Looking at Manipur’s Ethnic Violence From the Perspective of Drug Trade and National Security

The multi-layered issues behind the conflict are the local dynamics among the hill tribes and the Meiteis, the origin of tensions between them, narco-politics, and India’s strategic cross-border interests.

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

Local dynamics: the story so far

What has happened in the last four weeks (since May 3) in Manipur needs to be structured into a narrative, one devoid of myopic or propagandist bias, rumours or hearsay – which have fuelled irreversible ethnic friction.

The first question one needs to ask is, how did all the killings, arson, mayhem and destruction happen so fast? An informed citizen is left without a reasonable and rational answer.

Every informed citizen knows there have always been ethnic fault lines in India’s northeast region. The manifestation of these fault lines includes the recent violent clashes between the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes and the Meitei community in Manipur.

So far, there is no official confirmation of the number of casualties. However, it is believed that over 75 people have due to the violence. The number must be higher now, as authorities discover new casualties whose whereabouts were not known earlier, or because people have been killed since the arrival of central forces.

As of now, over 45,000 people belonging to both ethnic groups have been shifted to relief centres and homes in both the valley and hill districts of Manipur. Many survivors of the violence were evacuated by security forces under tremendous difficulty. Reports coming in from Mizoram say that 6,500 people have arrived in the state from Manipur.

Also Read | Manipur: Tensions Still High; Over 7,500 Have Fled to Mizoram So Far

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 hill districts of Manipur, trouble started in the Torbung area near Churachandpur. The armed mob burnt down Meitei homes, who were in minority in that area, during the May 3 tribal solidarity march. This triggered retaliatory attacks in the valley districts of Manipur where the Meitei community is dominant.

The systematic arson and destruction in the aftermath of the tribal solidarity march began only in Kuki-dominated areas when the same cause of opposing the Meiteis’ demand was also endorsed by the Naga community in their own respective tribal jurisdictions.

File photo of violence in Manipur. Photo: Twitter/@MangteC

Chronologically, Torbung Bangla was the flash point. Eyewitnesses and victims said that Kuki civilians supported armed mobs torching houses in Torbung Waikhurok, Torbung Bangla, Torbung Govindpur, Sabal Maning and Mamang Leikai, Kangvai and Phubakchao.

Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi MLAs demand separate administration and Meitei civil society’s reaction

As mud-slinging and blame games began, on May 12, ten members of the state assembly hailing from constituencies dominated by Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes sought a “separate administration”.

They said such an arrangement could only be possible after parting ways with the Manipur government. Till then, these MLAs extended unstinted support to the N. Biren Singh-led BJP government.

The MLAs made a serious allegation that the widespread violence was “perpetrated by the majority Meitei community and was tacitly supported by the BJP-run state government”, and this is why they made their demand. Since eight of these MLAs are from the BJP and two from the Kuki People’s Alliance, an ally of the ruling party, this could also be read as a fight between the BJP and its supporters.

Watch | ‘Manipur CM Is Anti-Kuki, We Want and Will Fight for Separate State’: Head of Pro-BJP Kuki Group

The MLAs argued that as elected representatives of the Chin-Kuki-Mizo-Zomi hill tribes, they represented the people’s sentiments and endorsed their political aspiration of “separation from the state of Manipur”.

In hindsight though, this move is being looked at as a strategy that was worked out well ahead of the sparks that led to the unprecedented violence.

Though the state government has not yet officially reacted to that demand, the valley-based civil society group Meitei Resurgence Forum (MReF) has accused the Kuki MLAs of issuing a statement under the shadow of the minority tag without mentioning anything about the Meitei victims.

Dismissing the popular perception of the majority-versus-minority conflict, the MReF alleged that the present violent episode has been instigated by select groups who have been responsible for aiding “narco-terrorism” unleashed by Kuki armed groups under the Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement “at the behest of Kuki drug mafia, politicians, intellectuals and frontal organisations”.

The SoO is a localised, tripartite ceasefire signed between the governments of India and Manipur and the Kuki armed groups.

The MReF also alleged that armed Kuki militants were engaged in “killings, arson and destruction of Meitei temples and shrines”, adding that the Assam Rifles, deployed to control the spiralling violence, had been mute spectators.

In equal terms, it also condemned the aggressive response of the Meitei mobs that has led to the vandalising and destruction of Kuki houses, property and structures of worship in the valley areas.

The organisation also pointed fingers at armed Kuki militants, who it claimed were “funded by drug-money and illegal migrants from Myanmar, Mizoram and Bangladesh” and accused them of fuelling the conflict.

Origin of the tension: split wide-open

While tracing the origin of the issue, one does not have to travel back too far in history. For some time now, it has been amply clear for observers of Manipur that there is a connection between ethnic violence, narco-economy, national security and international military strategy.

The state government had been pursuing its “war” against the illegal drug trade by constantly arresting several alleged players. Even village chiefs, under whose jurisdiction poppy is cultivated on a large scale in the hills, have been arrested.

But most of the time, suspected kingpins and drug lords have been able to escape the state’s pursuit, because of which the state government’s efforts have not been appreciated by the common people.

On May 8, during the ongoing tension in violence-affected areas, the Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) – a specialised unit of the state police – seized 77 gunny bags suspected to contain poppy seeds and Myanmar’s currency notes, in the Mantripukhri area of Imphal. It has been reported that the house from where the contraband items were seized belongs to an international drug cartel.

