Drugs, guns and four stories from the North East
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in Manipur, one could not escape the four stories that clearly and tragically defined North East India at that time.
These included the increasing military presence and the imposition of Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the rise in armed insurgencies, the soaring narcotics trafficking and drug abuse and finally the major human rights violations and the strong women’s non-violence movement that rose during this time. All these happened simultaneously and left an indelible mark on our lives.
I remember Tarun, a former classmate of mine who grew up in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. We both studied at a prestigious private school, known for imparting good education. Tarun was a soft spoken, kind boy with a pleasant personality who was one day found dead in Imphal’s Tulihal Airport at the tender age of 15 due to what others told us was a “drug overdose”. Tarun wasn’t the only one. I vividly remember one early morning when I woke up for my studies in Imphal and heard the sound of three gun-shots. I later found that a 19-year-old recovering “drug addict” had been shot dead by an unidentified group. The youngster who was killed lived in our neighbourhood with his widowed mother in poverty. Feeling sad for the mother who had lost her only child, I remember wondering: “If he was a recovering drug addict, why was he shot dead?”
The Manipur that I grew up in at that time imprisoned drug addicts, insurgents shot them dead, while drug peddlers, many of them poor women, were also sent to jail. But my young mind at that time had this question: What about drug kingpins ? Who and where are they, and why are they never caught, shot or imprisoned ?
These childhood questions eventually led to my research at the School of International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. The thesis became a book titled, South Asia’s Fractured Frontier: Armed Conflict, Small Arms and Narco-Trafficking in North East India, which was released by India’s former Prime Minister, IK Gujral. The book contained questions and responses to how, who and what led the North East Region becoming India’s narcotics epicenter. The story of India’s narcotics trade will not be complete without telling this story. Even today, we have members of our State Assemblies who are narco-traffickers who don the role of politicians and rule over our lives, many supported by India’s ruling parties. Is this the working of a democracy that India espouses ?
North East India comprises the eight States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. The region which makes up 7.6 percent of India’s land area and 3.6 percent of its total population was home to four Nation States which later merged with India, some voluntarily and some under duress. The fire of insurgency has engulfed this strategic region for the last half century, making it one of South Asia’s most disturbed regions. Bordering the five countries of Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, China and Myanmar, the region has immense geo-political significance. The region is joined by a 14 km wide and 60 km long “chicken’s neck” of land between Nepal and Bangladesh. There are over 220 indigenous communities in the region, earning it the name of a “Miniature Asia”. Over 50,000 people have been killed and 20,000 widowed in my home State Manipur alone due to the conflict and martial law clamped here since 1958.
The story of narcotics in North East India started around 1983 when heroin, a deadly derivative of morphine, started making an entry into our society, particularly Manipur. Within two decades, the North East States recorded 1,10,000 drug addicts and over 6871 HIV positive cases, with Manipur having nearly 8 per cent of India’s total HIV positive cases and ranked third in India. It is vital to note that 75 per cent of the HIV positive cases in Manipur were intravenous drug users, and the disease spread to their sexual partners and their children. Drugs and HIV/AIDS devastated families not just in Manipur, but in other neighbouring States like Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam as well.
Proliferation of narcotics production in the world started in the Golden Triangle area following the Second World War. Almost 80 per cent of the world's production of opiates originate from the "Golden Crescent" and the "Golden Triangle" area, now called "Golden Pentagon" with the induction of Vietnam-Cambodia and Nagaland-Manipur in North East India. Several countries of South Asia are strategically located on the heroin trafficking routes - India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka.
North East India shares a 1,643 kilometres border with Myanmar, which belongs to the Golden Triangle group, a drug producing area where 68 percent of all known illicit opium production and refining in the world takes place. Some 90 per cent of this mountainous terrain is under poppy cultivation and accounts for 65 percent of estimated total world opium poppy cultivation. According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Myanmar produces 80 percent of the heroin in Southeast Asia and is responsible for 60 percent of the world’s supply. Heroin from this region soon found its way to western Europe as new smuggling routes opened through China and former Soviet Union. North East India too falls in the heroin trafficking route with many of the heroin labs located near the Indo-Burma border.
Reports in 1989 pointed out that Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland together accounted for the smuggling of at least 20 kg of heroin every day and that the bulk of it was sent to different parts of the country for eventual routing to the United States and Europe. Heroin was then sold under different brands such as ‘Two Lions and a Globe’, ‘Double Globe’, ‘Five Stars’, and even ‘Dangerous’.
The question to ask then is, who at the time were the kingpins of this trade in India’s North East ? It was certainly not the drug users and the petty drug traffickers, who were usually caught and jailed.
