On 16 March this year, police in Assam arrested Elahi Sheikh in Dibrugarh. Considered one of the biggest drug barons in the Northeast, Sheikh had been in hiding since jumping bail several years ago. The police also found heroin at his residence which was speculated to be sent to Arunachal Pradesh. Sheikh had amassed a huge fortune over the years by selling drugs through a network that consisted primarily of women and children.
Sheikh’s case is indicative of the colossal quantity of narcotics that flows through Assam in both directions—to the mainland and across the border to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Following the druglord’s arrest, police swung into action and arrested over 50 small dealers in the state over the next couple of months, especially from Guwahati and Dibrugarh. The seizures made from their residences, hideouts and subsequent interrogation by police revealed that a wide range of drugs—from cocaine to cannabis—find their way to Assam.
Mukush Sahay, the director general of police for the state told me that “Assam has emerged as a transit point for drugs going to different and distant places. We have identified the kingpins and we are in touch with our counterparts in some other states.” The situation prompted the state government to constitute a task force on May 11 under the additional chief secretary of the home department TY Das to assess the extent of the problem and the rehabilitation of addicts. The Narcotics Control Bureau, an agency under the ministry of home affairs which has also been involved in operations, has conducted raids at Gaya in Bihar and Rae Bareily in Uttar Pradesh following leads from arrested peddlers on the drug trail.
The Police investigation has revealed that synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines travel a vast distance from Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana, and are peddled by gangs that have their network across the country. These are consumed in Assam and the neighbouring states. Consignments are also sent to Bangladesh. This is quite similar to the situation in Manipur and Mizoram, where a similar variety of synthetic drugs called Yaba is imported from Myanmar. However, laboratories in Myanmar producing synthetic drugs and heroin have also fuelled a huge demand for precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine (used in the manufacture of several drugs), which are transported to Assam from north Indian states.
The information disclosed by peddlers revealed that an injectible form of heroin referred to as “Number 4” is smuggled into the Northeast from places as far as Shan State, which bordersChina, and has emerged as one of the leading production centres of drugs in the world. Number 4 is gathered and sorted at select towns in the Northeast such as Champhai, Moreh and Dimapur, and dispatched to Guwahati in small quantities in trucks and buses. The presence of the drug is an open secret in several localities in the city,such as Manipuri Basti. A series of raids were conducted and in a surprising discovery, a large quantity of brown sugar believed by the police to have been manufactured in Bihar, was seized. “It seemed that Ilahi was one of the bigger fishes in the illicit trade but there are numerous peddlers who function independently with direct links to the production centres,” a police official told me while requesting anonymity.
He went on to explain that the new trend in Assam was the availability of cocaine and hashish in select circles. The contraband is brought in trains in small quantities but consumed by different classes of people, he said, adding that cocaine is brought either from Mumbai or New Delhi and hashish from Himachal Pradesh. Cocaine, which is produced from coca leaves in South America, is many times more expensive than hashish, which is made from cannabis.
These trends notwithstanding, the most commonly consumed drug in Assam is cannabis or “Manipuri Bhang,” sold across the state. The bulk of the supply comes from the hills of Manipur such as Ukhrul, Senapati and Chandel. Consignments in small packets hidden in trains are sent to other metropolises from Guwahati and Dimapur. However, the price of the item has soared following the large demand from the mainland and which explains the availability of a cheaper variety from Bhutan over the last decade or so. Police have also been destroying vast tracts of bhang cultivation on the banks of the Brahmaputra suggesting another new trend in the disturbed state and increasing demand of the substance.
Many officials engaged in probing the illicit trade also underscored the danger from the sale of Schedule-H drugs without prescriptions. The most commonly sold items are cough syrups and medicines containing a compound called Alprazolam. The consumers are mainly young men and women in their late teens and twenties. Agents in Guwahati firm up deals with their counterparts in border districts such as Dhubri and Karimganj as well as Tripura, for export to Bangladesh. The agents then send medicines in trucks, and bribe officials to let the vehicles pass through check-gates. The seizure of such trucks—which are believed to originate in Himachal Pradesh and other north Indian states with fake documents has been quite a regular phenomenon in Assam. However, the seized consignments hardly contain any trace of the production units.
The proliferation of drugs in Assam bears ample testimony to the scope available for the illicit trade in the border state. With easy access to the neighbouring countries and unemployment at a staggering two million, the narcotic industry appears to be highly lucrative. The police is entirely focused on tackling militancy and counter-insurgency operations and, if Sheikh’s arrest had not garnered media attention, it is doubtful that it would have initiated any action.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.