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What has Manipur’s ethnic violence got to do with illegal drugs economy, India’s national security and defence strategy?


A good description of the incidents of ethnic violence that has engulfed Manipur needs certain exposition and a newer perspective based on streamlining the popular yet truncated sequence of events.

By Dhiren A. Sadokpam

Making an attempt to understand the current volatile situation in Manipur calls for acknowledging at least four elements – first the local dynamics, including the spate of inter-ethnic violence between the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes on one side and the Meitei community on the other side; Second, the origin of the tension; Thirdly, narco-politics and lastly India’s strategic cross-border interests. The four elements are the key to unravelling the overall multi-layered issues.

Local Dynamics: The Story So Far

A deceptive tranquillity prevails over the hills and valley of Manipur following the ongoing spate of inter-ethnic violence. What has happened in the last over three weeks (since May 3) needs to be structured into a narrative sans the myopic and propagandist bias or even rumours or hear-says being floated around that have fuelled irreversible ethnic friction? A good description of the incidents of ethnic violence that has engulfed Manipur also needs certain exposition and a newer perspective based on streamlining the popular yet truncated sequence of events. The first thing that one needs to understand is how did all the killings, arson, mayhem and destruction happen so fast and how an informed citizen is left gasping for a reasonable rational story.

Every informed citizen knows there had always been ethnic fault-lines in the strategically located region called Northeast of India. The factual manifestation of these fault-lines includes the most recent violent clashes between people belonging to Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes and the Meitei community in Manipur.

So far, there is no official confirmation of the number of casualties as yet, though the security advisor of the Government of Manipur on May 12 reported 71 dead, among them 41 of them is said to have succumbed due to violence and others have died owing to other causes. The number must be higher now as authorities discover new casualties whose whereabouts were not known earlier or people who have been killed since the arrival of central security forces.

As of now, over 45,000 people belonging to both the ethnic groups have been shifted to relief centres and homes in both the valley districts and the hill districts of Manipur. Many of the survivors of the violence were evacuated by security forces under tremendous difficulties. Reports coming in from Mizoram as on May 17 say that internally displaced persons from Manipur crosses 6500-mark in the neighbouring state.

According to state security forces, the spate of violence began when an armed mob infiltrated a tribal solidarity march held in protest against the demand for the inclusion of the Meiteis into the list of Scheduled Tribes under the Indian Constitution. Though the rallies were held in all the hills districts of Manipur, trouble started in the Torbung near Churachandpur. The armed mob burnt down the houses of Meitei community and destroyed their homes and properties during the May 3 tribal solidarity march. This led to retaliatory attacks in the valley districts of Manipur where the Meitei community is dominant.

Separate Administration Demand by Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi MLAs

As mud-slinging and blames games begin, 10 Members of Manipur Legislative Assembly (MLA) hailing from constituencies dominated by Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes who had earlier extended unstinted support to the N Biren Singh led BJP government have sought for a “separate administration” under the Constitution of India. This they say can only be possible after parting ways with the Manipur government.

The ten MLAs that included eight from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Friday (May 12) labelled a serious allegation that the widespread violence was “perpetrated by the majority Meitei community and was tacitly supported by the BJP-run state government. “As the state of Manipur has miserably failed to protect us, we seek from the Union of India a separate administration under the constitution of India and live peacefully as neighbours with the state of Manipur,” the MLAs said in a statement considered as an embarrassment to the N Biren Singh led state government.

The MLAs are Haokholet Kipgen, Ngursanglur Sanate, Kimneo Haokip Hangshing, Letpao Haokip, LM Khaute, Letzamang Haokip, Chinlunthang, Paolienlal Haokip, Nemcha Kipgen and Vungjagin Valte. All of them belonging to the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes. Of these, Chinlunthang and Hangshing belong to the Kuki People’s Alliance and the rest to the BJP. So in a sense, this could be ready as a fight within the BJP and its supporters. The statement of the MLAs further alleged that the violence against their communities has “already partitioned the state and effected a total separation from the State of Manipur”.

