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Indian state launches assault on drugs as UN warns of Bangladesh-like crisis

Guwahati, India

A north-eastern Indian state that has for years been a big transit point for illicit drugs originating in neighbouring Myanmar has launched a massive crackdown on the trade, seizing record amounts and arresting nearly 2,000 people since May.

Assam, four of whose neighbouring states have open and rugged borders with Myanmar, connects the north-east to the rest of India. It has received praise for the drug clampdown from ruling and opposition politicians but been criticised for alleged human rights abuses, including the shooting of suspected traffickers.

India Assam drug destruction

Himanta Biswa Sarma, Chief Minister of the north-eastern state of Assam, uses a roller to destroy seized drugs during a ceremony in Nagaon district of Assam, India, 18th July. PICTURE: Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika.

Assam’s ties with one of the states, Mizoram, has frayed too after Assam linked the drugs fight to a recent territorial clash between the two states in which police forces fired at each other. 

Police say Assam, the most populous north-eastern state, is where traffickers gather or store drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine. They estimate about a fifth is sold locally and the rest in India’s richer towns and cities.

Myanmar is one of Asia’s main sources of illegal production of methamphetamine, or “crazy drug” yaba, as well as heroin, according to the International Narcotics Control Board and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“I hope I’m wrong, but the drug trafficking situation in north-east India looks somewhat like it did in Bangladesh a few years ago before methamphetamine really took off,” said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s regional representative for South-East Asia and the Pacific.

“We’ve seen a pattern of small intermittent seizures of yaba becoming slightly larger and more frequent, and scattered reports of local use – very similar.”

Bangladesh, which reported the world’s largest seizures of prescription opioids in 2019, has become South Asia’s biggest destination for yaba, with a market estimated at more than $US3 billion. Police there have killed hundreds of suspected drug dealers since 2018.

In a sign of how India’s trade has flourished, last week the junior home minister presented to parliament data on drugs and arms smugglers that showed many more arrests happened on its border with Myanmar than other neighbours such as Pakistan and Bangladesh between 2018 and 2020.

Assam this year has already made more drug seizures and related arrests than it did in any previous full year.

Much of the action has happened since an ambitious party colleague of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Himanta Biswa Sarma, became chief minister of Assam in May and said he had given police a free hand to act on drugs, including to shoot suspects when needed.

“The Assam Government has adopted a zero-tolerance policy against drugs,” Sarma said in a speech at a public burning of seized drugs in July. “I have asked the police to take the most extreme step allowed by law against drug peddlers and the kingpins when needed.”

Sarma, who estimates the trade in his state is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, said he could not immediately speak with Reuters for this story.

Tensions fly
In the past three months, police in Assam have arrested 1,783 people, killed two, wounded five, and seized drugs worth tens of millions of dollars, according to data shared by the state’s police.

Assam is the only point of exit for drugs smuggled into India from Myanmar, said the state’s special director general of police Gyanendra Pratap Singh.

“No crime can ever be stopped, but our goal is to ensure that we make it as difficult as lawfully possible for anybody to carry drugs through Assam, and make the availability of drugs to the youngsters of Assam almost impossible,” he told Reuters at his residence secured by many young policemen.

Singh, who is also leading an investigation into the deadly July clashes with Mizoram, said a nexus that facilitates the passage of drugs through Mizoram had a role in the violence to divert attention from the fight on narcotics.

Mizoram denied the charge and said it made record seizures of methamphetamine this year itself. It has also objected to Assam’s new policy of inspecting all vehicles coming from Mizoram to “check trafficking of illicit drugs”.

“We support the crackdown on drugs, it’s a menace to society” said David Lalthangliana, officer on special duty at Mizoram’s Home Department. “But let it be a joint effort, let it not be discriminatory where you check vehicles coming in from only one state.”

Opposition leaders in Assam have also accused the state government of human rights violations in dealing with criminals, including drug peddlers, and have demanded a judicial enquiry into police encounters that have killed or injured suspects. Police say shots are only fired in self defence or when suspects try to flee.



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