Behind Manipur violence, a ‘war on drugs’ that wasn’t

Even as Manipur's BJP government has publicised a 'war on drugs', TNM has found that heroin has gotten cheaper and more popular in the state with high school students increasingly prone to drug addiction.
Behind Manipur violence, a ‘war on drugs’ that wasn’t
Behind Manipur violence, a ‘war on drugs’ that wasn’t
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The most widely available drug in Manipur is a shimmering red-and-white powder that the residents in the valley areas of the state call ‘Thum Morok’ or salt and chilli. It has replaced the deadly white powder ‘Number 4’ heroin, which was originally produced in factories run by the druglord Khun Sa of the Shan State Army in Myanmar. In the 1990s, Sa had 10,000 armed cadres, and operating from the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia, he accounted for 25% of the world’s heroin production.

The relatively newer Thum Morok, a variant of the purer 'Number 4', entered the market in the last two decades. It is now also produced locally in Manipur in ‘mobile factories’ or semi-settled drug production units that churn out heroin powder that costs as little as Rs 100 a gram, one-fifth of the price of one gram of ‘Number 4’ heroin.

This has led to an increase in the number of drug addicts in rehabilitation centres in Manipur, say government officials and activists working to reduce drug addiction. The state’s 105 drug rehabilitation centres are almost always at full capacity and the average age at which youngsters get addicted has decreased substantially from 20-21 years when the powder first made its appearance to around 14-15 years, with even high school students becoming addicts now.

These developments come at a time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has claimed that it is fighting a ‘War on Drugs’, a publicised crackdown on narcotics and, in particular, the cultivation of poppy, a plant that is a major source of raw opium used in manufacturing heroin. The anti-drug initiatives were one of the main poll planks of the BJP when it rose to power in 2017. The issue has also become a topic of discussion during the current ethnic conflict in Manipur with the tribal Kuki community claiming that the drive is solely concentrating on targeting hill-based farmers who grow poppy and not taking on drug cartels that finance them.

The state government led by N Biren Singh has announced the removal of 15,000 acres of poppy fields, mainly in Kuki-dominated hill areas, and the arrest of over 2,500 people involved in drug-related cases since 2017. But in conversations with those working on drug rehabilitation as well as those involved in the production and sale of the drugs in the state, TNM has found that even as the state claims to wage a ‘War on Drugs’, the supply of heroin continues unabated and the price of the drug in the market has only reduced.

This is even as the ongoing conflict has continued for more than three months claiming over 160 lives and displacing 50,000 others. Many believe that the funding of underground armed groups in the region is linked to the drug trade and is one of the reasons for the brutal nature of the conflict. Those involved in the fight against drug abuse at the grassroots level say that an entire generation of youngsters in the region are at risk.

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While it is difficult to ascertain when heroin was first introduced in Manipur, there are instances showing its use as early as the 1980s. Manipur’s location in the north-eastern corner of India made it a convenient route for drugs from the Golden Triangle – an area at the tri-junction of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar – which is home to a thriving narcotics industry.

Before the emergence of Thum Morok, the most popular drug in the region was ‘Number 4’ heroin. “I tried ‘Number 4’ for the first time in 1985,” says Thangkhansut, a 59-year-old recovering drug addict in a rehabilitation centre in Churachandpur, a hill district. The name ‘Number 4’ refers to the fourth stage of refinement, which is the purest form of heroin.

At the time, Thangkhansut was 21 and worked in the border town of Moreh, close to Myanmar, helping transport timber to different areas in Manipur. “I remember we were curious what it would feel like. And after the first puff… we were soon taking three hits a day to help us get through work,” he says. He would spend Rs 30-50 everyday to buy ‘pieces’ of the powder at a time when his daily earnings were only Rs 100.


Drug rehabilitation centre in Imphal, Manipur

'Number 4' heroin was synthesised from opium, a narcotic substance, extracted from poppy plants grown in Myanmar's Shan state in this period. “It began due to the junta (Myanmar army) changing its policies over ethnic insurgencies in the 1990s and becoming more flexible about narcotics,” says Homen Thangjam, an Imphal-based political economist who has carried out field research on the Indo-Myanmar narcotics trade.

By the 2010s, a ripple effect was observed in Manipur with the proliferation of poppy fields in the hill areas of the state where the Kuki population lived. Writing in a paper titled ‘Rise of Alternative Agriculture-Poppy Cultivation’, Homen says, “Today, no hill district of the state is free from poppy cultivation.”