“Our people can no longer exist under Manipur as the hatred against our tribal community reached such a height that MLAs, ministers, pastors, police and civil officers, laymen, women and even children were not spared, not to mention the destruction of places of worship, homes and properties. To live amidst the Meiteis again is a good as death got our people”, said the MLAs.

These MLAs have argued that as elected representatives of the people representing Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes, they represented the sentiments of the people and endorsed their political aspiration of “separation from the state of Manipur”. This move of the MLAs is considered a strategy that was worked out well ahead of the sparks that led to the unprecedented violence.

Rejection of Allegations by 10 MLAs

In response to the violence, tension and the statement of these ten MLAs, the government of Manipur did not officially react to the demand of these ten MLAs. However, the Meitei Resurgence Forum (MReF) have accused the 10 Kuki MLAs of issuing a statement under the shadow of the minority tag without mentioning anything about the Meitei victims who incidentally belongs to the majority community.

Dismissing the popular perception of the majority versus minority conflict, MReF said that the present violent episode has been instigated by select groups responsible for bringing in “narco-terrorism” unleashed by the Kuki groups under the Suspension of Operation (SoO) (a localised tripartite ceasefire signed between the Government of India, the Government of Manipur and the Kuki armed groups) “at the behest of Kuki drug mafia, politicians, intellectuals and frontal organisations”.

The MReF alleged that the armed Kuki militants engaged in “killings, arson and destruction of Meitei temples and shrines. “When a Meitei house is burned down, three church-like sacred abodes within the household are destroyed: the Sanamahi abode, the Imoinu abode and the Tulsi Brinda at the front courtyard”. Moreover, there had been reports of desecration and vandalism of prominent Meitei places of worship in many places. The forum has also alleged that from day one of the violence, the Assam Rifles (AR) deployed to control the spiralling violence had been mute spectators. The forum, in equal terms, condemned the aggressive response of the mob comprising of Meiteis that have led to violence, destruction of Kuki houses and property and vandalisation of structures of worship in Imphal valley areas.

However, the most significant allegation raised by MReF include directly implicating the armed Kuki militants “funded by drug-money and illegal migrants from Myanmar, Mizoram and Bangladesh.” “Frontal organisations like All Tribal Student Union, Manipur (ATSUM), Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), Manipur Tribal Forum, Delhi (MTFD) carried out the plan in the name of organising a Tribal Solidarity Rally against the inclusion of Meitei/Meetei in the ST list of India. The forum further accused Paolienlal Haokip, a Kuki BJP MLA representing Saikot Assembly Constituency, Churachandpur District of being the “chief spokesperson for inciting Kuki sentiments and the whole militant aggression”.

While the mud-slinging continues, the systematic arson and destruction in the aftermath of the tribal solidarity march began only on Kuki tribe dominated areas when the same cause of opposing the Meitei’s demand was also endorsed by even the Naga community in their own respective tribal jurisdictions. Chronologically, Torbung Bangla was the flash point. Eyewitnesses and victims said that Kuki civilians supported armed mob torched houses in Torbung Waikhurok, Torbung Bangla, Torbung Gonvindapur, Sabal Maning and Mamang leikai, Kangvai and Phubakchao and established area domination by Kuki mob. The same mob also successfully expelled members of the Meitei community from their ancestral land in Churachandpur town established in 250 AD during the reign of Khoyum Tompok.

Origin of the Tension: Split Wide Open

While tracing the origin of the issue, one does not have to travel back far in history. It has been amply clear that there is a connections between ethnic violence, narco-economy, national security and international military strategy.

While the ethnic tension still prevails in the hills and the valley of Manipur, it should be noted that the government of Manipur had been pursuing its “war” against illegal drugs trade by constantly arresting all those who are allegedly involved. Even village chiefs under whose jurisdiction poppy cultivations are on at al large scale in the hills were arrested. The government had also been arresting hundreds of drugs pushers and peddlers. But most of the time, suspected kingpins and drug-lords had their ways to escape the state’s pursuit. Due to this, the effort of the state government had not been appreciated by the common people as most of the time, the arrests made so far have not been able to trace the king-pins or drug-lords both from the hills or valley who had invested huge amount of money in the illegal trade.

