India’s Northeast is comprised of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim – sharing international borders with Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. The region possesses numerous cultural and geographical particularities as it does similarities but has been wrought with violence and insurgency since Independence. Its isolation from the Indian mainland – joined only through the narrow Siliguri corridor – and the ethnocultural dissimilarities of the (mostly tribal) inhabitants with the Indian population has exacerbated historical political, societal, and economic alienations, leading to public disenchantment and discord. As these populations have drifted away from the Indian State, they have moved closer to foreign influences that weaponise them to destabilise India; thus, rendering the Northeast a perennial concern to India’s internal security. For most scholars, the feeling of relative deprivation, ethnic similarities with Myanmar’s and China’s population, porous borders across difficult terrains, transformations in demographic patterns due to infiltration, corruption amongst ruling elite, underdevelopment and paucity of civic amenities, creation of parallel economies powered by extortion and smuggling, availability of arms and monetary support from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and proximity to the Golden Triangle easing narcotics and arms smuggling – are all the factors responsible for increasing insurgency in the region. However, the most important concern is the deepened transnational links between insurgents in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, with Myanmar. The porous mountainous border between the two countries allows for the easy movement of recruits, weapons, and capital, initially originating from Thailand and Laos to Myanmar and then India. Insurgent outfits like the Assam-based United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) have also found refuge in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan. This has persisted even as Myanmar, and Bangladesh governments have undertaken politico-military and diplomatic initiatives to flush out groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang or NSCN(K) and METI through ceasefires, accords, crackdowns, and incarceration. The free movement regime instituted by the Indian and Myanmar governments to address the contradictions between the political border and historical boundaries – after the formation of Myanmar in 1935 and decolonisation of the subcontinent in 1947 divided ethnic communities on both sides – has been exploited by militants and transborder criminals to smuggle weapons, contraband, and counterfeit currency because it allowed Nagas to travel sixteen kilometres across the border on either side without a visa.
These issues have worsened due to the economic distress and societal upheaval accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic and recurrent lockdowns, according to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s (FICCI) Committee Against Smuggling and Counterfeiting Activities Destroying the Economy (CASCADE). In a 6th September 2020 statement, CASCADE elucidated that local tribal populations left without viable employment in financial vulnerability were utilised by insurgents to smuggle goods from Myanmar, leading to the Assam Rifles confiscating smuggled cigarettes, drugs, and betel nuts worth approximately ₹14 crores through twenty-six operations conducted over two months. The paramilitary force also captured smugglers transporting illegal consignments in bikes, trucks, and cars, hidden inside rice sacks and other items. According to CASCADE Chairman Anil Rajput, these smuggling activities pose a serious challenge to India’s internal security because they foment local instability, drain the government exchequer by reinforcing opportunities from tax arbitrage and harass the livelihoods of local industries.
The nexus between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – (Isak-Muivah) NSCN(IM) and narcotics smuggling in Assam was uncovered after the arrest of an insurgent RK Hopingson by the Assam police overseen by additional superintendent Dhruba Borah on 25th October 2021. Hopingson ranked deputy kilonser (minister) in the NSCN(IM), was intercepted with drugs worth ₹2 crores and admitted that the syndicate had altered their shipping and dealing routes and were now using the Indo-Bangladesh border for smuggling activities. This corroborated the 2019-2020 report of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), emphasising narco-terrorism as an evolving threat in the north-eastern states and Bangladesh. The Golden Triangle – the region coinciding with Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand – remains the most used route for narcotics smuggling to Europe and elsewhere in the world. As this region is also the prime producer of opium in Southeast Asia, narcotics continue to be smuggled into India through the Northeast, “crippling the next generation”, according to Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, allegedly funded by China and Pakistan-based agencies. According to Nagaon SP Anand Misra, the drugs are disseminated through the pattern of a “waterfall” across the short border – with consignments worth hundreds of crores smuggled from Myanmar, distributed in ₹2-5 crore blocks to agents in Dimapur, who then divide it among individual drug dealers across the district in enduring micro-operations. The diffused routes, fake identities, one-time use SIM cards, and unusual means of transport like vehicle engines, bumpers, tires utilised to move contraband has rendered it difficult to hinder smuggling networks. The report also specified that organised crime groups based in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata have invested significant amounts in smuggling operations through the Golden Triangle, involving Islamic student organisations as well, and replacing Afghanistan with Myanmar as the primary source. The DRI report also noted that the smuggling routes through the Northeast have recently “turned golden.” With the relative decline in the insurgency in the region, the demands for smuggled arms were reduced. Organised crime groups began to employ the existing land or sea networks as superior alternatives to air routes to smuggle gold due to the increased surveillance of customs and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) at international airports. The report ascertained that the Khawmawi village in Myanmar was the focal point of the gold smuggling network – originating in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and China – and transported to the Northeast through the Indo-Myanmar border, or to Nathu La pass in Sikkim through the China-Myanmar border. Indeed, the aggressive geopolitics of China deepening its ties with States neighbouring India has ensured that Myanmar has emerged as a core transit point for more than 150-200 tonnes of smuggled gold per annum.
