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Armed Conflict and Small Arms Proliferation in India’s North East – Part II

by Binalakshmi Nepram-Mentschel

In Part I of Binalakshmi’s report on small arms proliferation, she explores the cultural, political and geographical factors that make North East India a hotbed for the small arms trade. – Ed.

Many parts of South Asia, and in particular the North East region of India, are fragmented societies run on guns and drugs. The region is being flooded with a frightening influx of small arms and narcotics. A proliferation of armed groups follows. Armed by China, Pakistan, Burmese rebels and other South East Asian state and criminal groups, the arms inventory of the insurgent groups has increased tremendously over the years.

Prevalence of War Economies in North East India

There are thousands of para-military troops armed with weapons based in North East India. Crores, or tens of millions of rupees (hundreds of thousands of US dollars) go into maintaining the troops and the various war machines, specifically, weapons, tanks, bullet proof vehicles, patrol helicopters, etc. Though until now no study has been done to estimate the costs of the heavy militarization of India’s North East, the truth is there for all to see. Without doubt, a war economy exists in the region.

Besides the legal and economic costs of war, another economy exists, channeled by non-state actors. Every month, rebels collect “taxes” from people, governments and institutions for their “struggle”. These taxes range from Rs 50 to Rs 60 lakhs ($1.22 to over $245,000 usd) per collection. In addition, various rebel groups also extort money from people at gun point. Kidnapping for ransom by those brandishing small arms has become the order of life in North East India. The money collected is used for various purposes, mainly the purchase of small arms by the rebels. An AK 47 rifle costs about Rs 46,000 (a little over $1,000 usd), whereas an M16 costs about Rs 16,000 ($390 usd). In addition, training rebel groups costs money too. Six months of training, complete with arms training, costs one cadre, or one insurgent, Rs 300,000 (approximately $7,300 usd).

Emergence of An Arms and Drugs Nexus Led Economy

Illicit trafficking in small arms is closely aligned with that of narcotic drugs. Arms are usually exchanged for drugs, which can lead to far larger profits and can also be used for laundering money and enriching individual fortunes.

North Eastern India, situated next to Myanmar, belongs to the Golden Triangle, a drug producing area where 68 percent of all known illicit opium production and refining takes place. The North Eastern region has a 1,643 kilometer border with Myanmar, the main source of the opium trade. According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Myanmar produces 80 percent of the heroin in South-East Asia and is responsible for 60 percent of the world’s supply. North East India furnishes trafficking routes for Myanmarese heroin as well. Many heroin labs are located near the border. There are more than 19 trafficking routes from Myanmar to the North East.

Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland together smuggle at least 20 kgs. of heroin every day. Intelligence reports reveal that not all the heroin smuggled into the region is for local consumption. Instead, the bulk of it is sent to different parts of the country for various destinations, including foreign countries like the United States, Europe and major parts of India. The heroin is sold under different brands such as ‘two lions and a globe’, ‘double globe’, ‘five stars’ and ‘dangerous’.

In Manipur, narco-trade is referred to as “blood money”. The ring of narco-insurgency has spread its shadow across the seven states of North East India. The massive international border which runs through difficult, porous and changing terrain and which touches several nations only further complicates the issue. Narco-trafficking and insurgency, coupled with extortion, form a menacing ring which includes politicians, rebel groups and common people. In fact, one supports the other and has become a way of life.

Destroying the Economy of the Future: The Impact of Arms & Armed Conflict on Children

The disruption of education in the violence-torn states of the North East has seriously impacted the development of children growing up in these areas. Undeniably, education is the most powerful tool for social change and development. When a child’s education is affected, the whole life of that child is affected, and the recurring ethnic clashes in the state have brought education to a grinding halt. As a result, many students have had to be transferred to safer school areas to prevent their being kidnapped or assaulted by warring tribes. Many children have had to discontinue their studies completely. Children in refugee camps are forced to abandon their studies and work for their livelihood.

Growing up with violence all around them, many children join the insurgent movement for revenge or because they have no way out. Many have seen those they love killed in the continuous armed conflicts. According to Allan Court, India’s representative for UNICEF who recently completed a study on the effect of insurgency on children:

“They (children) are being forcibly recruited, coerced and induced to become insurgents. Manipulated by adults, children have been drawn into violence that they are too young to resist and with consequences they cannot imagine.”

Plagued by insurgency and conflict for the last 5 decades, the North East states especially Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Tripura are witnessing the dangerous trend of traumatized and disturbed children being forced into insurgency. Children are not just getting caught in the crossfire but are also being targeted in many cases and are bearing the brunt of violence. The trauma caused to poor children who are rendered homeless, orphaned and destitute through the indiscriminate and senseless killing of their parents and relatives, has erected a certain fear psychosis in their minds. These children are going up as disturbed individuals, many of whom are afflicted by depressive illness.

Development Denied

Small Arms proliferation and narcotics impede development, which breeds the discontent that feeds insurgency. A close examination of the turbulence and frustrations evident in the North East would indicate a number of underlying economic factors. The North Eastern economy continues to be one of the most backward economies in India. Most of the hill districts of Manipur, which are strongholds of insurgents, are reeling under acute poverty mainly because of the under-utilization of their natural resources due to lack of infrastructure. In Chandel district, over 64 per cent of the people live below the poverty line while in Churachandpur, Ukhrul and Tamenglong districts, it is between 51 and 55 per cent. Of late, poverty levels in the North Eastern states most hit by insurgency are increasing. Due to armed insurgency, the economy in the region is in a state of collapse.

Most jobs in the region are in the unorganized sector, and this includes all rural activities. Only between five and seven per cent of jobs are in the organized sector. The political instability further adds to the problem. And while J L Nehru called the region the “Switzerland of India”, due to insurgency, tourism is impossible. Contracts for work are seized by people close to armed rebel groups in many places in Manipur. And even the smallest accumulation of funds in the region is an invitation to the rebels to start their extortion practices. Such mal-developments have caused great discomfort to inhabitants, thus paralyzing life and its economy.

Efforts to Curb Small Arms Proliferation

It is the reality of today’s world that small arms have emerged as weapons of mass destruction, killing half a million people globally each year. Both North East India and South Asia have seen a massive proliferation of small arms in the last two decades. Armed violence has become an everyday reality in the region which, ironically, introduced the concept of Ahimsa (non-violence) to the world. The damage done by small arms ranges from outright killings to maiming and mutilation, from rape to all possible violations of human life. Young boys brandishing small arms kidnap, extort, and loot innocent civilians to buy their weapons and then live off them. In addition to the enormous, critical damage done to the education system, so has the development of resources and infrastructure been crippled by insurgency.

The massive proliferation of small arms in North East India calls for greater thinking, research, intervention and change. It is time that civil societies in South Asia wake up to this problem and begin strenuous efforts to curb this menace.

To date, no state governments of the three states under study have implemented any policy or programs to address the proliferation crisis. Efforts must be made to effect positive changes. And while scholars in Manipur have started writing about the issue, it is extremely important to be able to collect and collate data on small arms from various places in the region. Enhanced cooperation and information exchange between researchers, journalists, intelligence, customs, police, army, other law enforcement agencies and common people will facilitate better data on the illicit trafficking of small arms.

Young people, especially young boys, should be included in the information exchange, as they are very much aware about small arms and often keen to share information. Including women’s groups (Meira Paibis, Kuki Mothers Association, and the Naga Mothers Association) in the North East region along with other young people and various select civil society organizations will facilitate the community becoming actively involved in the process of containing proliferation.

Fortunately, international bodies like the United Nations, Oxfam, Amnesty International and International Action Network Against Small Arms have already begun implementing some of these strategies.

And most of all, engaging the 30 armed groups operating in the region in dialogue is critical. A committed effort by all those entities concerned is necessary to develop containment strategies in a highly fractured society like that of North East India. Quite simply, the issue of small arms control is vital to the survival of some of India’s indigenous population before gun and drug deaths bring them to extinction.

Editor’s Note: June 11-17th marks the global Week of Action Against Gun Violence. Visit and add your face to their Million Faces campaign to demand a global arms trade treaty!

About the Author

Ms. Binalakshmi Nepram Mentschel is presently Oxfam GB’s Consultant on Control Arms and the Arms Trade Treaty. She is also the founding Secretary General of the New Delhi based Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI) and of the Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network (MWGSN) based in the Indo-Burma border state of Manipur.

She has published several articles and papers in both national and international journals on issues relating to armed violence, small arms proliferation, peace processes, women and peace building. She is the founding editor of Borderlines, a journal on northeastern India and has authored 2 books: South Asia’s Fractured Frontier: Armed Conflict, Narcotics and Small Arms Proliferation in India’s Northeast (Mittal Publications, New Delhi, 2002) and a historical fiction based on Manipur entitled Meckley (Virgo Publications, New Delhi, 2004). Binalakshmi was awarded a Ploughshares Fellowship in 2004 to work on small arms mitigation in northeastern India and the 2006 WISCOMP Scholar of Peace for her work on women and disarmament issues.

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