Despite the widespread but hushed up criticism, and while the current tension was at its peak in violence affected areas, Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) — a specialised unit of the State police on May 8 seized 77 gunny bags, suspected to contain poppy seeds, and Myanmar’s currency notes in the Mantripukhri area of Imphal city. It has been reported that the house from where the contraband items were seized belongs to an international drug cartel.

After a keen observation of the unfolding situation in Manipur, it can be correctly assessed that the anger of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes had been fuelled by a series of actions taken by the N Biren Singh government, including the “war on drugs”, and subsequent eviction of residents of villages in the hill areas identified as reserved and protected.

According to Manipur government sources, between 2017 and 2018, over 18,664 acres of poppy cultivated land have been destroyed by the state forces. These destruction of poppy cultivation have been confined to mostly the hill districts. Between 2013 and 2016, only 1,889 acres of poppy cultivated land was destroyed.

While talking about poppy cultivation, one can recall how the issue was raised by a Congress Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Kangujam Ranjit Singh during the opening day of the Second Session of the 12th Manipur Legislative Assembly Session on July 25, 2022. The MLA urged the members of the house to enact a stringent law that can award capital punishment or life imprisonment to the lawbreakers arrested in connection with illegal drug trade. He was in fact echoing the exact feeling of the average informed citizen in Manipur who have been weighing the sheer vainness of official campaigns undertaken by the state apparatus.

The MLA while trying to project the palpable despondency of the people on the “war on drugs” remarked that few years ago, drugs seized in Imphal Airport, Pallel or other areas of Manipur were mainly trafficked from the Golden Triangle countries like Laos, Thailand and Myanmar but now, drug is manufactured in Manipur itself. He then pointed out how the hill areas of Manipur have been denuded to make way for mass poppy plantations for onward production of contraband drugs. He emphasized that the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 or NDPS Act, 1985 has not been able to curb drug smuggling in the state of Manipur.

Kangujam Ranjit Singh while lauding the BJP led government’s “war on drugs” campaign as it was receiving support from different communities and tribes, unequivocally remarked that despite an endorsement of the campaign by some community leaders could not halt mass poppy plantation in the state. While the concerns raised by the MLA in the august house too hit the front pages of many state and regional dailies, one feels that there is still the need to ponder on the issue taking into consideration the global drug economy. When the MLA referred to the Golden Triangle countries like Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, he was speaking the obvious.

Illegal drug economy in Southeast Asia: Who controls it?

A report published by United States (US) Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice way back in April 2007 had already encapsulated certain uncomfortable facts in our neighbourhood including Northeast India and Myanmar.

The report titled “The Chinese Connection: Cross-border Drug Trafficking between Myanmar and China” presented findings from a two-year field study of drug trafficking activities between Myanmar (formerly Burma) and China. The report has data generated through interviews conducted with “law enforcement officials, community contacts and informants, incarcerated drug traffickers, active street drug dealers, drug addicts, as well as with other researchers in the field. Observations were made both inside the Golden Triangle and the surrounding regions”. What is worrisome is the reference to the “surrounding regions” which naturally includes Manipur and the rest of Northeast India.

The report said that since 2000, the US has practically ceased to provide any financial support to assist the Myanmar government or other international organizations working in the country in reducing opium poppy cultivation and heroin production. This basically means an unabated proliferation of poppy cultivation and heroin production in the Indo-Myanmar region as a result of failed effort to deal with the situation.

“The absence of any involvement in Myanmar’s anti-narcotic efforts only tarnishes the US image as playing politics at the expense of legitimate law enforcement cooperation, which only further diminishes the American influence in the region”, said the report from a conventional American perspective. With the US’s declining influence, it is obvious China has opted for actions to combat the massive opium poppy cultivation and heroin production process in its own territory while hold definitive advantage over the same issue in Myanmar and surrounding regions.