The purpose of this article is to examine trafficking in the Northeast as a challenge to India’s internal security. It will first study narcotics smuggling and its connection with the illegal arms trade. Second, it will explore how weapons smuggling constitutes a threat to internal security. Third, it will scrutinise the contours of human trafficking as evidenced through flesh trade and rat-hole mining in the Northeast. Finally, it will review the development of Moreh as a trafficking and smuggling hotspot.
Two chief epicentres of drug production flank the north-western and north-eastern India – the Golden Crescent comprising Afghanistan, Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, and the Central Asian Republics; and the Golden Triangle comprising Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, respectively. With the disintegration of the Communist Party of Burma (CBP) in 1989 and the subsequent involvement of the army in the drug trade, the production of opium increased manifold to a degree uncontrollable by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s army). Poppy illicitly cultivated in the Northeast is manufactured into brown sugar or base heroin and trafficked to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. However, the degree has reduced after large quantities bound for Sri Lanka and Europe began to be seized from 1999 by Indian officers. India also produces Mandrax (methaqualone) and provides a significant market for methamphetamines like ecstasy produced in Myanmar. Though Mizoram and Nagaland were historically perceived as the only links in the narcotics smuggling route, poppy and cannabis cultivation is extensive in the Ukhrul, Churachandpur, Chandel, and Senapati districts of Manipur; in Lunglei in east Mizoram; and the Tirap, Chaglang, Lohit, and Upper Siang districts of Arunachal Pradesh – from where it is either transported to Bangladesh and Myanmar, or in truckloads through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh into Nepal. Acetic anhydride – a chemical required to produce heroin and other psychotropic substances – is manufactured widely in India and smuggled into Myanmar and Pakistan. The installation of refineries along the Indian border is elucidative of the intensification of heroin supply and consumption in Manipur and Nagaland. Indeed, illicit narcotics trade is the chief cause of the perpetuation of insurgency in the Northeast, with insurgents employing arms and drug trafficking to fuel instability. Insurgent activities used to be funded by the theft of personal arms from ill-trained police and village guards, but as the outfits became more organised, they raided isolated police posts with the aid of corrupt police officers, finally employing profits generated from narcotics trafficking to acquire weapons and fund recruits. Insurgents also run parallel illicit economies to extort “taxes” from each household, government contractors, public employees, transporters, businessmen and government officials, including ministers, but rely on narcotics trafficking to maintain their activities.
According to the DRI report, as Bangladesh’s security forces have clamped down on the traditional drug smuggling routes from Myanmar into the country, new routes have emerged. The Northeast now encounters the new peril of narco-terrorism, as yaba tablets (`madness drug’ or `Nazi speed’, comprised of caffeine and crystal meth) are transported from Myanmar through Tripura, Mizoram, and Assam into Bangladesh, exploiting the porous border. Bangladeshi officials are also concerned that certain Islamic student organisations near the Khubjar Mosque in Kailashahar are utilising the Myanmar-Mizoram-Dharmanagar-Sonamura-Bangladesh route to transport drugs and may fund terrorist activities with the profits accumulated. Though yaba trade generally targets the Bangladesh market presently, increasingly large quantities are being retailed in the Northeast and transhipped to mainland India. Illegal smuggling of Codeine Based Cough Syrup (CBCS) – an addictive syrup popular with Bangladeshi youth as a substitute for alcohol – has also intensified through the COVID-19 pandemic and is transhipped at Panisagar (North Tripura), Lankamura (West Tripura), Teliamura (Khowai), Hawaibari (Khowai), Agartala, Boxanagar, Durgapur, Harihordola (Sepahijala) into Bangladesh with almost a 100% increase in price. Generally, the shipments are concealed in truckloads of potatoes, onions, tea leaves, and machinery parts. As both state police and border security forces have seized several kilograms of illicit narcotics and other contraband items on the Assam-Tripura, and Tripura-Mizoram border, it is evident that the Northeast has emerged as a transit hub, origin, and market for narcotics trafficking. Its nexus with insurgency has thus accelerated concerns about the threat is poses to internal security.