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

Keeping such state actions in mind, it can be said that the destruction of poppy cultivation – which is otherwise a means of earning revenue for a wide section of the Kuki-Zo-Chin tribe – is also a reason for the simmering anger against the Biren Singh government.

In July 2022, Congress MLA Kangujam Ranjit Singh raised the poppy cultivation issue in the Manipur legislative assembly. He had urged the House to enact a stringent law that would award capital punishment or life imprisonment to people arrested in connection with the illegal drug trade.

While trying to project the palpable despondency of the people on the “war on drugs”, he had remarked that a few years before that, drugs seized at Imphal airport and other areas of Manipur were primarily trafficked from the Golden Triangle countries like Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, but were currently being manufactured in Manipur itself.

The Golden Triangle region in Southeast Asia. Photo: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

He pointed out how the hill areas of Manipur have been used for mass-poppy plantations for the production of contraband drugs. He emphasized that the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 has not been able to curb drug smuggling in Manipur.

Illegal drug economy in Southeast Asia: who controls it?

In 2007, a report published by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) encapsulated certain uncomfortable facts about northeast India and Myanmar.

Titled The Chinese Connection: Cross-border Drug Trafficking between Myanmar and China, the report presented findings from a two-year field study of drug trafficking activities between Myanmar and China. The report uses 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”, the report notes. What is worrisome is the reference to “surrounding regions”, which naturally includes Manipur and the rest of northeast India.

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

With the US’s declining influence in the region, it is obvious China has opted for actions to combat the massive poppy cultivation and heroin production process in its own territory, while holding a definitive advantage over the same issue in Myanmar and surrounding regions. China can reap the best out of the given state of affairs and further expand its influence in the Southeast Asian region.

Even if there are stringent rules and penalties over illegal drugs in both China and Myanmar, there are reports of powerful drug trafficking organisations operating in the region bordering Myanmar. The major opium and heroin-producing areas in Myanmar are located in regions occupied by various ethnic armed groups, and China reportedly could exert its influence in these areas.

The DOJ study provides first-hand data about drug traffickers of Chinese descent operating 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.”

File photo of a man apprehended by Assam Rifles for smuggling drugs in Manipur. Photo: Twitter/@official_dgar

Activities in northeast India

Even if one takes the US report purely from an American perspective, there is no denying the fact that the practice, nature and process of massive opium/poppy cultivation have now shifted to northeast India, particularly in parts of Manipur that border the notorious Golden Triangle countries.

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 localised vice such as pornography or prostitution, US drug agencies often apply repression without any awareness of the intricate dynamics of these global marketing system”.

In other words, it is not possible to fight the drug trade without analysing underlying political and – in Southeast Asia – ethnic factors.

In Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle, Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner and Thailand-based writer Michael Black go on to state that “without the support and protection of powerful and influential 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 gives a hint as to how the issue of current ethnic violence should also be understood. Global observers have also argued that the current drug economy in the Indian subcontinent is either directly or indirectly controlled by people allegedly having connections with major Southeast Asian players.

With hostile neighbours like China and Pakistan, India can indeed become a victim of its own weakness for not controlling the spiralling spread of illegal drugs as soft and hard measures to settle political and economic scores. There is a possibility of these elements using India’s own territory to capture the entire subcontinent’s political economy.

Coming back to Manipur, a NAB department report says that 963 drug traffickers, including 195 women, were arrested under the NDPS Act between April and June 2019. The state said that around 3,716 acres of illegal poppy plantation and 5.51 acres of cannabis were destroyed as part of its ‘war’ on drugs.

This would have cost around Rs 260 crore. The destruction drive is mostly conducted by joint teams of the Manipur Police, Assam Rifles and the Narcotics Department, and at various times, civil society organisations and student unions also take part in such drives.

Also Read: Dispelling Some Misleading Claims About the Violence in Manipur

Narcotics in the northeast and India’s strategic interest

Those who are familiar with the concepts of a ‘narco-state’ or ‘narco-terrorism’ know that governments can directly or indirectly be influenced by those in the helm of the narcotics trade. One could very well guess that the weak institutions in India are vulnerable to drug money.

What we understand as weak institutions here even include those responsible for defending the country from external aggression. It may be mentioned that a Lieutenant Colonel was arrested with five others ten years ago for allegedly trying to smuggle illegal drugs into Myanmar, a reverse flow of the demand-supply chain. Their vehicles were packed to the roof with pseudoephedrine and other tablets estimated to be worth around Rs 24 crore.

This is one instance to show that even an Armyman can be deliberately or inadvertently swayed by drug money, and that the cross-border narcotics business is now a growing two-way enterprise.

Though New Delhi is not so blind to what is unfolding in the border areas of Manipur, it should also note that keeping its strategic interest in the Indo-Myanmar region does not mean resorting to tactics used by India’s traditional rivals in the neighbourhood. Once it engages in this cross-border game, it will eventually impact the cross-border tribes whose overall economic status is wretched, to say the least.

It will also fuel localised 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 the powers that be. If the situation is not handled with utmost wisdom, India is bound to make a colossal mistake in this sensitive region.

Dhiren A. Sadokpam is editor-in-chief, The Frontier Manipur