifles under Col. Tripathi was instrumental in thwarting several rackets of drug trafficking and weapons smuggling from Myanmar. Smuggling of Yaba tablets amounting to crores of rupees from Mizoram to Nilambazar in Assam via Manipur has almost become a regular affair along these border areas. It is because Yaba tablets are easy to smuggle and difficult to trace. It was under Col. Tripathi’s able leadership that the Khuga Battalion had been at the forefront in both border management and foiling all attempts of illegal drugs and arms smuggling through Myanmar and Manipur into Mizoram and Karimganj in Assam’s Barak Valley. It was also able to recover several weapons and war-like stores which could have landed in the hands of powerful criminal networks of drug dealers and insurgents, thus avoiding major casualties.

In this context, Karimganj’s link with the drug network spread across Myanmar and Mizoram via Manipur needs to be explored further. Karimganj shares a riverine border with Bangladesh in Assam’s Barak Valley, which has emerged as one of the major hotspots of cattle and drugs smuggling (including banned drugs), dodging past BSF patrolling along the border. In the recent years, however, the BSF has been quite effective in checking this menace to a large extent. But, the South-Salmara Mankachar region on the Assam-Meghalaya-Bangladesh border that also constitutes a part of Dhubri district in Lower Assam, and Barak Valley in Southern Assam, still continue to be the major hubs of the illegal cattle and drug trade spreading across the entire Northeast and beyond.

After Assam CM Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma took over charge in May 2021, the state declared a war against drugs and the police got a free hand in dealing with this problem. Assam Police has, so far, seized narcotics worth several crores of rupees and also unearthed numerous sensational details of drug deals going on in or through the state. However, despite an all-out war launched by the Assam Police, drug mafias and peddlers still continue to find leeway to smuggle in drugs and contraband goods through the Myanmar-Mizoram route, side-stepping security check-posts to make an entry into Karimganj district of Southern Assam. The railways have been the easiest and safest mode of transportation for the smuggling of not only drugs and arms, but also gold, foreign cigarettes, foreign currency, fake Indian currency, explosive substances, etc. from the North-Eastern states and some of its neighbouring countries.

To deceive the authorities, drug smugglers use different and unusual modes of transport like vehicle engines, bumpers, tyres, etc. to move the contraband. The most used route is from Dimapur to the rest of the country and outside via Guwahati. At first, drugs worth hundreds of crores of rupees are smuggled from Myanmar, and afterwards various agents in Dimapur are each given consignments worth Rs. 2 crore to Rs. 5 crore to distribute in various districts of Assam. These are then further divided and distributed among top drug dealers in the state with the aim of spreading the wings of this highly lucrative business in different places throughout the state and beyond. As a precautionary measure, drug traffickers from Dimapur use fake names while communicating with the drug dealers in Assam.

Assam Police had found that drug smugglers opt for one-time use of SIM cards so as to avoid being caught. It is because of these micro-operations that the police face a lot of challenges in busting drug cartels. It is to be noted here that the drive against such clandestine business of narcotics began in January, 2021 under Col. Viplav Tripathi’s leadership in Mizoram. It was later with the coming to power of Assam Chief Minister Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma that a manhunt was started by the police against drug dealers in Assam having links with notorious criminals and smugglers across the border. Till date, crores of rupees of drugs have been impounded and many smugglers put behind the bars. In fact, not a single day passes without any news of drug smuggling being reported from Assam, having deep networks in Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Manipur. Both Manipur and Assam are currently at the forefront of the war against drugs and illegal narcotics.

As per an official statement published in The Assam Tribune of 22nd November, 2021, the Mizoram Excise and Narcotics Department has seized over 15.420 kg of heroin and arrested 493 people in drug-related cases from January to October this year. Since the past three years (2019-2021), huge quantities of ganja (cannabis), methamphetamine tablets, opium, Pseudoephedrine tablets, Alprazolam tablets, and Dextroproproxyphene tablets have been seized by the Mizoram Police, in close collaboration with the Khuga battalion led by Col. Tripathi. At least 2,120 people were arrested and 1,572 cases registered in connection with drugs during the same period. But, the smugglers have begun adopting various novel methods to hoodwink the law-enforcement agencies not only to smuggle banned drugs in and out, but also the cough-syrup Phensedyl, Burmese betel nuts, cattle, and rhino horns.