When TNM visited Kangpokpi district this week, farmers were open to discussing their illicit crop. “The paddy crops in our village failed two years ago and around ten families shifted to cultivating poppy. They got the seeds from a seller in Sajik Tampak (in Chandel) and the plants popped up,“ says Paokam Kipgen, a village chief from Saikul. “To those unaware, it looked like a colourful field of flowers,” he says.

Almost all village chiefs like Paokam who have lived through several conflicts in the region have a story to tell of being displaced when armed groups battled each other or against the army.

The Kuki community practises jhum or shifting cultivation, by which patches of forest land are burned to cultivate crops like rice and maize. Both crops are water intensive and require careful transplantation in the rains.

There are few job opportunities available in rural areas of Manipur outside of agricultural work and the state regularly records a high unemployment rate. The Union government’s annual Periodic Labour Force Survey (PFLS) in 2022 showed that the state has a high unemployment rate of 9%, more than double the national average of 4.1%, and higher than all the other states in the region.


A hill range in Imphal East district in Manipur

So poppy, a low-risk cash crop, became a lucrative alternative to farmers because it took only four months from planting to harvesting the plant’s sticky, intoxicating sap. The bounty was both portable and hugely profitable. “A year’s harvest would fit in a pouch and if we are lucky, the profit from cultivating one acre of land could run into lakhs,” says Paokam. “Brokers come to buy raw opium as soon as it is harvested,” he says.

Homen’s research shows that a 1.75 acre poppy field can grow 5 kg of opium that is worth as much as Rs 6.5 lakh, five times the cost of cultivation. Farmers also say there’s a long list of people that they need to pay off with their earnings including village chiefs, local police, and the militant group active in their village.

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Even though poppy plants are grown mainly in Manipur’s hill districts, the opium trade also involves Meitei Hindus, Muslims, Nagas and Nepalis from the valley. Manipur police data showed that 2,518 people have been arrested in drug-related cases since 2017. Of them, the highest – 1,083 – are Meitei Pangals, a valley-based ethnic group that follows Islam, followed by Kukis – 873, and Meiteis – 381.

In 2019, the state police busted five ‘mobile factories’, which process and churn out heroin, either Thum Morok or another adulterated version of heroin called ‘brown sugar’. Four of the laboratories were in Thoubal district, in areas dominated by Meitei Pangals. The other was in Kangpokpi district, where heroin worth Rs 165 crore was seized during a raid on the residence of two men from the Naga community.

Despite efforts by the police to close down laboratories producing heroin, many of them continue to operate, say civil rights groups. “Most of the people arrested got out on bail and restarted their laboratories, this time more discreetly,” says Mohammed Habibulla, secretary of the Anjuman Islah-E-Muashra, which worked with the Manipur police on the raids in Thoubal.

Those who are caught are only a small part of the supply chain involved in the drug trade. “The lower level peddlers are getting disproportionate attention from the police but the kingpins are the ones profiting from the processed drugs,” says a former police officer. “It is hard to ascertain who they are with evidence but it is clear that these financiers come from all the major communities,” the former officer says.

Kuki and Zo groups opposing Chief Minister Biren Singh say the ‘War on Drugs’ waged by the Meitei-led government is a ruse to uproot their communities, adding that the conflict has been used to further this narrative. Their distrust is rooted in years of opposition to Biren Singh’s policies going back to 2015. At the time, Kuki-Zo groups opposed Biren Singh, then in the Congress-led state government, over three key bills that encompassed the identity, land rights, and livelihood of Manipur’s residents – the Protection of Manipur People Bill, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill, and Manipur Shops and Establishments Bill.

“The first bill sought to define a Manipuri as someone who came to the state before 1951. The two other bills sought to take powers in relation to land use and businesses away from autonomous district councils (ADCs) and entrust them to the state government,” says H Mangchinkhup, an academic from Churachandpur who was the chief convener of the Joint Action Committee against Anti-Tribal Bills. ADCs were established to address concerns of under-representation from tribal areas when the state was formed in 1972. “There was little or no consultation with tribal communities over these bills,” he says.


Village volunteers defending a village in Saikul, Manipur

After Biren Singh joined the BJP and became Chief Minister in 2017, versions of these bills have turned into reality, says Mangchinkhup. It was around this time, from November 2018, the state government began publicising its anti-drug campaign.

“Many Kuki villages have supported the campaign against drugs but there is a need to target those who are profiting from the drug trade," says Hejang Misao, who runs the non-profit Inside Northeast in Kangpokpi district. "Only then can the ‘War on Drugs’ hope to succeed,” says Hejang.

