By Bibhu Prasad Routray
United States boasts of 89 guns for 100 persons in the count of civilian forearm possession. The only South Asian country that makes high to the rather ignominious list is Pakistan with about 12 guns per 100 persons. India fares better with only 4.2 guns per 100 persons. However, this statistics is hardly a matter of solace as in terms of the actuals, the estimate of the number of privately held guns in India is 46 million, out of which only 5.5 million are registered. The rest are available to the criminals, insurgents as well as anybody interested to possess one. Impact of the proliferation has been serious for the country and the problem is only growing.
The following is an analysis of the availability of small arms for the insurgent/ extremist groups in the country.
The Maoist Arms
The Naxalites, in the 1960s, fought the oppressive landlords and the Indian state with rudimentary weapons. As a result, clashes with security forces who had better arms were one sided and resulted in the near wipe out of the extremists. The Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist)’s protracted armed struggle that uses guerrilla warfare as a key strategy, however, has come a long way since those days. The Naxalites (left-wing extremists) today use the most sophisticated of arms and explosives to carry out their strikes.
The Naxalites/Maoists for long have claimed that the arms they use are primarily sourced from the security forces, though they are known to have received some arms and techniques of assembling IEDs from the LTTE. Andhra Pradesh police sources indicate that in the late 1980s, the People’s war Group (PWG) had reportedly acquired 60 AK-47s and 20 Stenguns from the LTTE. In an interview CPI-Maoist General Secretary Ganapathy said in an interview in November 2010, “Our weapons are mainly country-made. All the modern weapons we have are mainly seized from the government armed forces when we attack them. The enemy himself knows that seizure of arms is our main source for getting weapons.” The country-made weapons Ganapathy referred to are manufactured in several arms manufacturing units the outfit runs in its liberated zones in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. In Tamil Nadu, Maoists had attempted to set up a rocket launcher manufacturing centre before it was busted in 2006. In addition, Maoists also procure their weapons from the private criminalized arms manufacturing units in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
In the past, raids on state armouries added significantly to the weapons holding of the Maoists. A number of raids were organised in 2006 and 2007. The attack on the Nayagarh armoury in Orissa on 15 February 2008 added almost 300 weapons to the Maoist possession. The extremists had looted 1085 weapons and the police was subsequently able to recover 764 weapons including 159 burnt weapons. The ammunition looted numbered about 1,00,000, and about 53,566 were recovered. These weapons were distributed to Maoist cadres all over the country which is evident from the fact that some of these weapons have since been recovered from arrested Maoists in different states.
Raids on police facilities as a method of arms acquisition for the Maoists have become increasingly difficult. Police departments in different states have strengthened the security of the police stations by bringing in design and structural changes of the police stations and also by deploying more men to stand guard. As a consequence, no raid on a police armoury has taken place since the Nayagarh attack. Maoists did try to overrun the NALCO mine in Koraput in April 2009 in search of huge cache of gelatin explosives meant to be used for blasting the hilltop for mining. But the attack was repulsed by the CISF personnel deployed, who suffered 11 casualties. Maoists, however, managed to loot away huge quantities of sophisticated arms and ammunition from the para-military force armoury.
However, on several occasions Maoists have managed inflict heavy casualty on police and para-military personnel and loot weapons of the dead and injured forces. In April 2010, Maoist wiped out an entire company of the CRPF in Chhattisgarh and looted arms from the dead personnel.
Conflict ‘Transformation’ in the Northeast
Insurgency in many of the states of the northeastern region has finally demonstrated signs of abatement. For decades outfits thrived with their external linkages and internal support. Most of these outfits, like many insurgency movements in the world, remained personality centric. As a result, once Bangladesh started cooperating and handing over the insurgent leaders who were based in the country to India, much of the insurgencies operating in Assam and Meghalaya ran out of steam. It is Bangladesh’s cooperation, which is behind the initiation of peace talks between a faction of the ULFA and the Government of India. Bangladesh also recently handed over the Chief of United National Liberation Front (UNLF), one of the most violent groups in Manipur, to India. Prior to this, police-led operations in Tripura had neutralized the insurgency movement in Tripura. In addition, there are a host of outfits including the Naga outfits, which are under ceasefire mode and some of them are currently negotiating with the government. A conflict transformation process is underway in the volatile northeast.