Insurgency & Smuggling of Rhino Horns

The cadres of the Zomi Revolutionary Army, an insurgent group with a presence in Manipur and Myanmar, are a crucial link in the transnational rhino horn smuggling racket that extends to several countries of South-East Asia and China via Myanmar. Rhino horns fetch a very high price both in China and as well as the markets of South-East Asia. As per a report published in the year 2016 by the Asian Rhino Specialist Group, Assam has become the primary smuggling route for the cross-border trade of rhino horns into Myanmar, after strict law enforcement crippled the Nepalese poaching networks that extended till Tibet via Kathmandu. Assam’s Daldali Forest Reserve in Karbi Anglong district is situated in the neighbourhood of the Kaziranga National Park.

Karbi Anglong shares a border with Nagaland, and the region bordering Myanmar in Nagaland is quite well-known for providing refuge to armed insurgents and poachers. In one incident of rhino horn poaching that took place in the month of May, 2020 at Agratoli on the eastern side of Kaziranga, the police had later apprehended one David Siama from Churachandpur in Manipur. It was revealed during the course of the investigation that Siama had received training with the Zomi Revolutionary Army but quit the organisation midway during his training and before he was officially inducted as one of its members. His brother Mangboi Paite was killed during the gang’s initial encounter with the forest guards in Kaziranga (https://oxpeckers.org/2020/08/indias-rhino-poaching-syndicates/).

Several members of the gang later confessed to their active involvement in numerous rhino poaching incidents in the past as well. It is noteworthy of mention here that camps of poachers have been busted from several places in Karbi Anglong district during police raids at various times in the past few years. The leaders and financiers of these rhino poaching cartels are generally based somewhere along the borders of Manipur’s Churachandpur district with Myanmar. They engage the youth of these areas as small-time drug peddlers who look for earning some extra money but, in due course of time, themselves fall prey to drug addiction.

Formed in 1997 following an increase in inter and intra-community rivalries among the Kukis, the Nagas, the Paites, and the Zomis in Churachandpur, the Zomi Revolutionary Army is one of the many armed groups in Manipur that is also a part of the United People’s Front (UPF), a larger umbrella group of various Christian insurgent groups of the North-East. At present, the Zomi outfit is one of the largest in the area boasting of several hundreds of cadres. It either orders the poaching of rhinos for their horns or buys the rhino horns from other poachers. Operating mostly from Churachandpur and to some extent across the border with Myanmar via Nagaland, the Zomi Revolutionary Army acts as an important intermediary between Manipur and Myanmar before the horns and other wildlife parts are further smuggled to China.

The Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh in Chandel district of Manipur was until recently a safe haven for smugglers. It may be recalled here that in the year 2013, a sympathiser of the insurgent group United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was arrested by paramilitary forces from the Indo-Myanmar border in Chandel district. A powerful hand-made grenade later revealed to have been manufactured in China was also seized from him. But, under India’s Act East Policy, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway that leads to the international border at Moreh has multiple checkpoints, making smuggling increasingly difficult. In 2018, a Manipur Police constable was caught carrying rhino horns in Senapati district. Further investigations had revealed that the horns were headed to Moreh.

It is in this context that Churachandpur offers a strategic location in terms of offering an easy route to Myanmar compared to the other border districts of Manipur. Significantly, the road from Churachandpur town to Behiang village where the November 13 ambush took place, falls under the area of influence of the Zomi Revolutionary Army. It has well-established links and networks with wildlife crime syndicates in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, which it leverages to make money by selling the horns. Behiang is among the three listed drug trafficking routes, more precisely heroin smuggling, through which the contraband articles are brought from Myanmar into Manipur for onward supply into the rest of India and outside. The routes are Kheiman-Behiang-Singhat; New Somtal-Sugnu-Churachandpur-Imphal; and, Homalin-Kamjong. (A special note of thanks to my elder brother Dr. Punamjit Nath, DSP, Assam Police, for providing me various inputs on the 46 Assam Rifles and Col. Tripathi’s war on drugs).

Image courtesy:

https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/dollar-bill-scroll-cocaine-powder-pistol-and-three-bullets-on-black-surface-gm1073225472-287267335


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