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The drug trade in Manipur also involves processed heroin from Myanmar entering the state through its 400 km long international border. This route through Manipur’s hill and valley areas has been at the centre of conflicts and civil insurgencies in the past with dozens of armed militia fighting each other, or against the state. "This is because a lot of money is involved," says Lieutenant General L Nishikanta Singh (retired).

The Golden Triangle is second only to the Golden Crescent, the areas covering the mountainous peripheries of Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the production of opium in the world. Major Indian cities including New Delhi receive opioid drugs like heroin from one of these two regions.

The last time there was violence of this scale in Manipur was arguably during the Kuki-Naga conflict in the 1990s, and the reason for the clash was, among other factors, control over the drug trade. “The two groups wanted to control Moreh, the highways, and Dimapur,” says  Lt Gen Nishikanta (retired), who was posted in Manipur during the conflict.

Moreh, a town close to the Indo-Myanmar border, was a convenient spot to transport smuggled drugs from Myanmar into India, and Dimapur in Nagaland, which had the only railway station in the state for over 100 years until 2022, was an important transit point to transport the drugs within India. Control over the highway checkposts was crucial to allow drugs to pass through.

“The Kuki community raised their armed groups – Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and Kuki National Army (KNA) –to oppose the Nagas in this period of conflict and even though they suffered more casualties, the Kuki groups considered it crucial that they managed to retain Moreh,” says Lt Gen Nishikanta (retired).

Even today, the Manipur state government’s rhetoric in its ‘War on Drugs’ claims that Kuki militant groups, which allegedly harbour “illegal” immigrants from Myanmar, are helping the local population residing in the hills grow poppy and extract opium. The Chin people of Myanmar and the Mizo people of Mizoram are kindred tribes of the Kukis.

In an interview in March, CM Biren Singh said it in as many words. “These people (the Kukis) are encroaching everywhere, whether reserved forests, protected forests, doing poppy plantations, and drug business.” Hoardings put up around Imphal drive home the same message, and a term often repeated by Meitei academics and civil society groups is ‘narco-terrorist’ in apparent reference to the Kuki community.


Hoardings denouncing poppy cultivation in Uripok, Imphal, Manipur

While Kuki militant groups have publicly denounced the cultivation of poppy, an article by a police officer in 2019 stated that the drug trade is a major source of income for some groups. Lunsieh Kipgen, who is currently Manipur’s Inspector General of Prisons, wrote, “There are credible inputs that some armed groups irrespective of Suspension of Operation (SoO) and non-SoO groups are sponsoring poppy plantations to fund their organisational requirements.” An SoO agreement stipulates that armed groups will surrender their weapons, join peace talks, and stay in designated camps.

Kipgen, a Kuki himself, further added, “Certain hill-based non-SoO armed groups were not only expressing their open support for poppy cultivation but also threatening to confront groups that try to obstruct poppy cultivation.”

Poppy fields in Manipur are not limited to Kuki areas alone but are also seen in Ukhrul and Chandel, which are Naga-dominated districts. The Manipur police stated in a release in May 2023 that it had cleared 15,496 acres of poppy fields since 2017, of which 84% were in Kuki-dominated areas and 15% were in Naga-dominated areas.

However, activists say that the state government’s anti-drug initiatives, while focusing on clearing poppy fields, is yet to establish the total area of poppy cultivation in the state. Lunsieh Kipgen wrote that the fields destroyed are less than a third of the total area of cultivation.

The anti-drug campaigns are also viewed with suspicion because on most occasions, suspected drug lords have been able to escape arrest and scrutiny.

An example of this was the case of former BJP member and alleged drug lord from the Kuki community, Lhukhosei Zou, who was arrested in June 2018 in one of the biggest drug-related raids in Manipur history. The police officer who led the raid, Brinda Thounaojam, who is now an opposition politician with the Janata Dal (United), later revealed in a court affidavit in 2020 that Chief Minister Biren Singh attempted to shield Zou from arrest. Zou spent around six months in jail before he was released on bail.

Brinda believes the Chief Minister attempted to slow down the case because of financial and political considerations. “Zou was the right-hand man of the CM’s wife Olice, who is also an MLA. He is from the Kuki community and their votes are important to get Olice elected,” says Brinda.


Brinda Thounaojam, politician with the Janata Dal (United) in Manipur

Similar concerns have been raised by others including a BJP legislator belonging to the Meitei community. In May this year, MLA Khwairakpam Raghumani Singh wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah over the seizure of opium from two Meitei men by the Delhi Police in February 2023. He felt that “a well-connected family and very powerful political families (were) involved” in the drug trade in Manipur.

