E-Pao! Essays - Gun Wars And Drug Deaths In South Asia

A Narrative of Armed Ethnic Conflict, Narco-Trafficking
and the Spread of Small Arms in North East India

Speaker: Binalakshmi Nepram *

Summary of Main Themes from Seminar

Binalakshmi Nepram spoke at a seminar hosted and organised by South Asia Partnership Canada in collaboration with the CPCC Small Arms Working Group.

At the beginning of her presentation, Ms Nepram said her aim was to give a voice to the indigenous people of the often-forgotten region of North East India.

Born in Manipur, she said she grew up thinking that events such as arbitrary arrests, intermittent gunfire, fighting by rebel groups, and drug abuse were 'normal'.

It was not until she left to study in New Delhi that she learned of the extent and inter-connection of arms and narcotics trafficking and armed ethnic insurgency in the North Eastern states in India. This knowledge formed the basis of her research and writing, and has enabled her to link up with others working on similar issues around the world.

Ms Nepram dedicated her talk to the many young people killed in armed conflict in North East India.

Main Themes From Presentation

North East India comprises the seven states of Assam, Arunchal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

Sandwiched between Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China, it is the part of India with the most international borders. Home to over 220 different indigenous groups, the main religion is animist.

Ethnically the region feels more akin to South EastAsia than South Asia. It is a beautiful part of the world but,unknown to most people, it has been at war for five decades.

Traditionally, the states in the North East have had their own identity. In the early stages of colonisation, the North Eastern states were not part of British India. Only later did they become part of the dominion.

In the 1940s, many of the ethnic groups in the North East argued that they should not be joined with India when it obtained independence. The Naga people wrote to Nehru to ask to be a separate state and others, including the Manipuris, made similar requests. India refused and, by the 1950s, the Indian government sent in the military which used sweeping powers given to it through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 to put down the growing insurgency.

The Mizo National Front, for example, was formed as a protest group because the Indian government failed to act when warned of an impending famine in the state in the 1960s, and many died as a result. The Mizo fought the government for 20 years before signing a peace accord in 1986. Tripuri insurgents are fighting to protect their language and cultural identify which they claim are threatened by the large influx of Bangladeshis from the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Regardless of their origin, the world does not hear about these insurgencies because they occur in such a small and remote area.

Until the 1960s, the various groups pursued their political struggle without violence. This changed when the Nagas began training in China. On their return, the armed struggle began. Others followed the lead of the Nagas. The first arms used in the region were Chinese weapons and World War II remnants. Groups such as the Manipuris called themselves a 'people's liberation army'.

The situation changed again in the 1970s when China made a foreign policy decision to stop supporting revolutionary groups around the world, including those in North East India. As a result, insurgency groups in the North East turned to similar groups in Burma who had camps all along the Indo-Burmese border. Once the North Eastern groups started to train with Burmese rebel groups, the drug problems started.

The 'Golden Triangle' (Burma, Thailand and Laos) is a major drug producing area with many ethnic groups involved in poppy cultivation.

Much of the area is mountainous and inaccessible. Along the border that North East India shares with Burma, there are thought to be 19 illegal plants to refine opium into heroin. The refining process is aided by the fact that India is the largest producer in the world of acetic anhydride, the main chemical needed to produce heroin. Some are now calling this region the 'Golden Hexagon'. Burmese rebels obtain cover and protection for thier drug production and trafficking activities in exchange for training insurgency groups from the North East.

Once the Burmese and North East insurgency groups linked up, the number of these groups proliferated with each group arming itself to the hilt. In the case of Manipur, it had three insurgency groups until the 1980s. By the 1990s, this increased to 27 groups.

It is the same in other states of North East India. Some insurgency groups in the North East are now trafficking drugs themselves.

Others take a strong anti-drug stance to the extent of burning opium crops and even shooting unrepentant addicts. Eitherway, the region is awash with drugs. States such as Manipur have some of the highest incidence of HIV-AIDS in the world because of the large number of intravenous drug use. Drugs are central to the financing of the insurgency groups and, as a result, drug kingpins operate with impunity. Drug trafficking and increased violence are inextricably linked.

At least 55 types of small arms have been found in the North East sourced from at least 9 different countries. They are brought into the region using at least 13 routes. These gun-running routes are called 'long marches' in which all the logistics for the movement of the weapons are mapped out. Different rebelgroups control different routes. Some of the arms are brought in by the India government which is allegedly supporting some rebel groups including the Kukis who are fighting against the Nagas. Criminalisation is seeping into what began as legitimate political struggles.

The North East was once a prosperous region and part of the old Silk Route. It has abundant resources including minerals, gold, tea, oil, bamboo and hydro-electricity generating potential.

Now it is landlocked, impoverished and unable to produce basic goods. Income it earns from oil goes to the India government.

It is reliant on grants from the government. It is also a war zone. From the 1980s, the India government intensified its clampdown on rebellion. Human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, 'disappearances' and extrajudicial killings are a fact of life.

For every 8 people in North East India, there is one armed person.

News from the region is curtailed. Visitors require a permit as the region is designated a 'restricted zone'. People cannot hold public meetings or congregate in groups of more than four as the Indian Arms Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 is in operation in many parts of North East India for the last 4 decades. Even as researcher conducting interviews, one does not have any sense of personal security.

Civil society offers some hope for a way forward. In Manipur, because of the regular 'disappearances' of young people by various insurgency groups and the military, the mothers of those who had been taken have a roster to patrol the streets each evening.

When the women on duty see an armed group approach, they sound the alarm and all the mothers band together to prevent their young people from being taken. The movement has been so successful that it has spread throughout the region and become a major force. Even the rebel groups fear these women. They do not have weapons but the women have strength in their hearts. A project is now underway to help these women to influence policy on a broader level.

There are legitimate ways to form a political struggle but it does not have to be bloody. The influence of narcotic drugs and money has undoubtedly led to the proliferation of armed conflictin North East India. India must take some responsibility for not understanding the concerns of people in the North East and dealing with them. The rebel groups must also share responsibility for how they have chosen to pursue their struggle.

North East India is now a quagmire, but we must have faith,drawing on the experience of civil society, that there is a wayforward out of this crisis.

Binalakshmi Nepram is the author of the recently published book " Meckley", a book which chronicles the times and history of manipur.
She is presently a research asssociate at saferworld, UK. Her work focusses on researching and writing on wars, insurgencies and small arm proliferation in Southern and South East Asia.

This article was sent courtesy of Dr. Bishwajeet Elangbam. He can reached at

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