When violence broke out in Manipur in May this year between the Meitei and Kuki communities, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had sent a delegation of her MPs
The drama is alleged to have begun with a call from N Biren Singh, the Chief Minister of Manipur, to senior lawyer and president of the All Manipur Bar Association, H Chandrajit Sharma. According to an affidavit signed by Sharma, he was in Nambol Bazar on the day the call came. The CM reportedly asked him to submit a progress report on the FIR filed against Lukhosei Zou, a politician-cum-drug kingpin. Zou was caught red-handed with Number 4 heroin powder worth Rs 27 crore and 28 kilograms of amphetamine tablets, alongside a large amount of cash and arms on 20 June 2018. Prior to that, Zou had joined the ruling BJP and was elected as the chairman of the Autonomous District Council of Chandel district. The affidavit further states that when Sharma later met the CM in his bungalow, he was told that being a person committed to the “war on drugs”, Singh was interested in knowing if the charge sheet against Zou had been submitted. Sharma is said to have left after assuring the CM to that effect.
Subsequently, on 15 December 2018, Sharma is said to have met Jogeschandra Haobijam, the then Superintendent of Police, Imphal West, who informed about his ignorance of the location of the court dealing with Narcotics, Drugs and Psychedelic Substances cases. The duo proceeded to the NDPS Court at Lamphelpat. There, in the chamber of the Special Public Prosecutor, Sharma met Rishikanta, officer-in-charge of Narcotics and Border Affairs, the police agency that had earlier arrested Zou with the drugs.
Rishikanta is said to have informed him that he had been under pressure from his seniors to withdraw the chargesheet against Zou. Sharma concluded that the chargesheet had already been filed and returned to the Chief Minister’s bungalow to give him the news.
However, NDPS Special Judge Yumkham Rothar wrote to the Bar Council of Manipur and the Director General of Police, Manipur, complaining how Sharma and Haobijam had come to his office and met special public prosecutor Bipinchandra and RK Radhakrishna, the investigating officer in the case, and asked him to withdraw the chargesheet.
“The obvious object of the request was to let the statutory of 180 days under section 167(2) CrPC lapse so that the accused person would be entitled to statutory bail. It is also learnt that H Chandrajit Sharma, senior advocate, had personally asked the IO to withdraw the charge sheet,” mentioned the judge in his letter. To this charge, Sharma asserted that he was not associated with Zou at all. Then the vakatlanama authorising Sharma and his team of lawyers to represent Zou became public, embarrassing the senior lawyer.
It is now alleged that the errand, which Chief Minister N Biren Singh had initially tasked Sharma with, was done after fully knowing that the latter was Zou’s lawyer and to put pressure on the officials concerned to stall the filing of the chargesheet. That would surpass the mandatory period of 180 days upon which the accused would automatically be granted statutory bail. So, we have the case of a chief minister calling a lawyer to ask about the charge sheet being filed against the biggest drug lord of Manipur to have been arrested till date. There’s also a Superintendent of Police who did not know the location of the NDPS Court. And in the meantime Sharma submitted his resignation as president of the All Manipur Bar Association. Zou had been applying for bail to the NDPS judge on medical grounds and was referred to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences hospital on 19 October for a gall bladder stone problem. The doctor concerned at JNIMS said that the treatment could be done best outside the state.
Then after the charge sheet was filed against Zou on 15 December 2018, the Chief Medical Officer of Sajiwa Jail, where he was lodged, wrote to the SP saying that Zou was treated at the Catholic Medical Centre, advised to undergo surgery on 21 December and so he had asked for adequate police guards at that time. The state replied stating their inability to spare extra police personnel on account of the Assembly sessions being scheduled to start from 20 December.
The NDPS Court then granted Zou interim bail on 19 December and there was also no objection from the public prosecutor when he was admitted to the Catholic Medical Centre on 21 December. The Catholic hospital then referred him back to the JNIMS Hospital on 22 December but he was not treated on grounds that the hospital had a long list of pending operations to be carried out and he could only be attended to in March/April 2019.
Lukhosei Zou, however, stayed there till 5 January this year. He was to appear in court on 8 January, which he did not. The police later learnt that the whereabouts of the drug kingpin were unknown and he was subsequently declared an absconder by the NDPS Court. A warrant for his arrest was issued on 8 January.
Till date, Zou’s whereabouts are unknown. Ironically after he was announced as an absconder, state authorities informed the NDPS Court that they were in a position to provide adequate police personnel so that he could be given medical treatment in the state without it having to grant him interim bail.