China can reap the best out of the given state of affairs and expand its expanding influence in the Southeast Asian region. Even if there are stringent rules and penalties over illegal drug issue in both China and Myanmar, there are reports of powerful drug trafficking organizations in the region bordering Myanmar. It must be remembered that the major opium and heroin-producing areas in Myanmar are located in the region occupied by various ethnic armed groups and China reportedly can exert influence in these areas.

It is an open secret that some people of Chinese decent are active in manufacturing and distributing illegal drugs in Southeast Asia. The same study by the US Department of Justice provides first hand data depicting how some of these people of Chinese descent who are drug traffickers operate in the Golden Triangle and surrounding countries. “Law enforcement sources in the region seemed to agree that one can find Chinese nationals in almost all major drug raids. Our contacts in Myanmar claimed that almost all major traffickers and distributors of illicit drugs are Chinese. One ranking intelligence official with the Australian Federal Police noted, – Most major drug manufacturing and trafficking activities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific region are linked to Chinese criminals. Chinese criminal entrepreneurs have long demonstrated their ability to develop new market opportunities and forge business partnerships with people of different ethnic backgrounds”, according to the report.

Activities of golden triangle shift to Northeast India

Even if one takes the US report with a pinch of salt or purely from American perspective, there is no denying the fact that the practice, nature and process of massive opium/poppy cultivation has now shifted to Northeast India and Manipur from the notorious Golden Triangle covering border areas between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

While criticising the official narcotics policy of the US, key researchers Alfred W. McCoy and Alan A. Block have argued that “treating global narcotics trafficking as if it were a localized vice such as pornography or prostitution, US drug agencies often apply repression without any awareness of the intricate dynamics of these global marketing system”. The local approach to the drug problem in South East Asia from a law enforcement perspective is not a very different from that of the United States. But it is not possible to fight the drug trade without analysing underlying political and–in Southeast Asia—ethnic factors, say the famous Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner and Michael Black, the Thailand based writer in their book “Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion  in the Golden Triangle”. The two go on to state that “without the support and protection of powerful and influencial individuals it would never be possible to trade huge quantities of drugs that is the case in Southeast Asia today”.

The observation made by both in their book gives a hint to how the issue of current ethnic violence should be understood. The emerging trend in the Northeast of India particularly Manipur is alarming and does not bode well for the future of Northeast India, the rest of India and Southeast Asia, all taken together.  Global observers have also argued that current drug economy in the Indian subcontinent is directly or indirectly controlled allegedly by people having connections with major players in Southeast Asian region.

India with traditional hostile neighbours like China and Pakistan can indeed become the victims of its own weakness for not controlling the spiralling spread of illegal drugs as soft and hard measures to settle political and economic score. There is a possibility of these elements using India’s own territory to capture political economy of the whole subcontinent. It must also be noted that the current drug syndicates in Asia is far more sophisticated and complex than even the structure of Latin American cartels.

Coming back to the Northeast state of Manipur, a report by Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) department says that 963 drug traffickers were arrested including 768 men and 195 women under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act from April 27 till June 2019. The state provides information that around 3,716 acres of illegal poppy plantation and 5.51 acres of ganja/cannabis were destroyed as part of war on drugs. This when calculated in terms of money would have cost around Rs. 260 crore. The destruction drive is mostly conducted by joint teams of Manipur Police, Assam Rifles and Narcotics Department and at times various civil society organisations, student unions also take part in the drive.

Narcotics cauldron in Northeast and India’s strategic interest

Those who are well versed with the concept of Narco-State or Narco-Terrorism know that governments can be directly or indirectly influenced by those in the helm of narcotics trade. One can well guess the weak institutions in India that can be easily swayed by drug money.

What we understand as weak institutions here even includes those in the responsible for defending the country from external aggression. It may be mentioned that a lieutenant-colonel was arrested with five others for trying to allegedly smuggle illegal drugs into Myanmar, a reverse flow of the demand-supply chain. This reminds us that cross-border narco business is now a growing two-way enterprise.

