India’s North-Eastern Border

Challenges for Internal Security

India’s North-Eastern Border

Internal security concerns the activities, strategies, and programmes aimed at maintaining peace within the sovereign borders of a particular State or any autonomous territory. This is generally done by upholding conditions of the rule of domestic law, and protecting the territory from threats to internal peace and security (which range from large-scale civil strife to violence, armed insurgency, or any threat to life and liberty of the citizens). An essential component of internal security is border management. India geopolitical contiguity leads to it sharing immediate borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan, with the states in North-East India (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura) possessing the longest international borders of 5182 kilometres. Peace on these fraught borders is essential to peace in the country, and thus border management becomes fundamental to the government and the military. Border management may be understood as a “security function” that comprises of coordinated and concerted action by various government departments in the country, with the objective to protect national frontiers and to defend the country from threats and risks involved in the movement of goods, capital and individuals across Indian borders. Border management is a multidimensional and dynamic set of evolving strategies and blueprints, which may involve a variety of activities such as regulating migration and flow of illegal goods and services and preventing smuggling, drug nexuses and human trafficking. As the world is becoming increasingly interdependent, effective border management is the cornerstone of a geopolitically, socially and economically strong nation, and India is working towards integrating technology and infrastructure to combat the evolving challenges to internal security through border management.

The purpose of this article is to study the Indian North-Eastern borders, and the challenges posed to internal security therein. In aid of this, it will explore why the borders of North-East India are especially vulnerable and rife with conflict, through an understanding of the history of crisis that has besieged these borders bolstered by their porosity. Secondly, it will summarise the various development initiatives undertaken in the North-East Indian borders by the Government of India to achieve the objective of transforming these borders from landlocked to “land-connected”. Third, it will study how these borders, despite the border management connectivity efforts of the government, have become foci of criminal activity – specifically, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and arms trafficking. It will then review the recent initiatives undertaken by the Government of India to regulate these borders. Finally, it will suggest the possible necessary efforts to be taken by the government to better implement the border management of India’s North-East.

The History of Crisis

The North-East, by virtue of its geographical location – surrounded by international borders of conflictual States, and poorly connected to the mainland by a small strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor (or the Chicken’s Neck) – is very vulnerable to multifaceted problems at its borders. With various separatist movements, inter and intra-community and communal strife, and ethnic conflicts, the North-East has had several incidences of unrest since the 1950s, starting with the Naga insurgence. There are several reasons for this. Historically, the colonial administration has only loosely managed the North-East, thus allowing them a different experience of central administration than the rest of the mainland. Their lack of natural allegiance to the newly-formed Indian State was accentuated by the fact that the reorganization of territorial boundaries happened without consultation of the ethnic and cultural specificities of the various North-East states, and the formation of Bangladesh further isolated the region from the mainland.

Primary Reasons Behind Unrest Info 1
Primary Reasons Behind Unrest

There are also politico-administrative reasons behind the vulnerability of these areas. The arrangements of assimilation-integration and democratic consolidation attempted by the Centre through the viewing of the North-East (populated by several tribes, clans and ethnic groups) as a policy monolith; the introduction of the Sixth Schedule Autonomous Council resulting in disorganisation and multiple power centres; and, the unrestrained utilisation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the army to manage (and exacerbate) an internal conflict leading to several instances of human rights abuse and a population of radicalised wounded, has led to the politics of identity being the central conflict in this region. Inhabitants of the North-East are also enraged by the paucity of development imperatives of these regions considered by the Centre, leading to severely underdeveloped swathes of population distant from adequate infrastructure, industries, roads, schools, sanitation or health services. Indeed, despite India’s Look East and Act East policies being focused upon South East Asia, academics and dissenters from the North-East have alleged that the Centre views them more as foreign policy and territorial security exigencies than actual populations of Indian citizens. There also exist disagreements and tensions over resources amongst the various tribal populations in these regions, between those populations and the refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and due to the pressures exerted on them by China. The most important reason why the North-East is especially vulnerable to border turbulence, however, this is because its borders with Myanmar, Bangladesh and China are intensely porous. Because these borders were drawn without the consultation of the indigenous populations, they were often arbitrary and irrational, and did not take into account the primordial interconnections of tribes, kin and clans that transcend present national boundaries. It is this permeability of the borders that have led to historical incidences of discord in this region.