This, however, could be the source of fresh problems for the country. In a bid to bring the violent outfits to the negotiating table at any cost, the government made no apparent effort to make weapons surrender mandatory. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), since its ceasefire with the government since 1997, has augmented both its cadre strength and weapons holding tremendously. In case of surrendering cadres belonging to outfits based in neighbouring countries, it was argued that insurgents who are escaping their hideouts in Bangladesh and Myanmar cannot be expected to carry ‘heavy’ weapons along with them. Also, in many cases weapons surrendered by some outfits who surrendered en masse were much below the intelligence inputs of their actual weapons holding. All this has created a situation in the region, where armed conflicts are apparently ending without weapons at the possession of the outfits coming under control of the government. It is virtually unimaginable that these weapons would lie secure and would not be passed to other outfits who need them.
An early indication of this possible trend was provided on 12 February 2011 when security forces during a combing operation arrested Aditya Bora, a senior ULFA cadre and two of his associates in Saranda forest bordering Orissa-Jharkhand. Saranda forest, which includes territories of both Orissa and Jharkhand, has been a liberated zone of the CPI-Maoist for the last few years. Explosives, Maoist literature and posters were seized from these ULFA cadres, who were in the area to supply arms and explosives to the CPI-Maoist cadres.
Linkages between the CPI-Maoist and the northeastern militant have developed in the past years. The CPI-Maoist has signed agreements of solidarity with a couple of insurgent outfits operating in Manipur. In these agreements the signing parties have vowed to collaborate and cooperate in extending the people’s war. Intelligence sources have further indicated that meetings between these groups have taken place in some foreign locations. However, this was probably the first occasion when cadres of the northeastern groups, more importantly belonging to a group from Assam were arrested from Maoist strongholds. It merely confirms the speculation that the solidarity agreements are bound to turn into active collaborations for arms and explosives. In times to come, as more and more northeastern outfits start negotiating with the government, arms in their possession will find their way to the active outfits, in particular to the CPI-Maoist.
‘Peace’ zones as Arms Bazaars
Contrary to the prevalent wisdom that view the active conflict theatres as being the areas where contraband arms are freely available, the so called peaceful areas of the northeast like Mizoram and Meghalaya have turned into arms bazaars.
Meghalaya for long was on the arms route between India and Bangladesh and significant amount of small arms and explosives did enter the country through the Garo hills region from Bangladesh. Among the outfits who participated and benefited from the trade were the NSCN-IM and the ULFA. Rare arrests of such militants have provided an insight into the trade. On 19 January 2007 police personnel arrested two ULFA militants from Bhoirymbong area near Umroi airport in Shillong and recovered three kilograms of RDX and a 9-mm pistol are recovered from them. Basumatary subsequently admitted to have brought the arms cache from Bangladesh exclusively for the 27th battalion of the ULFA. On 21 March 2007, ULFA militant Ratneswar Rabha was shot dead while crossing over from Bangladesh near Jengjal in the West Garo Hills district. Three kilograms of RDX was recovered from the killed militant. However, with the installation of the friendly Awami League government in Dhaka, this route has dried up. Even then, Meghalaya capital Shillong and its adjoining areas continue to gain notoriety for being a vibrant small arms bazaar for many insurgent groups.
In makeshift arms manufacturing units that mushroomed in areas like Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram in East Khasi Hills district, country-made revolvers were available for Rupees 2500 while a regular revolver cost Rupees 65000. Police busted several makeshift arms factories. But as soon as the police turned their back, the factories sprung up again. Even in Shillong, it was possible to get Chinese-made ‘5-star’ pistols for less than Rupees 20,000 till recent past.
Similarly, prevailing peace in Mizoram and the consequent security force inertia probably facilitates the Mizoram and Myanmar border being used as a thriving small arms route. Arms continue to enter India through areas like Champhai, Saiha and Zawkathawr and find their way into the war chest of the insurgents.