The Northeast has been plagued with an epidemic of proliferating weapons since the outbreak of insurgency in the 1950s. Intelligence reports unearthed that insurgent groups engaged in arms smuggling in the Northeast sustain their activities through enduring relationships and networks across South and Southeast Asia. According to experts, Pakistan’s ISI supported, trained, and armed Naga rebels with self-loading rifles, light machine guns, and mortars and shipped contraband arms through the Bay of Bengal, to destabilise the Indian State. As reports uncovered historical relationships between the insurgents and China, it was determined that weapons smuggling primarily originates from Thailand and China’s Yunan province and passes through Myanmar and Bangladesh into the Northeast – aided by rough terrains, inadequate fencing, and regular migration of tribal populations. Additionally, Myanmarese insurgent outfits like the Karen National Union (KNU), Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) facilitate the smuggling of arms, allowing firearms, assault rifles, and grenades to be readily available at hubs across Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya. Indeed, marks found on surrendered weapons by insurgent outfits like the ULFA in 2019 indicate USWA’s continuing role in supplying contraband arms to the region. Until Operation Golden Bird in 1995 – an Indo-Myanmarese joint counterinsurgency and counter-arms trafficking operation that uprooted prominent insurgent groups in both countries – arms shipments would originate in Thailand, which had received them from China and Cambodia, and be shipped through Cox Bazar and Chittagong in Bangladesh into various areas across northeast India. They would enter India through Sonamura in Tripura, Jaintia and Garo Hills in Meghalaya, and Dhubri in Assam, into the hands of NSCN (IM), Bodo, and Manipuri rebels. After Operation Golden Bird, shipments began to originate from Ruili and Tengchong in Yunan, sent across the Indo-Myanmar border into Phek in Nagaland, Chandel and Churachanpur in Manipur, and Champai in Mizoram. The geographical proximity of the region to the Golden Triangle allows the development of a symbiotic relationship between arms and narcotics smugglers to secure protected passage for insurgent agents and purchase and transport easily concealable, sophisticated weapons across borders. Weapons smugglers cultivate relationships with locals who unsuspectingly aid them in their activities, made easier by the challenges encountered by border security forces due to densely forested and hilly terrains that limit surveillance capacities. Longstanding informal reciprocal ‘franchises’ between insurgent outfits like the USWA in Myanmar’s Wa state and China’s ordnance factory, Norinco, in Yunan, have intensified illicit networks for the manufacturing and trafficking of arms like machine guns, pistols, rifles, and revolvers between insurgents within and outside India. Weapons illegally manufactured in China and transported to Myanmar or produced in Myanmar partnered with China are purchased by insurgents to augment their firepower. They may also distribute arms across mainland India and fund their activities with the profits. The 2018 DRI report found that Mizoram had emerged as a key smuggling hub for ecstasy drugs, gold, and guns, perpetuated by Chin refugees illegally settled in the State, involved in international arms smuggling networks. Operations conducted by the Assam Rifles found that firearms are smuggled from Myanmar to India through Mizoram and then to Bangladesh, enabled by the densely forested Chittagong hill tracts or the porous coastal border between south Bangladesh and north-west Myanmar.
In his keynote address at the Second Regional Consultation on Child Rights in the Context of Human Trafficking (sex & bonded labour) in Northeast India on 22nd September 2018, Meghalaya’s High Court Chief Justice Mohammad Yaqoob Mir affirmed that due to unemployment, migration, and poverty rampant in the region, it had emerged as a hub for human trafficking – with the highest number of such cases in Assam. Recognising that the predicament could be alleviated only if all stakeholders, state legal services, and police assume joint responsibility to prevent child trafficking and sex trafficking, he clarified that Assam’s prolonged insurgency, recurrent floods, and “peculiar geography” have rendered it vulnerable to insurgency and trafficking. He also stated that hundreds of children were employed in hazardous conditions in the coal mines of the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya and that Manipur is swiftly replacing Assam as an easier transit route for cross border human trafficking. The two primary concerns for law enforcement and policymaking authorities in this regard are sex trafficking or ‘flesh trade’ and child trafficking for forced labour in hazardous conditions.
In the first case, reports convey that destitute and unemployed women and girls in the Northeast are most vulnerable to trafficking, lured by promises of a better life elsewhere. Families with too many children and scarcity of resources are compelled to sell their female children into marriage or prostitution, often unknowingly. Therefore, it is evident that individuals from traditionally disadvantaged gender, caste, and religious groups are disproportionately vulnerable to trafficking. Non-governmental organisations involved in rescuing or preventing the defrauding and kidnapping of women from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland especially, have noted that trafficked women are forced into prostitution in Punjab, Haryana, or Rajasthan – where the gravely skewed sex ratio has resulted in a paucity of females; deceived, sold, or coerced into marrying much older men, widowers, or alcoholics; or forced into domestic work in mainland India – to the greatest proportion in Kolkata and Mumbai according to the 2019 report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Due to the porous international borders between the Northeast and China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan, the region acts as a source, transit, and destination for human trafficking syndicates, who also traffic women to the Gulf through Myanmar for forced marriages or flesh trade. The Vulnerability to Human Trafficking report by the World Bank (2009) noted that trafficked women belonged to either of the two categories of vulnerable women – ‘returned’ women, or those who had left their places of origin but had now returned; and ‘migrant’ women, or those who had left their place of origin and had migrated elsewhere. The report also found that demographic factors like age group (20-24 years), education level, and employment patterns also impact trafficking vulnerabilities and that most women were destined for domestic labour, encountering torture, lack of freedom, long working hours, physical and sexual abuse, and little to no wages. The 2012 interception of an Assam-based trafficking cartel found that minor girls from the Northeast were sold as cattle, as “price lists” for different “categories” – ₹1 lakh for marriage, ₹1.5 lakh for prostitution, ₹5000-6000 for bonded labour, were discovered as well.