Vulnerable Borders

Porous borders with neighbouring States have been a defining aspect of the North-East, and it reflects consequences in the economy, polity and society, as well as the psychology of its inhabitants. From the 1950s, the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Naga National Council (NNC) – declared by the Centre in 1972 as an ‘unlawful organization’ under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967 – have been utilising the porous borders between India, Myanmar and China to covertly move individuals and weapons. These transborder linkages populated by militant groups that engage in cross-border criminality and movement have complicated the inter-state and intra-state conflicts in these regions. Often these groups have sought refuge across the borders, and their cadres have been the prime beneficiaries of the illegal arms or drugs (originating in Southeast Asia) smuggled across these borders. Such unhindered migration and flow of drugs like heroin, opium and yaba have also affected the demographic specificities of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), the main successor to the NNC that ultimately ruptured into clannish factions led by Isak-Muiva and Khaplang, has set up several camps in the Sagaing division of Myanmar since the mid-1980s. About 10 outfits based out of Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya have built camps in Bhutan and Bangladesh. The NSCN was in fact, formed in Myanmar, and then swiftly began providing arms, training and logistical support to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) with the goal to create a ‘sovereign, socialist Assam’.

The ULFA cadres, from 1988 onwards, also received advanced military training from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which was an anti-Yangon separatist group based in Myanmar, which has been confirmed by the captured or surrendered ULFA rebels. After solidifying these transborder linkages, the ULFA also set up several safe houses at the Moulvi Bazaar district (Damai village) bordering Meghalaya. It is here that the ULFA also established networks with Pakistani operatives like Munin Nobis or Mujahedeen leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and were able to crossover several ULFA leaders into Afghanistan. By 1990-1991, the ULFA had also constructed entrenched bases near Assam’s Southern Bhutanese district of Samdrup Jhongkar. The November 1990 ‘Operation Bajrang’ by the Indian Army, and December 2003 ‘Operation All Clear’ by Bhutan’s monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck and the Royal Bhutanese Army, managed to expel several separatists and insurgents from Southern Bhutan. This region had originally been chosen by the ULFA rebels because it was isolated, poorly policed, heavily forested, and near Assam’s border, which allowed the insurgents to safely return to their camps across the border after perpetrating several violent hit-and-run attacks on Indian territory. Despite several military operations against NSCN rebels since the 1980s, the presence of the Myanmarese army is not permanent given the hostile nature of the terrain, which has allowed there to be continued presence of insurgents through the Indo-Myanmar border.

Vulnerable Borders Info 2
Vulnerable Borders

Ethnic rebels from Myanmar have also set up bases within Mizoram. Bangladesh, despite official denial, has become an internal security concern as well. According to a report by the Border Security Force (BSF) to the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) authorities in 2006, there are 192 militant camps of North-Eastern insurgents in Bangladesh, creating a nefarious environment of cross-border illegal trade and smuggling activities. In 1997, the BDR and the BSF have also intervened into several other illegal activities occurring on the Bangladesh border. The ULFA leader Arup Chetia was apprehended along with some others in Dhaka’s North Adabor district for a host of crimes including illegal entry into Bangladesh, forged Bangladeshi passports, illegal possession of unauthorized satellite phones and foreign currency from US, UK, Switzerland, Spain, Nepal, Philippines, Bhutan, Thailand, Belgium and Singapore. Due to Tripura’s proximity to the Bangladesh border, several separatist rebels also use Bangladesh’s jungles as makeshift bases. Bangladeshi paramilitaries and the BDR have captured several leaders of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) from the Karisapunji village in the Habiganj district, which is another supposed safe haven for North-Eastern insurgents. Bangladesh has however, faced some international criticism due to its inability to prevent these insurgents from setting up bases on the border, and the paucity of appropriate intelligence provided to the Indian authorities about the locations of these individuals. Since Bhutan’s severe military crackdown in 2003, Bangladesh has also amended its blueprints for combating these insurgent outfits and has engaged in several information-sharing confidence-building activities with India. According to analysts, the primary priority for the Indian Government’s Department of Border Management under the Ministry of Home Affairs should be to fence the India-Bangladesh border efficiently and adequately to prevent infiltration, smuggling and trafficking activities. This process has been quite slow. In 1986, Phase I of erecting the border commenced, fencing around 854 kilometres; fences which have already fallen into disrepair due to environmental conditions, and have subsequently become ineffective in preventing cross-border illegal activities. Phase II commenced in March 2006. In this phase, around 1448 kilometres of the border was fenced, but this too, has not been very effective. The porosity of the borders has not been mitigated by the efforts of the government, and the fact that the civilian population on both sides is at best lukewarm to this process does not help either. Neither does the fact that these fences are shoddily constructed, easy to circumvent or avoid, and lack floodlights to assist easy detection at all times. In 2020, Lt. Gen. Anil Chuahan, the Eastern Army Commander optimistically stated that “insurgency is on the decline in the Northeast”, by around 12%. However, he did state that the “arc of violence” is situated predominantly to the tri-junction between Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and northern Nagaland, where around 40% of insurgent violence occurs. In his opinion, the instability in the hinterland is manageable, but the borders are of particular concern. The Nagaland government’s engagement with Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) and the NSCN(M) and the agreement between the Centre, the Assam government, the factions of the NDFB and the ABSU are hoped to help mitigate the situation. For the Indian authorities presently, border management has become an admixture of combat and non-combat operations. The NCSN also has linkages with China, which has, together with Bangladesh and Myanmar, provided material and moral support to these North-Eastern insurgent groups since the early 1960s till the 1970s. In 1966, the NSCN also travelled the treacherous terrain through Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar for “any possible assistance” from China, to the Yunnan Province, where around 300 individuals received guerrilla training, arms tactics, and Maoist education. China also provided similar training and logistical support to the Meiti and Mizo insurgents in the 1970s, which became more concerning for India given the modernisation of weapons and sophistication of tactics. Though China has since then agreed to cease its support to the North-Eastern insurgents entering China through Arunachal Pradesh’s porous border, it has also claimed several thousand kilometres in Arunachal Pradesh, especially in the Tawang district and Asaphila area, where insurgents are able to easily move across borders. Because China considers large swathes of Arunachal Pradesh to be its territory, it has also continued to issue stapled visas to inhabitants of Arunachal Pradesh (specifically near the borders). Stapled visas do not leave any proof on the holder’s passport of any travel history, which has facilitated insurgents being able to move cross-border with ease and impunity.