While it took some time for the news of the most-wanted drug lord of Manipur being declared an absconder by the NDPS Court to come into the public gaze, Manipur has had a history of politicians being involved in the multi-million dollar drug trade. It began in the mid 1980s with the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States of America cracking down on the activities of the drug lords of the Golden Triangle of South-east Asia. It had then choked their eastern outlet through Thailand and Malaysia. It was around the time when Khun Sha, supremo of the Shan State Army, arrived in the town of Moreh on the Indo-Myanmarese border. It is believed that he had come to scout for potential Manipuri politicians to act as couriers for his customers in the West.
The first name that cropped up was a former minister, the late Ngurdinglien, who in his capacity as the Deputy Speaker of the State Legislative Assembly had visited London during a Commonwealth conference.
Except that he was reported missing from the main function. It was reported that he had absconded as he had to meet his western contacts. He was nearly nabbed at Calcutta Airport when an Inspector of Calcutta Police asked whether a suitcase, found carrying a couple of kilos of heroin, was his. He denied this. He was, however, called a “drug peddler” in a national daily for which a defamation case ensued but the matter closed when he was killed by volunteers of the Hmar People’s Convention in his hometown of Churachandpur. Then, the next suspect was former minister, late Md Hellauddin, who owned a warehouse in Moreh.
His involvement came to light when one of his sons was hacked to death along with four others near his home in Lilong by members of the proscribed United National Liberation Front on charges of being involved in the heroin trade.
But over time, the period of tablets came in vogue. That was in the twilight days of former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. It was when a consignment running into crores of rupees was apprehended. The first sign that something was not alright was revealed when Inspector Ranjit Singh, the man who was heading the Special Investigating Team, was transferred from his post and subsequently the SIT was disbanded.
The grapevine has it that it happened following a disagreement over spoils that had led to Ranjit’s transfer and the subsequent dissolution of the SIT. But the name that had appeared in print was that of the nephew of Okram Ibobi Singh, Okram Henry Singh, as the kingpin behind the entire racket.
A cool Ibobi then sought the easiest way out by recommending a CBI probe into the matter thus silencing all outbursts against him as he knew that it would take some time for the CBI to come out with a real answer. In the meantime, Okram Henry Singh has been elected as a member of the State’s Legislative Assembly. Occasionally, his name comes in newspapers whenever the CBI makes a move.
Thounaojam Brinda, the officer behind the crackdown
Thounaojam Brinda is a member of the Manipur Police Service, selected in 2012. But her appointment to the force took some time, for the Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress state government then had said that she being the daughter-in-law of RK Meghen, former chairman of the United National Liberation Front, would constitute a serious breach of security in its war against insurgency of which the UNLF was a major target.
It was almost suggested that if Brinda was allowed to join the police force as a Deputy Superintendent, she would transfer all information of the state’s move against the group. A writ petition was filed in the Manipur High Court and she was subsequently allowed to join the service. The state government, in order to avoid an embarrassment in the High Court, gave her the offer form. Then she joined the state’s Mahila IRB Battalion as an Assistant Commandant.
It did not take Brinda long to realise that her Commandant, an IPS officer, was drawing money in her name for procurement of petrol, which she never used. She made a formal complaint to the higher authorities, including one to the concerned officer-in-charge of the police station, praying for a FIR to be registered against the said Commandant. When all her efforts came to naught, she put in her papers.
The Manipur Government also kept her resignation under wraps till the Government of India started coercing the former to take her back into service. This was done through the Intelligence Bureau. Finally, the N Biren Singh-led government took her back. But it was under a condition ~ Brinda had to be given independent charge and she was made the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Narcotics and Border Affairs Wing, Manipur Police. She swung into action and personally led the raid that had caught Lukhosei Zou and his aides.
Brinda also had under her net a colleague in the police force. He was a Deputy Superintendent of Police who had earlier seized two kilograms of brown sugar, a cruder form of Number 4 heroin, while he was SDPO of Jiribam. He had not handed it over to the authorities concerned but was instead trying to peddle it in the market.
Brinda presents a dilemma to drug merchants for they cannot afford to threaten her as she is the daughter-in-law of Meghen. They cannot bribe her also as her husband is a successful businessman. The N Biren Singh Government awarded her the state’s Police Medal for Gallantry last Independence Day. She was also promoted to Additional Superintendent of Police, Narcotics and Border Affairs Wing, Manipur Police.
(The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman)
The report first appeared in print edition of The Statesman with headline: ‘Underhand shenanigans’.