In the second case, reports found that similar conditions of impoverishment allowed young children to be purchased or kidnapped, confined until they grow into adolescence, and then sold as bonded labourers, domestic workers or into the flesh trade. It has also been discerned that children as young as six are forced into rat-hole mining in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills, where the narrow and winding tunnelled passages in the coal mines necessitate that manoeuvring and extraction be performed only by children. As their families are promised lucrative salaries, they are often unaware of the gravely hazardous conditions inside the mines. Children trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Meghalaya villages have often died in these rat-holes and have never been found.
Sex trafficking and child trafficking from the Northeast has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Assam. Human trafficking generally stems from high rates of poverty, unemployment, financial instability, devastation due to natural disasters, substance abuse, and gender-based discrimination that is common in the Northeast. The recurrent lockdowns have further worsened these difficulties. Additionally, as education has also moved online and children have more access to electronic devices, the vulnerability of young children to online exploitation, grooming over social media, coercion into child pornography, and eventual kidnapping, has exponentially increased.
The Crossing the line: Geopolitics and criminality at the India-Myanmar border report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime found that human, arms, and narcotics trafficking has become entrenched in the informal economy in Moreh, a small border town in Manipur immediately adjacent to Myanmar. The province was originally a source of trafficking victims later transported to elsewhere in India and other countries in Southeast Asia under flesh trade, but it has recently also emerged as a transit point through which individuals from Nepal are trafficked to Southeast Asia, West Asia, and the Middle East. There are several reasons why Nepali women are not directly trafficked to the Gulf, and trafficking networks are built through the Indian Northeast instead. First, because Nepal’s government has prohibited certain categories of female travellers from flying to Gulf countries to prevent trafficking, women are first transported to Myanmar through India and then westward to countries like Oman, Kuwait, and Iraq. Second, Moreh is bordered by Namphalong and Tamu in Myanmar – towns with significant Nepali trading communities descended from Gorkha regiments in the British Army during the Second World War, which may organise onward transit and accommodation for trafficked victims along the Asian Highway. Additionally, the increased surveillance at the Delhi airport – the original transit point for victims trafficked to West Asia, has necessitated the formation of new routes. Victims are flown from Kathmandu to Bagdogra in Siliguri, taken by train to Dimapur in Nagaland, bussed to Imphal in Manipur, and then to Moreh – where handlers exploit the simplified visa procedures accompanying the free movement regimes for Nepali passport-holders, obtain e-visas for the victims, and transport them to the Persian Gulf through Myanmar. Moreh’s geographical isolation from Manipur has also allowed the development of extortion rackets alongside the Imphal highway, often established by insurgent outfits and organised crime groups, who impose taxes of ₹50000 per cargo truck and utilise the profits for their illicit activities. Chinese manufactured products, including drugs, firearms, and other contraband, are purchased in Namphalong, smuggled to Moreh, where they are sold at inflated prices and transported across India. The Imphal–Moreh Road has also emerged as key to the drug economy in Manipur, as the Thoubal district and Lilong town to the south and north of Imphal, respectively, are narcotics-storage hotspots. The continuous movement of narcotics along Moreh, aided by corrupt border security forces, has flooded the town with illicit drug economies, devastating the youth population.
For most experts, the Indian government must energise politico-military strategies to counter the trafficking concerns in the Northeast. The mountainous terrain has rendered it difficult to adequately guard the borders, as has corruption and local relationships perpetuated by the security forces and state police. The porosity of the border may be reduced by increasing the number of check-posts, electric fences, and surveillance cameras while also introducing better oversight and more effective punishments to mandate security forces adhering to the standards of professional conduct. The degree of destitution, industrial underdevelopment, and lack of civic and educational facilities has augmented insurgency, transnational crime, and trafficking in the Northeast. Though several initiatives aimed at the development of civic infrastructure, educational institutions, health centres, and industries do exist, more must be instituted by the government to ensure that populations in the Northeast do not perceive themselves alienated and shunned by the mainland and pursue connections through illicit networks across the borders.
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