Development Initiatives

The Centre has understood that soft diplomatic strategies between the Centre and the North-East, as well as between the Centre and Myanmar and Bangladesh would better serve to alleviate the problems of insurgency. Thus, they have realised that engaging in infrastructural development in the North-East would be beneficial to border management strategies. Several  civilian-military projects have been undertaken in the border to facilitate peace and national integration, including infrastructure development and setting up medical camps – as troops have also been sent to establish barracks in Karbi Anglong in Assam, and the Army is considering withdrawing its forces from the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts if favourable conditions of peace persist.

Development Initiatives Info 4
Development Initiatives

The Centre has realised that transforming the North-East into “land-connected” through enhanced infrastructural development coordinated by the nodal agency of the North-Eastern  Council (NEC) under the Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region (est. 2001), is important for internal security, primarily because economic progress is bound to increase with enhanced connectivity due to the high logistical costs of moving goods to high-consumption regions through the difficult North-Eastern terrain, which would better the socio-economics of the region and inhibit insurgency. It is also because strategically, with China at its borders, with rebels infiltrating from Myanmar and Bangladesh, a well-connected North-East would make swift movement easy for the Indian forces. The NEC aims to build roads across 10500 kilometres, including inter-state and economically important roads. The North East Road Sector Development Scheme led by the National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation (an estimated INR 213.97 crores) is executing several projects, including Doimukh-Harmuti, Tura-Mankachar, and Woka-Merapani-Golaghat highways. In Arunachal Pradesh, which has the poorest road connectivity in the North-East, the Union Ministry of Road and Transport has introduced the Special Accelerated Road Development Program of Roads and Highways (2319 kilometres), the Arunachal Frontier Highway (2000 kilometres along China border) and the East West Corridor (along Assam border). The North Eastern Roads Investment Program has also constructed and improved three roads (Kalitakuchi-Barpeta, Tamulpur-Paneri, and Paneri-Udalgiri) totalling around 150 kilometres, five major Assamese bridges, and Garobada-Dalu highway in Meghalaya.  In Tripura, the 122 kilometre Agartala-Sabroom railway project, the two-laning of the Udaipur-Sabroom section of NH 44, strengthening and widening NH 88, and developing the Gomati waterway has also had several positive consequences. The newly-constructed combined road-and-rail Bogibeel Bridge spanning the Brahmaputra from Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts in Assam is of great economic and strategic significance. It will epitomise India’s Act East Policy, whose motto is ‘Commerce, Connect and Communicate’, reduce the distance between Dibrugarh and Rangiya, Itanagar, Dhemaji, Jonai and North Lakhmipur, and better help avert insurgencies in the region. To aid economic development of the region, the Centre has also instituted the National Bamboo Mission to promote area and region-specific holistic bamboo sector development strategies like providing quality seeds and fertilizers or assisting with strengthening or building nurseries; the North-East Industrial Development Scheme to incentivise the employment of the MSME sector; and the International Tourism Mart to display the tourism potentiality of the North-East domestically and internationally.