The first district affected by heroin in the region as per research done is Churachandpur district located in the southern part of Manipur bordering Northwest Myanmar. The road at Behiang was a creation of the Second World War. According to Manipuri journalist Phanjaobam Tarapot, some of the important trafficking routes in Northeast India are as follows:
Behiang-Singhhat-Churachandpur-Imphal, Behiang-Singhhat-Tipaimukh-Silchar (in Assam), Tamu-Moreh- Imphal, Homalin-Ukhrul-Jessami-Kohima, Mandalay-Tahang-Tiddim-Aizawl-Silchar, Homalin-Kamjong- Shangshak Khullen-Ukhrul, Myitkina-Maingkwant- Pangsau Pass-Nampong-Jairangpur-Digboi, Putao-Digboi- Pasighat (Arunachal Pradesh)-other destinations, Tamanthi (Myanmar)-Noklak (Nagaland-Myanmar Border)-Kohima-Dimapur, New Somtal (in Chandel district)-Sugnu- Churachandpur-Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur and Kheinan-Behiang-Churachandpur- Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur.
Apart from these well-identified routes, there are several other tracks used by smugglers for illicit trafficking of heroin. After the narcotic drugs reach Imphal, Aizawl, Kohima, Silchar or Dimapur, they are dispatched to Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai or Bangalore and other places. The lack of security posts at border points coupled with inadequate security staff and connivance of some officials have led to heroin freely entering the region. The involvement of some security personnel in smuggling out thousands of kilograms of ganja in truckloads from Manipur to other States like Bihar and surrounding areas have been reported. Moreh in Manipur and Champhai (Mizoram), a border town in Mizoram and other border points have become floodgates of heroin from the northwest part of Myanmar. A Mizoram Government Report points out that the heroin is smuggled from the Golden Triangle via Myanmar by almost half a dozen syndicates. The rapid increase of drug smuggling in Mizoram appears to be due to its strategic location, with a 704 km international border with Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Chemical trail: Poppy is a plant like many others. To convert poppy into heroin, one needs to use chemicals called “precursors”. The story of narcotics in India will again not be complete without telling the story of these “precursors”. India is by far the largest manufacturer and exporter of essential chemicals such as acetic anhydride that are used in the manufacture of narcotics and psychotropic substances. India is capable of manufacturing 95,000 metric tons of acetic anhydride annually. A lot of acetic anhydride is smuggled from India to Myanmar and other South Asian countries.
A lot of fake pharmaceutical companies started springing up in the 1980s and 1990s in Manipur and North East India which were used as fronts to get acetic anhydride and other chemicals used in narcotic drug production, whose illegal refineries were located all along the Indo-Burma border areas. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “India has a well-developed chemical industry, which produces substantial quantities of acetic anhydride, ephedrine, pseudo-ephedrine, potassium permanganate and many other precursor chemicals. In spite of precursor control legislation and procedures being in place, several cases of diversions of significant quantities of precursor chemicals have occurred in recent years. The growing threat of traffickers establishing ATS laboratories in the region, and availability of ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine in India is of grave concern to Indian law enforcement authorities”. A 13 September 2017 White House Circular lists India as a country that produces precursors as well as a “Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries for Fiscal Year 2018.”
North East India is thus sandwiched between a narcotic chemical supplying country and the drug producing Golden Triangle. The chemicals from India is used in converting poppy into heroin and from border region, the finished drug is pushed into North East Region before it goes to Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and from there to other parts of the world.
In February 2013, a public relations officer of the Indian Army was caught with 24 crore worth of narcotic drugs consignment in Manipur. Others nabbed included members of a private airline and a family member of a former Minister of Manipur. Which begs the questions: Why was one of India’s premier private airlines’ first ever flight scheduled from Delhi to Imphal, capital of Manipur ? Whose bags are not checked while boarding a flight in India ? Not just some members of the armed forces, the police and politicians too have often been indicted in India’s narcotics industry.
During my research at Jawaharlal Nehru University, I found “some armed groups” being set up in the region to protect the drug trade in the North East. These groups were supported by political parties who later lobbied in elections, forcing people at gun point to vote. The story of small wars and insurgencies in North East India is also a story of guns and drugs as I wrote in my book.
In July 2020, at the time of the height of coronavirus pandemic, a Manipur woman police officer accused Manipur’s Chief Minister of helping a drug trafficker to get bail. The drug trafficker belongs to the current ruling party of India. There are members in the current Manipur State Legislative Assembly who had served terms in Delhi’s Tihar Jail due to drug trafficking and yet continue to remain members of the legislative Assembly. A former Manipur MLA, a nephew of a former Chief Minister, who is under CBI investigation for narco-trafficking has left a former ruling party and joined India’s current ruling party.
I searched long for the answers to the death of my class mate Tarun, the gunning down of many of Manipur’s youths, and the arrest of many women drug peddlers – all pawns in the hands of those who are kingpins of India’s narcotics trade centred in North East India. It is time that India and the world knows them too and steps are taken to rectify the many wrongs that have happened in the portrayal of the North East as land of guns and drugs. Our beautiful indigenous land, resources and territories cannot and should not be made pawns in the hands of those who are greedy for money, power and politics. Our youth and women will rise again to defend and protect our sacred spaces from gun runners and drug traffickers who have destroyed the North East and made this beautiful land an epicentre of India’s narcotics industry. The infusion of chemicals and narcotic drugs into the lives of indigenous youth of North East, which I call ‘Chemical Warfare’ must stop.
Views expressed are personal (Author is the founder-director of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, the Control Arms Foundation of India, and the co-founder of the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, Gender Justice and Peace)