The Special Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Court in Manipur recently declared Lhukhosei Zou, former chairman of the Autonomous District Council of Chandel district, as “not guilty”.

He was alleged to control both the drugs trade as well as local politics in the state but instead, his driver and a 19-yearold boy were found guilty in the multicrore scandal.

Zou’s arrest garnered national headlines in 2018 and it was a major embarrassment to his party, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Along with six others, he was arrested by a team of state police personnel belonging to the Narcotics and Border Affairs department.

The team was led by then Additional SP Thouanaojam Brinda, the no-nonsense cop and daughterin-law of RK Meghen, former chairman of the proscribed United National Liberation Front of Manipur. The arrest, which was effected on the intervening night of 19 and 20 June 2018, yielded almost five kilograms of pure “Number 4” grade heroin and nearly 300,000 tablets of a party drug called “world is yours” worth around Rs 27 crore in the open market, and more than Rs 57 lakh in cash.

They were seized from the official VIP quarters of Zou in Lamphelpat.

At the time it was the single largest seizure of drugs made from the residence of a politician in power, who roamed around with armed guards of Manipur Police. However, the drama only began thereafter.

There were charges levelled against Zou’s senior counsel and the then SP of Imphal West, who allegedly went to the NDPS court and tried to convince the investigating officer of the NAB to withdraw the chargesheet. An enraged Yumkham Rathor, judge of the NDPS court, wrote letters to the chairman of the Manipur Bar Council and Director General of Police, Manipur seeking action against the duo.

The N Biren Singh government announced Brinda as the recipient of the Chief Minister’s Medal for Gallantry. Soon thereafter, Zou, under judicial custody in the security ward of the state-run Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, was found missing. Officially, that meant he was absconding from the state trial against him. All was quiet until one fine day six months ago.

Zou made a dramatic reappearance in court stating that he was being held by a Kuki militant organisation called the Kuki National Army, which had abducted him from a hospital ward that is under guard 24×7. His grand reappearance was accepted by the court and government without enquiring into how he was abducted in the first place or filing a police FIR to look into the matter.

Zou was given bail on medical grounds. It triggered the displeasure of Manipur’s super cop, Brinda who reportedly stormed out of the NDPS court.

She followed that up with a tirade against the judge on social media after which a complaint was lodged against her and those who responded to her post in the Manipur High Court. In her response to the notice from the High Court, Brinda stated how she had come under pressure from CM Biren Singh to have the charge sheet against Zou dropped.

She included details like one Ashnikumar, a conman turned BJP office bearer, barging twice into her bedroom to allegedly convey the CM’s wishes. But Brinda held her ground. She was named a warrior against drugs and her situation was deliberated on at a United Nations meeting in New York.

Brinda, however, was released as the Additional SP of NAB and posted to the police headquarters without any designation. A Rs 50 crore defamation suit was filed against her in court along with another case implicating her for a drugs haul in Thoubal district but that was subsequently dismissed.

The BJP must have thought their troubles were over but the judgement setting Zou free raised a hue and cry. The first to react was Brinda who, as a mark of protest, returned the Chief Minister’s Medal for Gallantry.

Speaking to this writer, she said, “The medal is awarded to those whom the government deems obedient and in the know of everything that is ethically wrong, morally rotten, politically authoritarian, socially unjust and destructive. If it is meant to reward uncritical acceptance of malicious designs and hypocritical showmanship, then I do not deserve it. Such awards may be given to more deserving and loyal officers”.

She also felt that there were lapses on the part of the NAB inter alia in presenting the charge sheet against Zou. Another strong reaction came from a civil society organisation called the “3.5 Group”.

It is committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of strengthening the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drugs abuse and harmful abuse of alcohol.

They sent a petition to the CM stating that they were deeply concerned that Zou, caught red handed with large quantities of drugs in his official quarters, was acquitted by the NDPS court vide it’s judgement dated 17 December 2020. It added that the conviction of a 19- year-old and Zou’s driver were mere eyewash rather than any genuine act of delivering justice.

They stated that the judgement not only set an unhealthy precedent but also demonstrated the ailing state of the criminal justice system. If the trend continued unchecked, the drug cartels operating in Manipur would be emboldened further. Hence, they requested that the state government of Manipur appeal against the said judgement in the High Court seeking re-investigation and a re-trial.

Speaking to this writer, Babloo Loitongbam, noted human rights activist and convenor of the “3.5 group”, said that the judgement of the NDPS court simply lacked common sense — a 19-year-old and a driver, who had a meagre salary, could not possibly operate a drugs network worth hundreds of crores of rupees.

He added that a People’s Tribunal would gather signatures and move the Supreme Court of India seeking a review of the judgement.

In the meantime, Zou was accorded a public welcome in Moreh by his supporters, associates and various tribal groups. They have gone on record to say that any further move to malign his image would be met with bandhs and blockades of the highways that they control.

Biren Singh, who had declared a “War on Drugs” after being elected, has reportedly said that the state would not approach the High Court as there were many other cases seeking reviews already in the pipeline.

The menace of drugs continues unabated, however. It can be gauged by the fact that there are more than 60 private drugs rehabilitation centres in the state. Thousands of acres of land in the tribal areas of Manipur are under poppy cultivation as it provides quicker and greater returns on investment.

A number of locally established clandestine units, which turn opium into base morphine and heroin, have sprung up and taken prices down appreciably.

A gram of heroin that used to cost Rs 3,000 in the early 1990s is now available at around Rs 500.

Children of rickshaw-pullers and mason workers are getting addicted and the minimum age has also plummeted with 14/15-year-olds getting hooked. With the induction of former Congress Party MLA Okram Henry, who was involved in a CBI drugs haul case, as a cabinet minister in the government and the refusal to go for an appeal against the NDPS judgement on Zou, the “War of Drugs” seems to be petering out. It is a sorry situation for a state that has lost hundreds of lives to insurgency and is staring at the same fate because of the drugs menace.

The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman.