The increased presence of small arms has fuelled militant and insurgency movements across South Asia

South Asia is arguably the second most dangerous global hotspot after West Asia and intractable radical extremism in the Af-Pak area is nudging it rapidly towards acquiring the pole position. One of the major reasons for this dubious distinction is the large-scale proliferation and easy availability of small arms and light weapons (SALW). 

Since the end of the Cold War, the era of major inter-state wars, normally classified as conventional conflict, has been gradually drawing to a close. Its place has been taken by intra-state sub-conventional conflict in which the intensity of conflict and the levels of violence are low but violence is sustained over much longer time periods. In the South Asian context, the burgeoning trade in SALW, mostly illicit, has spawned more than 250 militant and insurgency movements in which small arms constitute the core weapons in the arsenal of extremist elements.

The vivid impact of personal and man-portable weapons became the primary reason for the expansion of the definition of “small arms” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) nearly three decades ago. NATO re-classified small arms and light weapons as “all crew-portable direct fire weapons of a calibre less than 50mm… (including those with) a secondary capability to defeat light armour and helicopters.” As per available UN estimates, there are approximately 640 million small arms across the world, of which, only about 226 million are in the possession of armed forces and law enforcing agencies. India with a small arms arsenal estimated at 6.3 million, stands sixth in the global ranking. About one per cent of the global holdings, i.e., 6.4 million weapons [nearly the size of India’s arsenal] are believed to be in the hands of militants, insurgents, terrorist groups and networks, and other non-state actors. Significantly, at least 22 UN peacekeeping and rescue missions have been launched in scenarios where the foremost weapons of war used by the opposing forces were essentially SALW.

As the epicentre of diverse armed conflicts, ranging from asymmetric warfare, ethnic conflicts to separatist movements, South Asia has witnessed exponential proliferation of SALW in recent decades. The Indian sub-continent’s susceptibility to small arms proliferation can be attributed to the fact that SALW are the most readily available option for non-state actors engaged in intra-state asymmetric warfare and state-sponsored proxy wars. Additionally, technological sophistication has made SALW increasingly more compact and lighter and added ominously to their firepower. When the rapid-fire Soviet Kalashnikov and the US M-16 variety of automatic assault rifles and hand grenades, which had constituted the standard inventory of soldiers for several decades, came into the hands of non-state actors, their ability to reduce the asymmetry with that of the security forces increased manifold. In fact, it gave the extremists an advantage in conducting hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. 

While India itself is far from an island of clam, it is ringed by an arc of instability. Festering insurgencies in the countries around India have added to India’s woes. Ethnic insurgent groups from India’s north-eastern states have been seeking sanctuaries both in Myanmar and Bangladesh. In fact, Myanmar plays unwilling host to as many as 33 armed ethnic insurgent groups. Its army has been fighting these groups for many decades and has cooperated with the Indian army in launching joint operations to destroy sanctuaries and bass across India’s border.

After the liberation of Bangladesh, many of the firearms used during that period were never fully accounted for and continued to remain in circulation. According to Major General Syed Muhammad Ibrahim (Retd), as many as 128 crime syndicates in Bangladesh were using 400,000 illegal SALW. In fact, gun-related violence facilitated the spread of organised crime, undermined fragile democratic politics and fuelled sectarian violence in Bangladesh. Insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts over the past few decades has further added to the demand for small arms. The easy opportunity for money-laundering has resulted in the emergence of Bangladesh as the main transit point for at least five major militant groups that are active in northeastern India, especially the United Liberation front of Assam (ULFA). It is also a convenient transit route for the flow of illegal weapons from Southeast Asia. 

Nepal, which was earlier another conduit for small arms proliferation in South Asia, has now become an end user itself as the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army is a big buyer of SALW. The Maoist insurgency launched in 1996 spurred the spread of small arms in Nepal. The PLA guerrillas supplemented their modest arsenal with hundreds of weapons seized in raids on police outposts. The number of weapons in the Terai region along the border with India also gradually increased and some of these quite naturally found their way across the open, porous border into UP and Bihar. The employed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by the Maoists were based on explosives stolen from road construction projects. 

In the case of Sri Lanka, the civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan armed forces drove the small arms predicament of the island nation. Widespread proliferation of small arms began in 1987. Soon the LTTE managed to weave an international network to procure SALW through its sympathisers in the Diaspora. The LTTE also added to its arsenal by seizing stockpiles from the Sri Lankan army. It has been estimated that as much as 80 per cent of LTTE’s arsenal came from the Sri Lankan Force’s stocks.

In the mid-1980s the LTTE diversified its arms acquisition so as to exploit all possible sources and routes. Its agents began networking with the arms dealers in Southeast Asia. They used many small ports and jetties in Myanmar for receiving and for the transshipment of weapons. Chinese AK-56, US M-16s, LMGs, MMGs, Singapore-made assault rifles and 2.5-inch mortars dominated the LTTE munitions stores. The LTTE soon established linkages with groups inimical to Indian security and became a leading contributor to small arms proliferation in India. Also, LTTE operations in Myanmar received increased attention once the going got tough for them in Tamil Nadu. The LTTE is reported to have established a naval base in Twante. Phuket in Thailand became a crucial exit point and an arms bazaar for Chinese small arms.

Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the consequent cross-border flow of weapons, an estimated 30 per cent of the SALW provided by the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI to the Afghan resistance were diverted for other purposes. During 1980-84, old Chinese made rifles began to replace Kalashnikovs in Afghanistan. With more than 50-70 trucks moving every day, around 65,000 tonnes of weapons passed through the northern areas. Meanwhile, the circulation of Kalashnikov rifles increased manifold in Pakistan as it sponsored, armed, equipped and trained the Taliban to take over in Kabul. The ‘gun culture’ had long existed in the NWFP and FATA and the adjacent tribal areas with most weapons coming in from Darra Adamkhel – an area that boasts having 2,600 arms shops and five gun factories. Approximately seven million small arms stoked the embers of the Afghan conflict. 

China as a Key Supplier

The Chinese angle to SALW proliferation in South Asia cannot be ignored. Chinese weapons gained immense popularity among the insurgent groups in the region as they were competitively priced and low-level officials offered counter-trade agreements. The Chinese weapons pipeline continued to provide for the Afghan conflict and permeated into Myanmar’s underground markets along the Thai border. Beginning with the Type 56 rifle, China produced and offered for sale five different varieties of rifles (Type 56, 68, 79, 81 and 5.56 Type CQ), allied light machine guns and sub-machine guns. China also became the prime official supplier to Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan (including anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons). Significantly, large numbers of weapons of Chinese origin have been seized in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh.

The Chinese supplied small arms to Indian insurgent groups in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura for many years up to the late-1970s. Thereafter, while Chinese SALW continued to be recovered by the Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and in the north-eastern states, their origin could not be pinpointed directly to official Chinese sources as these came in mostly through the Thailand-Southeast Asian route. Whether this is a deliberate attempt by the Chinese government or the PLA to destabilise India, or it can be attributed to corruption at lower levels, has not been easy to be ascertain.
In a statement with far reaching consequences, India’s Home Secretary, G K Pillai, said on November 9, 2009 that the Maoists in India were receiving small arms from China. “Chinese are big suppliers of small arms…” Pillai asserted. Earlier, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had said in an interview in October 2009 that the Maoists were acquiring weapons through Bangladesh, Myanmar and possibly Nepal since the Indo-Nepal border is a porous border. The easy availability of SALW further fuels their demand as India continues to counter long drawn-out insurgencies and a ‘proxy war’ waged through state-sponsored terrorism by a perfidious neighbour.

The Numbers Add up in India

India has witnessed around 152 militant movements since independence. Of these, 65 are believed to be active in one form or the other at present. Pakistan is still the primary source of small arms that are India bound. It uses SALW as political and military tools against New Delhi. Islamabad facilitates smuggling of SALW both through sea and land routes to ISI-supported terrorist organisations and sleeper cells across India. The funding for SALW is organised through hawala channels from private sources from other countries including Saudi Arabia, via Bangladesh and Nepal, through crime and extortion and from religious institutions for ‘social purposes’. The transfer of small arms takes place through formal and clandestine routes and legal and black/gray markets.

Since 1989-90, Indian security forces have seized huge stocks of arms and ammunition along the LoC in J&K alone. Between 1990 and 2005, as many as 28,000 assault rifles of the AK-47 series; 1,300 machine guns; 2,000 rocket launchers; 365 sniper rifles; 10,000 assorted pistols; 63,000 hand grenades; seven million rounds of ammunition; 6,200 land mines and IEDs and 37,000 kg of explosives have been recovered from various hideouts in J&K during counter-proxy war operations. It is well known that there are no ordnance factories in J&K. 

India’s north-eastern states too have witnessed insurgency since the past four decades owing to a well organised network for smuggling weapons. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN, IM and K groups), introduced the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) to the Kachins, a resilient tribe from Myanmar. In fact, it was widely reported in 1986 that Paresh Baruah, a top commander of ULFA, had travelled through north-west Myanmar and paid the Kachins a substantial sum of money to begin training and to arrange for the supply of weapons from the arms bazaars in Thailand and smuggling networks operating on the Myanmar-China route.

As camps in the Chittagong area in Bangladesh became operational by 1989, they facilitated entry into Assam through the Cachar and Barrack Valley corridors. By the mid-1990s, the Bangladesh connection revealed its real potential. Using Bangladesh as an exit point, the ULFA managed to establish contact with arms dealers in Thailand and as far as Romania. This was possibly the beginning of contacts with arms dealers in Cambodia from whom ULFA started accessing huge numbers of weapons. It paid for these in hard currency primarily banked in Nepal. At Cox’s Bazaar, another prominent transit route for weapons, ULFA cadres coordinated their arms acquisition and operational strategies with the NSCN and other insurgent groups that had bases in the area.


With left wing extremism on the ascendant across central India and no end in sight to long-standing insurgencies in J&K and the north-eastern states, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons has become a major security challenge for India. In this dial-an-AK-47 age, those who have the money can acquire SALW quite easily from unscrupulous wheeler-dealers across the globe. When indigenously produced country-made pistols and revolvers are added to the clandestinely acquired small arms’ numbers, India emerges as a leading light weapons. The possession of small arms inevitably creates a proclivity to use them and the exponential growth of the gun culture cannot but add to the growing levels of violence in Indian society. 

The government of India’s intelligence agencies must pool in their resources and work in tandem with the state governments and their agencies to identify the sources, the funding channels and routes of small arms proliferation so as to systematically bring this growing menace to an end through political, diplomatic and, where necessary, military means. Also, India must work towards nudging the SAARC countries and those in its extended neighbourhood towards endorsing the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN so as to be able to more comprehensively confront this mounting challenge.