Economic Development Initiatives Info 4
Economic Development Initiatives

The government has focused on setting up and upgrading 12 operational airports with the Pakyong Airport in Sikkim inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018; the Tezu Airport improving connectivity to Lower Dibang Valley, Anjaw and Namsai; and the runway extension project in Umroi (Shillong) Airport and Guwahati LGBI Airport. The government also plans to link the North-East through 20 major railway projects spanning 2624 kilometres, including the broad gauge railway line construction between Bairabi and Sarang; construction of the 51 kilometre long Northeast Frontier Railway Zone rail link connecting Hortoki, Kawnpui and Mualkhang; and developing the Sivok-Rangpo, Teteliya-Byrnihat, Dimapur-Kohima and Jiribam-Imphal railway lines. The Centre has also invested in digital connectivity in the region with the Telecom Commission approving the implementation of BharatNet in the North-East region, with 4240 Gram Panchayats connected through broadband and satellite and planned 100% teledensity and mobile connectivity in the coming years. The Network for Spectrum Project (NPS) supplying optical fibre connectivity and Wi-Fi for border defence forces is also projected to make North-Eastern connectivity better. With China’s ambitious $62 billion south-north water diversion scheme for the Brahmaputra, and India’s conflict with China concerning hydropower development projects, the strategic North Eastern Region Power System Improvement Project is being accelerated, including road, rail and bridge development projects to better connectivity on the borders of Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. Japan has also aggressively partnered with India through the India-Japan Coordination Forum for Development of North-East to improve connectivity, electricity and disaster management in the region, which has also eased India’s chances of securing development finances from international multilateral agencies. Hydropower has an enormous potential to integrate the North East with India and thwart China’s incursions into Arunachal Pradesh, and thus the North East Water Management Authority (NEWMA) is evolving a consolidated blueprint for water management in the North East including hydroelectricity, agriculture, ecological conservation, flood control, inland water transport, fishery, forestry, and eco-tourism.

North- East – A Foci of Criminal Activity

Despite these efforts, the North-East has also become a nodal point for drugs trafficking, arms trafficking, and human trafficking activities. The Golden Triangle, at the tri-junction between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand is infamous for opium, amphetamine and methamphetamine production and trade, which are produced cheaply and are utilised to support the ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar, funded by Chinese syndicates. These drugs are easily trafficked rapidly through the North-East due to its permeable borders, and without having effective drug control mechanisms instituted by the government, it could have negative consequences over the North-Eastern youth population. Since greater connectivity is seeing investment in North-East India, there are risks of North-Eastern and Myanmarese insurgents taking advantage of those routes through Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. Manipur has been plagued with high quantities of Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride (used to process heroin) manufactured in India, and smuggled into China and Myanmar through Guwahati, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Yaba, a cocktail of methamphetamine and caffeine, manufactured in Myanmar and transported through the permeable borders of Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya, into Sylhet in Bangladesh, became a matter of urgent concern in 2019. Due to the difficult terrain of rivers, hills and forests, the border with Bangladesh has several security lacunae. This becomes advantageous in transportation of the drug through either Champai in Mizoram, which is connected to Myanmar through Tididim and Mandalay, or through Manipur borders which are contiguous with Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. Since the 1950s, due to inadequate fencing, regular migration and rough border terrain, this region has witnessed a rampant proliferation of illicit weapons and firearms trade from China’s Yunnan Province via Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh into the bordering North-Eastern states, especially Phek (Nagaland), Champai (Mizoram) and Chandel and Churachanpur (Manipur). This has exacerbated the insurgency and violence in these areas, and due to the proximity to the Golden Triangle, it has also sustained a synergetic nexus between illegal drugs and arms trafficking, with each funding the other. Indian insurgent groups such as NSCN-IM, NSCN-Khaplang, ULFA, United National Liberation Front, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup, Zomi Revolutionary Organization, and Kuku National Army; and trans-border outfits such as the Karen National Union (KNU), KIA, United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Pakistan’s ISI, are the main forerunners of the illicit arms trade in the North-East.

