T is an excellent host.
‘Beretta? Glock? Llama?’ he offers a few top-of-the line 9 mm handguns. T smiles; he can see I’m impressed. ‘Browning? Smith and Wesson?’
He then begins to show off the aperitifs. The Beretta .380, a design first developed by American handgun legend John Browning as the Automatic Colt Pistol in the early years of the 20th century, and has steadily morphed into a deliverer of ever-punchier, ever-quicker bullets. There is also the more delicate .32 Beretta, quite deadly, that carry slimmer 7.65 mm rounds. ‘Maybe for your girlfriend, nah?’
T’s face twitches with mirth and methamphetamine. His hands shake as he tries to hold a small mug of milky tea to his lips and after a futile attempt at sipping gently, gives up. The mug rattles as he sets it down on the tabletop between us. His fingers twitch before he firmly sets them on his track pants. His other accessories are a plain T-shirt, single-strap slippers popular across this region, and a slim gold chain. Out of politeness I too set down my mug, floral-patterned, Made-in-China ware that adds more colour in a room of scattershot décor: a few photographs of Christ, homilies, an awkwardly posing family, a kaleidoscopic and quite worn sofa, a large new television set and a set-top device that beams a football match in Europe, muted for our meeting. T’s glassy eyes reflect the green and red of a football pitch that carries rampaging players of Manchester United. My behaviour calms him, aided by the soothing words of our go-between without whom this rendezvous in one of Moreh’s crowded wards would not have come about. I’m safe, my interlocutor assures T, he can speak freely.
Reassured, T offers a collectors’ favourite, an antique 9mm masterpiece of a handgun from Germany’s über-alles years. ‘Luger?’
The made-in-Spain Llama retails for ₹1,50,000 at T’s weapons deli. The very American Smith and Wesson is marked up at ₹1,80,000. The Italian Beretta, now also manufactured in the United States, and the slick Austrian Glock at ₹2,00,000 a piece. Second hand. New weapons that come in ‘packing’ carry significant premium. Either way, it’s cash only. Indian Rupees also work across the border in north-western Myanmar. Naturally ammunition is extra, and keeps the well-greased after-sales market running robustly.
T is one of several weapons procurers in town who feed some Kuki rebel groups, occasionally a Naga rebel faction, and an assortment of other rebels in far-eastern India. Specifically, T is more like a distributor to the area’s connoisseurs—politicians, crime lords, the occasional politician-crime lord. They also top-up small rebel groups. Well-established and relatively large Naga and Meitei rebel groups and factions, for example, don’t need those like T—even though they have reached him, and those like him, from time to time, for supplies to be collected in Churachandpur and Imphal, even Dimapur. They usually deal directly with the aggregator-suppliers in Myanmar who have their long reach into China, Thailand and of course Myanmar black-and-grey markets, watched over by their armies. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), for instance, has for long run its own supply chain from Myanmar to reach adjacent Ukhrul district of Manipur—a significant I-M haven on account of ethnic ties—and also into two eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Myanmar, also Naga homelands.
T agrees to let me record our conversation and take notes, but requests anonymity. In a place with a population of about 20,000—roughly double if one counts Moreh’s hinterland—and tightly-knit communities of Kuki, Meitei, the Meitei Pangal, and Tamil, Sikh and Nepali folk displaced by Myanmar’s decades-old ethnic cleansing, all stuffed in nine small wards, the tiniest clue can be a giveaway. T claims he would then be open to ‘harassment’ by—and which might include more payoffs to—rogue elements in Manipur’s police, Indian government paramilitaries, and various factions of rebels in Manipur who play protector. Worse, he might end up dead.
It’s time for the main course. I ask T: How about some assault rifles?
He offers several Kalashnikov copies and variants. These are new and used AK 47s brought in courtesy of Thai suppliers, and from the autonomous Shan state in Myanmar’s east, bordering China, Thailand and Lao; AK 56 and Type 81s ‘from China’, a steady trickle of that country’s jettisoned and leached supplies that find a ready local, regional, even global, market. There are ageing American M-15s and M-16s sourced from Thailand, which remains a conduit of Vietnam-era supplies alongside more recent models. The lively and the leaky among Myanmar’s army are also occasional suppliers.
I’ve seen several such weapons during several visits to camps of various Naga rebel groups from 2009 onwards. During one such visit, to the main camp of the Unification faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in Kehoi, east of Dimapur, I spent time talking to some cadres after interviewing a top official. These cadres were lounging about in the courtyard outside the hut where I had conducted the interview. They were cleaning handguns. There were two 9mm weapons, and a .32 calibre one. This last was an Astra, of Spanish manufacture. One of the 9mm weapons was a Smith & Wesson, the other a Spanish Star with Myanmar army markings in Burmese script. It wasn’t the only time I’ve seen such marking on rebel weapons. And, during a visit to Camp Hebron, the administrative and military headquarters of NSCN (I-M), I saw both female and male cadres carry all manner of assault rifles and hand guns: a well-equipped mini army which it was—is.Excerpted with the permission of Simon & Schuster India from The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East by Sudeep Chakravarti; HB Rs. 899, 432pp