“The anti-drugs campaign is a selective assault on certain groups of people while protecting others close to the ruling disposition. It is clear that the narcotics trade has continued despite the state’s campaign,” Brinda says.

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The outcome is the cheap and easy availability of drugs and an increasing number of drug addicts in the state’s rehabilitation centres. TNM’s visits to at least six drug rehabilitation centres, three each in the hill and valley districts, showed that all centres were operating at nearly full capacity.

The last available data for drug users in the state is a 2019 study by the Union Ministry of Social Justice which recorded 34,344 injecting drug users in Manipur, more than any other state in the region. “These are just injecting drug users. The overall number of addicts recorded in 2019 was over 1 lakh,” says Konsam Saroja Devi, Deputy Director, Social Welfare Department. “We estimate the number of drug users has only increased in the last four years,” says Saroja.

Records maintained in drug rehab centres show the price of heroin has dropped drastically in the state. ‘Number 4’ heroin used to cost as high as Rs 3,000 per gram 10 years ago. It is now down to Rs 500 per gram. The price of Thum Morok in comparison has fallen from as high as Rs 800 to Rs 300 per gram in the valley areas in the same period. In the hill districts, the price of a similar drug that the locals call ‘brown sugar’ costs only Rs 100 per gram.

The reduction in the price and the increase in the availability of heroin, especially Thum Morok, has coincided with youngsters as young as 14 becoming addiction risks.


Drug rehabilitation centre in Imphal, Manipur

Sam, 24, currently recovering in an Imphal-based drug rehabilitation centre, hardly remembers the first time he injected heroin after he was offered a hit by his seniors in high school. “All I remember is that I vomited continuously,” Sam says. “I couldn’t stand it… But the next time I tried it, I felt like chasing that feeling. It was as though all my problems had vanished,” says Sam. “Even after high school was over and my friends moved on, I continued to chase that feeling,” he says.

“Some of my friends like to play football or watch action movies but I like to wear my headphones and listen to rock music when I inject myself. A lot of Linkin Park and Slipknot,” he says. “I never thought that I was addicted.” Like many others in rehab now, Sam has not been able to hold a job and has depended on his parents to fund his drug addiction.

Others like Kapsuanmung, 19, currently at a drug rehabilitation centre in Churachandpur, were pushed into drugs due to socio-economic vulnerability. “I used to work as a construction labourer in Imphal and once I was addicted, I could not stop myself from taking hits. Even when I earned only Rs 300-400 in a day, I would make sure I kept money aside to buy two or three hits,” says Kapsuanmung.

Even the number of women taking drugs has slowly increased. “There is at least a level of acceptance about men becoming drug addicts. Women are chased out by families,” says Jess, a 25-year-old former drug addict who is now working at a community centre fighting drug abuse in Imphal. Survived only by her father, she says she was sent to a drug rehab far from home when her addiction was discovered. “I felt like there was no one to open up to when my addiction became known,” says Jess.

Almost all younger addicts interviewed say their choice of drug was Thum Morok.

Unlike its purer cousin which induces a euphoric high that lasts four hours, Thum Morok is a milder heroin that makes one feel lethargic and sleepy with a high that lasts for, at most, an hour.  “It is still better than nothing since it gives a kick,” says Sam. “I have tried injecting it ten times a day to keep the high going,” he says. “For addicts, the only question everyday is where is our next hit coming from.”


Capsules with the Thum Morok powder

Activists argue that the ‘War on Drugs’ should acknowledge the scale of drug addiction in Manipur. “Poppy cultivation is only one part of the challenge,” says RK Nalinikanta, a former drug user, and president of the Community Network for Empowerment, an Imphal-based organisation working to reduce drug addiction. “The state is fighting a ‘War on Drugs’ without knowing how many people are affected by this issue. How will we know down the line if we have made any progress?,” he asks.

“More importantly, people who inject drugs are viewed as criminals,” says Nalinikanta. “We should be viewed as victims of drug trafficking and this issue should be considered a public health issue instead of a criminal one,” he says.

“Especially now that it (heroin) has become accessible to everyone and not just the rich,” he says. “Just like salt and chilli.”

All photographs by Bhuvan Mallik

Manipur Dispatches: Our reporters Prajwal Bhat, Haritha John and Bhuvan Malik are in Manipur to provide you with exclusive, in-depth ground reports that delve into the heart of the matter. If you believe that human rights violations in a distant land should be a topic of conversation in this part of India, support our intrepid truth-seeking mission. Contribute here.

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