In 2011, Lt-Col Ajay Chaudhary (49), posted as the defence public relations officer in Imphal and the five others were detained by police in Pallel area of the Thoubal police district of Manipur around 7 am. The three vehicles, two Boleros and a Tata Safari, were packed to the roof with pseudoephedrine and other tablets estimated to be worth around Rs 24 crore. The Bolero in which the Army officer was travelling had the sticker of ‘PRO Defence’, as per local media reports in Manipur. The Manipur police said the drug haul – which included tablets of Respifed, Omkop, Hilcold, Polyfed and Actidin – was the biggest in the state in recent times. Drug-trafficking experts said a huge quantity of pseudoephedrine and other drugs were also being smuggled to the notorious ‘Golden Triangle’ of south-east Asia for use in the manufacturing of heroine. This is one instance to show that even an army-man can be deliberately or inadvertently swayed by drug money—wittingly or unwittingly.

Manipur as one of the important states in Northeast India, is under complete grip and control by illegal drugs traders taking pivotal role in proliferation of the same in South Asia. Otherwise, why would N Biren Singh led BJP government formally launch a “war against drugs”? There are critics of the N Biren Singh government on certain measures taken up by the state with weak results. For instance, most of those arrested or even convicted are most of the small time drug peddler, carriers or individuals and not big fishes or the ring leaders. As per state officials, this happens in Manipur due to poor legal representations of the same case by the state in the court of law.

At this juncture, it is important to note that many of the Northeastern states are not necessarily controlled by New Delhi as it appears to be in the true sense. Had it been so, things would not have gone this bad if one looks at from a purely national security or defence point of view. One can well argue that a state like Manipur and those who yield power within various ethnic conglomerates could be seemingly controlled by drug-poppy money and hence their leaders could be indirectly and discretely manipulated by foreign elements.

Apparently, many of the leaders seem to have fallen trap to the net cast by elements close to those practising narco-politics and most of the time they are inadvertently chosen by political leaderships in New Delhi as far as big national parties are concerned. There is a strong belief that drug money is funding some of the so called representatives of the people in one way or the other, in a very discrete strategy. And who knows to what extent these drug cartels can influence people’s representatives and the ethnic masses both at the state and national levels in India?

If the views expressed here are proven to be correct, the present and future political economy of Northeast or even India can be severely damaged with no point of return. And the time to act is now and ponder on the question – where does India’s national security stand in relation to ethnic conflict, illegal drugs trade and the overarching influence of China in South or South East Asia?

As for India’s strategic interest, one can well understand the amassing of troops and military hardware in a Northeast state like Arunachal Pradesh. Due to the Sino-India war witnessed in 1962 and an uneasy relationship thereafter, India to certain extent managed to stockpile military personnel and hardware all for national defence in its true sense in territories within Arunachal Pradesh. However, one should note that the same strategic tactics could not be applied in Northeastern states bordering Myanmar, including the eastern most border between Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. The situation has become all the more complicated given the fact that Myanmar is now under a military dictatorship. Under such a regime in Myanmar, there is no way under which India can stretch its strategic interests across the international boundary. The country is bound to force itself to adopt some other tactics that can be called ‘unsuspecting’ to the global strategic watchers. For many reasons, India would indeed reap rich harvest if it invest in a proactive approach by diplomatically or even discretely allying with ethnic elements supposedly fighting for a return to democracy in Myanmar.

Having said this, India will not abandon its strategic interests even if it has to gamble with those already familiar with narco trade.  And those engaging with narco-trade by way of poppy cultivation for their bigger clandestine market and those poor wage earners employed by the big fishes taking advantage of their economic plight have been one major headache over the years.

However, the Government of India should also note that keeping its strategic interest in the Indo-Myanmar region does not have to resort to tactics used by India’s traditional rivals in the neighbourhood. One engaged in this game, it would eventually impact the cross-border tribes whose overall economic status is wretched so say the least. It would also fuel localized ethnic conflict. This basically means that any internal disturbances should not be used as a pretext to prolong the widening ethnic divide in states like Manipur, Nagaland or Mizoram by powers that be. If the situation is not handled with utmost wisdom, India is bound to face colossal mistake in the sensitive region.

(Dhiren A. Sadokpam is Editor-in-Chief, The Frontier Manipur)

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