Too many to count, illegal arms still Assamís headache

Last Thursday, even as fresh incidents of violence prompted the authorities to reimpose curfew in Kokrajhar, the Home Ministry sent an advisory to the Assam government to launch an operation to seize all illegal arms and ammunition in circulation, especially in the Bodoland districts.

In fact, in investigations not related to the Kokrajhar violence, police and security forces had already made two major arms hauls, one on the outskirts of Guwahati and the other on the Meghalaya border. From Khetri near Guwahati, they seized two AK-56 rifles, two shotguns, six .32 bore revolvers, a grenade, and ammunition. The other seizure comprised two AK-47s, a hand grenade, electronic decanters and ordinary detonators, assorted fuses and a 7.65 mm pistol, besides ammunition.

"Yes, it is a fact that a large number of illegal arms and ammunition are floating across Assam. While the major chunk of it definitely comes from Dimapur, arms also come in from West Bengal, Bihar and other parts of central India. These include both foreign-made and local weapons," says Assam Director General of Police Jayanta Narayan Choudhury.

Besides, various militant groups that have entered into ceasefires and peace talks have retained some of the arms they had procured. There are also reports that in outfits taking steps towards peace, cadres have deserted their camps and taken away some arms and ammunition. When 676 cadres of nine militant groups had surrendered in Guwahati in the presence of then home minister P Chidambaram, they had laid down only 202 weapons.

On Saturday, the Assam Police "recovered" two illegal AK-47 rifles from the residence of a former Bodoland Liberation Tigers leader, Mano Kumar Brahma, who is currently an executive member (equivalent to a minister) in the Bodoland Territorial Council.

State home secretary G D Tripathi says while possession of sophisticated illegal arms by insurgents is a well-known fact, a large number of illegal weapons, both locally made as well as factory-made, are in circulation among civilians.

There is no estimate of the number of illegal arms in circulation. "But there are definitely hundreds of them, sophisticated AK-series types as well as those made locally or within the country," says the DGP. Reports quoting the Union home minister say not less than 1,000 illegal arms have been recovered in Assam since 2010. Seizure counts cite nearly 70 arms in the current year, following 422 in 2011.

There are no two opinions of the fact that the Northeast is one of the most important markets for selling illegal arms and ammunition in Southeast Asia.

About the source, a former intelligence officer says, "The NSCN was once upon a time the largest importer of arms to the Northeast." Both NSCN factions, though engaged in peace talks with New Delhi for more than a decade, still possess huge quantities of illegal arms.

Top anti-talk ULFA leader Paresh Barua too has emerged as a major arms dealer in recent years. "Yes, Barua is into the business of supplying arms," says the Assam DGP, pointing out that the ULFA leader keeps shifting in areas close to the Myanmar-China border and has easy access to Chinese arms. Barua was in fact named, along with a son of former Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia, in the haul of 10 truckloads of illegal arms and ammunition in Chittagong back in 2004.

Various rebel groups also snatch arms and ammunition from the police and security forces or their armouries; even the Army has faced this on least one instance.

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