North- East – A Foci of Criminal Activitiy: ReasonsInfo 5
North- East – A Foci of Criminal Activitiy: Reasons

Mizoram has emerged as South Asia’ biggest hub for smuggling of ecstasy drugs, gold and guns with many Chin refugees settled there who were captured for such activities, with the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and the Assam Rifles halting a major racket of firearm smuggling from Myanmar to India through Mizoram, for delivery to insurgents in Bangladesh. The coastal border of southern Bangladesh and northwest Myanmar also allows arms shipments to land and be transported into the North-East. Apart from these, human trafficking is also one of the most severe concerns of the Centre in the North-East. The porous international borders, and the poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment of the region, is utilized by criminal outfits in mainland India, Bangladesh and Myanmar to traffic women from Assam and Bangladesh through Pagsa and Dimapur in Nagaland and Moreh in Manipur, to Myanmar and the larger South-East Asia, and even Dubai and the Gulf nations. Women and children are trafficked for prostitution and domestic help into the metropolises of Delhi, Bombay, Kolkata and Bangalore as well, and to Meghalaya’s Jaintia hills for slave child labour in the coal mines (rat-hole mining).

The Centre is contemplating the implementation of the ‘One Border One Force’ (OBOF) policy on the Indo-Myanmar border to better synergise and coordinate border management and border security activities, ease administrative communication, and strengthen border protection capabilities. In lieu of this, it has sought to integrate the Assam Rifles (the oldest paramilitary force countering insurgency on the North-Eastern border) with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) (countering transborder illegal migration and smuggling); and has already replaced the Assam Rifles in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh with the ITBP. The Assam Rifles is under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affair (MHA) and the operational control of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), and is caught in between the conflicting opinions of both. The former wants to execute the OBOF policy, believes that the Assam Rifles has been inefficient in its task of counter-insurgency on the Indo-Myanmar border, and relieving it from border duty would allow it to focus more on its counter-insurgency functions. The latter is of the opinion that this reshuffling would lead to the loss of operational terrain, environmental and demographic knowledge possessed by the Assam Rifles due to its years of experience in the region, which would hinder conditions on peace and security on the borders. The Army also feels that this move would complicate the good conditions in joint operations with Myanmar to flush out North-Eastern insurgents that had been cemented by the Assam Rifles. Additionally, the Assam Rifles and the ITBP also function under differing sets of rules, hierarchies and operating philosophies, which would hinder rather than help coordination and internal security.

Possible Measures

The Centre must establish coordination mechanisms with China, Myanmar and Thailand to counter illegal drugs trafficking, and formulate a long-term strategy for limiting drugs trafficking, creating awareness about the social and psychological impacts of addictions, and establish rehabilitation and medical facilities for HIV and drug trafficking nodes in the North-East. At the national level, the Centre must explore a multi-pronged strategy to counter illicit activities in the border through the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) through treacherous terrains and non-invasive body-detection technologies such as explosive vapour detectors, full-body scanners, metal detectors and handheld substance detectors; accompanied by a multi-level holistic Border Area Development Program (BADP), that must be discussed at the meetings of ASEAN and BIMSTEC. The poor security along the India-Myanmar and India-Bangladesh border must also be definitively addressed, through devolution of adequate responsibility to the armed forces, as well as political and social awareness programs to sensitise the border population about the dangers of insurgency and illicit cross-border movement of materials. The Centre must consider the Impulse Model suggested by the Impulse NGO Network working in the North-East region to mitigate the horrific instances of human trafficking, utilise the anvils of ‘Partnership, Prevention, Protection, Policing, Press, Prosecution’, and operationalise policies for ‘Reporting, Rescue, Rehabilitation, Repatriation, Re-integration, and Re-compensation’ – to better involve all the stakeholders in the region. Instead of integrating the Assam Rifles and the ITBP under the OBOF, the Centre may consider merging the ITBP with the Sashastra Seema Bal to better geographically space out the border protection forces across the region, which would allow the counterinsurgency force to efficiently double as a reserve for conventional war. The government should also seek to empower the Autonomous District Councils, ensure that the tribal communities be benefited by the amendments to the Sixth Schedule, and may explore the setting-up of economic zones on the North-Eastern borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar through enhanced connectivity. The low rate of infrastructural development in the North-East is one of the predominant causes of the instability in the region. Thus, the government should focus on promoting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9, by reinforcing infrastructure linkages; facilitating trade, investment and tourism, developing human resources; conserving the natural environment through the sustainable use of the shared natural resources in the North-East.


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