Sunday, April 11, 2010

In east, a gunrunner’s gateway


Guwahati, April 11: If the guns used in the Dantewada massacre were not all snatched from local security forces, chances are that some of them came from the Northeast, ferried in oil tankers.

This slice of the country, with its poorly guarded borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar, is now gunrunners’ gateway to India, security agencies say.

The region’s assortment of active, “surrendered” or “ceasefire-bound” militants keep the clandestine trade flowing, with a little help from security personnel and private business. (See chart)

The recent interrogation statement of a middle-ranked National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) militant, to which this newspaper has access, reveals how easily and how often the rebels cross the international border carrying munitions that may then change hands.

Another militant, from the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), whose interrogation report is with The Telegraph, speaks of how his group set up a Khasi rebel outfit in Meghalaya just to gain control over a gun-smuggling route by proxy.

Godadhor Hajong alias Bela Hajong, a “sgt major” of the NDFB’s anti-ceasefire group, told his questioners at Mahendraganj police station of Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district that he had crossed the Bangladesh border 50 times.

Some of his revelations:

In 2007, he had entered India through Nokchi in the Garo Hills with 16 AK rifles, 15 grenades and 2,000 rounds of ammunition;

The NDFB bought Chinese weapons from Myanmarese (Chin) smugglers at “wholesale rates” and sold them to other insurgent groups such as the Garo outfit Achik National Volunteer Council;

One Ronnie Bodo was poised to enter India from Bangladesh with three AKs, 12 grenades and 1,000 rounds of ammunition;

Some other NDFB cadres from Lalung in the Garo Hills planned to enter India with two Chinese rifles, three sniper rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition;

NDFB commander Sotbangsa Boro had handed over four Chinese grenades to the People’s Liberation Front of Meghalaya to be used at Tura Bazar where traders had refused to pay up.

These individual instances may seem to suggest just a trickle of arms entering the region, but defence sources insist that the racket is run like a well-oiled machine, perfected over many decades.

“Don’t think (that arms smuggling takes place through) Kashmir and the western frontier. Those areas are well guarded,” a highly placed defence source said in Guwahati.

“Whatever goes to the rest of India, including the Maoists, comes from areas such as Myanmar, China and Bangladesh and passes through the Northeast.”

Although Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi denies this, the defence establishment here says “over-ground Maoist activists” have already set up base in three Assam districts: Goalpara in the west and Dibrugarh and Tinsukia in the east.

“The Maoists may snatch some weapons from the security forces and single-barrelled and double-barrelled guns from other people, but please understand that all their sophisticated arms go from here,” an army officer said.

Since February 16 this year, the security forces have seized four AKs, two Dragonov sniper rifles, one M20 7.65mm pistol and ammunition in Guwahati alone, part of it from a Naga woman courier.

Teams of women are the most widely used couriers to bring arms to Guwahati. They are transferred outside the Northeast by some among the hundreds of private oil tankers leaving the region every day, the sources say. The weapons, hidden in the tank, are apparently not damaged by the oil.

Of all the militant groups, the NSCN(IM) worries the security establishment the most given its protracted “peace process” with the Centre during which it has enjoyed considerable leeway, even running a parallel government in parts of Nagaland.

The interrogation statement of NSCN(IM) cadre Nickson Khang from Ukhrul, Manipur, reveals that he had got into the outfit’s bad books but had been granted “forgiveness” after he carried out “one important mission”.

That mission was the launch of the Hynniewtrep Liberation Front, a process that started last September, to gain control over the Block I and Block II areas of Meghalaya near its eastern border with Assam.

What is so important about this nondescript area in a disputed region claimed by both Meghalaya and Assam?

“Control of that area would give the NSCN(IM) access to another arms route, this one through Ratacherra in Tripura,” a defence source said.

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