Union Minister of Home Affairs (MHA) P Chidambaram addressing the annual Chief Ministers’ Conference on Internal Security on 1 February 2011 identified ‘arms smuggling’ as a ‘consequence’ of India being located in a troubled neighbourhood that affects India. While there little to doubt the Minister’s claim, the problem remains about India’s counter-measures in addressing the problem.
Bangladesh, as mentioned earlier, is fast ceasing to be a direct source of small arms for the northeastern militant groupings. The AL-led government has initiated several steps to stop the country from being for anti-India activities. High ranking officials belonging to intelligence units have been arrested and prosecuted for their active participation in incidents like the Chittagong arms haul of 1 April 2004 in which 10 truckloads of arms and ammunition meant for the northeastern insurgents were recovered. The fact, however, remains that in spite of its commitment, Dhaka’s ability to enforce a complete ban on this trade will remain suspect, given its rather limited clout on areas including the Chittagong Hills Tracts, where bulk of the transactions occur. The demand for small arms from Bangladesh’s own criminal networks would continue and fraction of the arms delivered at places like Chittagong port would eventually find their way into India. It is in New Delhi’s interest that the hands of the India friendly AL government are strengthened and its writ extended to the ungoverned spaces. In the event of a return of the hostile Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to power in future, the strategic advantage accrued so far, will be lost.
China stopped supporting the northeastern insurgent outfits sometime in the mid 1980s. The ULFA’s appeal for a free passage through China during the December 2003 military operations in Bhutan did not even elicit a response from the Chinese authorities. In spite of this, China continues to remain a source of small arms for the insurgent groups in India. According to available information, in 2006 and 2007, security agencies seized nearly 4,000 small arms and light weapons in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir and nearly half of these were made in China. In 2008, an independent report verified that China had replaced Cambodia and Thailand as the main supplier of weapons to insurgent groups in India’s Northeast and Myanmar. Elaborating on the lucrative trade, the report had also said that a Chinese automatic rifle that was available for $500 in eastern Myanmar could command a price of $2,500 by the time it reached the Northeast. The Indian intelligence agencies apparently do not have any evidence of the involvement of official agencies of China in the arms deals, although inputs have periodically thrown up names of retired PLA officials. In fact, the NSCN-IM till very recently, had stationed an arms procurer in Dhaka, who shuttled between Thailand and Philippines, meeting his Chinese contact in search for arms and explosives.
The arms route from China invariably passes through Myanmar and involves Myanmarese insurgents and also officials. A number of northeastern insurgent camps are located within Myanmar and these serve as the first unloading points from the arms cache, before being brought into the country. In the past, Myanmarese army has carried out on and off operations against the insurgents, without any permanent impact on the ground. Indo-Myanmar strategic cooperation of the recent times is yet to translate into joint operations against the insurgents. In addition to the inability of the Myanmarese army to take action, the porosity of the border remains a serious problem. Assam Rifles, the main border guarding force along the Indo-Myanmar is clearly short of personnel and locates itself about 40 kilometres away from the actual border. Assam Rifles in raising additional 26 battalions. But it is unclear whether this additional manpower is adequate to plug the smuggling routes.
The Indigenous Production
There is a tendency among the analysts to play down the capacity of the hundreds of private arms manufacturing units that have mushroomed all over the country in serving the needs of the militants and the insurgents. These units, often located in one room facilities, are believed to produce only crude weapons, unfit for the use of insurgents. However, over the years, a tremendous improvement has been noted in the quality of arms produced from such facilities. Earlier Ahmedabad and now Mumbai has emerged as a hub for purchase of indigenously produced arms in different states. Inputs suggest that a range of weapons including country-made revolvers and sophisticated replica of AK rifles are available under one roof for purchase with prices ranging from Rupees 5000 to 50,000. With an advance payment and waiting time of a month, even rarest and expensive guns like the Austrian Glock pistol and the Uzi submachine gun are also available.
Meeting the challenge calls for a concerted action, both in terms of plugging the smuggling routes and also controlling the internal trade. However, any such action can only stem from a policy, which is non-existent.
Geopolitics (New Delhi), March 2011, pp.55-58.